‘PLEASE don’t desert the working class of England” was my first experience of the “stay with us” love bomb. The singer-songwriter Billy Bragg was playing a gig in Glasgow and opinion polls had just shown a rare majority in favour of independence.
An election was coming and Billy was concerned that Scotland’s progressive voice and vote would be lost to the people he came from and sang for. And the party he then thought did too, Labour. It was 1992.
What happened next is that John Major’s Conservatives confounded the odds and won a fourth term. The seeds were sown for the first major step on the Home Rule journey to be taken, albeit seven years later.
It frustrated me at the time as an argument because there was a core truth of fairness in it that definitely resonated with me. So much is shared across borders and countries and we do need to work together to lift life chances and welfare, everywhere.
But there is an unfair and undemocratic hopelessness in it too. Scratch the surface of a large number of Labour value-supporting Scots (indeed Labour supporters anywhere) and you find the last London government they truly believed in was led by Clement Attlee. He was elected nearly 70 years ago.
Of course, there was much goodness in many subsequent governments, but you get the point. The overarching theme being broadcast appears to be that progressive politics in the UK was about waiting, opposing, suffering together and grabbing the crumbs under the master’s table.
It’s part of the reason I never joined the Labour Party despite being born into their demographic and growing up in their strongest of strongholds. I longed for more ambition for the country I was from and the people I grew up with. Well-intentioned managed decline never struck me as enough.
Times have changed. The Labour Party itself remains packed to the gunnels with the best of people motivated by the very best of intent and purpose. But it is ill at ease with itself both in Scotland and across the rest of the UK. It loved being in power under Tony Blair but regrets the excesses of what it took to stay there and the consequences in some policies, especially the Iraq War.
Ed Miliband sought to change all that by rejecting “Blairism” and has struggled to keep on that path since. Few in the party believe he can really win and they have little faith in what he could do if he scraped through.
In the daily noise of election battles, and especially this referendum battle, the party remains very capable of mobilising its payroll to keep the message discipline it learned in the 1990s. But the enthusiasm for what it is for has gone. Antipathy to the party that usurped its dominance of Scotland – the SNP – is all, and especially for the personalities that lead it. That is fatal for any organisation in any walk of life. Resentment eats the resenter, not the resented.
But when left-leaning former Labour MP and minister Peter Kilfoyle backed Scottish independence from a ferry crossing the Mersey last week, his ertswhile party machine turned up resentment, playing the man, not the ball – the argument he was making. This is always a shame.
Kilfoyle’s essential point was that Britain run as it is now is unsustainable and over-centralised. He should know. The gap in wealth per head between some of his home area and some of London’s is 1,000 per cent. Something has to give and he hopes that Scotland leads it.
The party machine hated this, of course. Better to wait, oppose, suffer together and grab what’s dropping.
The Labour value-supporting voters will themselves be able to judge who speaks the deeper truth.
What is most interesting is that something appears to be giving in the body politic of Britain. A choice is emerging between blaming others for the travails of society and stepping up to take responsibility for what to do about it.
The great opportunity for progressives is to replace the populism of resenting others being articulated from the rightward extremes with the popularity of true autonomy and empowerment of people and communities everywhere.
If we wait for the Westminster and Whitehall establishment to alight upon a solution to the growing chasm of performance in Britain we will be waiting a very long time.
Time to try a new approach for ourselves and shine a “progressive beacon” to offer some sense to other parts of the UK that other ways are possible.
Billy Bragg grew tired of waiting for the “Great Leap Forward” and now agrees with Peter Kilfoyle that Scottish independence could be transformative for currently hard-pressed people all across Britain.
Which leaves the same choice for people living in Scotland with natural Labour instincts. Billy and Peter have no “skin in the game” in terms of their own career or wages, but a track record in trying to make life better for the people they come from.
Whatever comes next, this country faces hard tests and choices. Face them or wait another 70 years for someone to emerge in Westminster? Campaign in protest or in power? Bow to age-old lies or live in truth? «