Jim Murphy: Change government, not passports

DON’T believe the SNP’s dogma, Scots already have the power to make the UK a better place to live, writes Jim Murphy

Scottish Labour MP Jim Murphy at the Finnieston Crane, Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
Scottish Labour MP Jim Murphy at the Finnieston Crane, Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry

A STRONG Scots accent of the mind. That was Robert Louis Stevenson’s formulation, quoted to great effect in Andrew O’Hagan’s bildungsroman Our Fathers. I have always thought it was a great expression of what it is that makes us Scots. Not a language per se, but a way of thinking, with a very strong and particular inflection. A questioning, sometimes querulous, always questing mind-set. It’s there in our history, in fact it has shaped our history – one of collective action, and of institution-building, but rooted in scrutinising authority, questioning established truths. Always asking the “Why?” and the “How?”.

The Church of Scotland is resolutely democratic. Our legal system, which did so much to preserve a national identity, is distinguished by the verdict of “not proven” – a symbol of an approach based on proof not guilt. The Scottish Enlightenment with its economic, moral and philosophical legacy was restless in its thinking, conversing, speculating. And our inventions that helped make and remake the world. The steam engine. The telephone. Modern football. The television. Penicillin. All have their roots in “Why?” and “How?”

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It’s no surprise then that Scots are asking the same questions of the proponents of independence. Questions that, nearly two months after the publication of a White Paper, are still no closer to an answer. Why would a foreign country enter into an uncertain currency union and continue to underwrite Scotland’s banks and economy? What conditions would have to be swallowed to get back into the EU? What would free higher education for English, Welsh and Northern Irish students cost? And many, many more. It’s even less surprising that in the absence of adequate answers to basic questions many Scots will conclude that if they don’t know, they’ll simply vote No.

This nationalist project is a single, ideological solution for a complex and ever-changing nation. As the saying goes, to a hammer all problems are nails. To a nationalist all problems are nationhood. “Set Scotland free” and all policy challenges – however multi-factorial – will become solvable. No detail, no nuance, no real world complexity can be admitted. Like Thatcherism it is a binary proposition. For Margaret Thatcher it was public bad, private good. For nationalists it is united bad, separated good.

But at one level, the SNP’s case would be seductive if it wasn’t so superficial. Their current tactic is to ask people to vote Yes to say no to the bedroom tax and David Cameron.

Cameron and the welfare changes are important but they aren’t why we’re having this referendum; and nor for the most part are they anywhere near a reason to vote to leave the UK. The SNP believed in independence long before David Cameron was born, or earlier than the creation of the welfare state. The roots of their politics lie in times from before many of my family came here from Ireland. In boom or in bust, in good times or in hellish moments, in crisis or in calm the SNP’s response has always been the same. It’s a logic frozen in aspic.

From the outset they have wanted to leave the UK. Whether to dominion status or a “social union”, whatever the historical conditions, the SNP’s answer has been to get out. This is not a canny response to an unchanging reality, or a nimble move in the face of a vicious Tory-led coalition government. Just think about it.

Whether it was when the NHS was being created by Attlee’s government or when it was on life support under Major’s, the SNP demanded the solution of separation.

Whether the civilising force of our welfare state was building “homes fit for heroes” or Tories were using the bedroom tax to make the poor poorer, the SNP wanted out. No matter the question, no matter the circumstances and no matter the consequences, the SNP always want out.

For the nationalists there are only two states of being: separation, which they believe brings transformative change, or staying in the UK, which they say delivers the stasis of the status quo. This is the heart of their politics. In the face of all evidence to the contrary they say the UK can never change. Indeed, the notion that nothing has changed in Scotland is central to the Yes campaign.

Self-evidently this is nonsensical. Simply in economic terms the last 30 years have seen housing tenure in Scotland transformed; there’s been a 30 per cent increase in home ownership. Despite the current cost of living crisis, incomes increased massively over that period, giving working people choices and chances the envy of their forebears. Social and technological changes have been huge too. But the denial of the possibility of change within – and reform of – the UK is the necessary foundation myth of the nationalists. If change isn’t possible then exit is the only answer.

So we have the extremely odd position of the First and Deputy First Ministers using their positions at the head of the Scottish Government to argue the UK is an unchanging, unreformable, monolithic state. It’s like the last 20 years never happened. A Labour government working with Scotland helped build the self-government the nation had been denied. The Scottish Parliament and the SNP Scottish Government exist precisely because of a profound political and constitutional change of the kind the SNP deny can ever take place within the UK.

Scotland can, and will again, be changed for the better. The truth is that Tory policies are a poison that Scotland doesn’t want to, and doesn’t have to, drink. The antidote that can help us get over these Tory years isn’t voting for independence in 2014 but electing a Labour government in 2015. The Tories can be gone within a year. Independence is forever. This is important because too many people are hurting at the moment and we have a UK government that doesn’t seem to give a damn about their pain. The type of people I’m thinking about includes those who have worked hard for their success and the “copers”. Those people only one wage packet away from hardship; those who if their fridge or cooker broke down wouldn’t know where to get the money for a new one. Or the mum I met working at the all-night Asda who kisses her kids goodnight and goes out to work. That midnight mum and so many others are entitled to something better. That means changing our government not our passport if we want the policies Scotland believes in.

We are a proud, patriotic and pragmatic people. It’s right that Scotland continues to honour its tradition of asking the important questions of the SNP. But on top of that we need to set out a real sense of how we can help Scotland get over the cost and consequence of Cameron. That’s not just about which powers are exercised in a Parliament building in Edinburgh or London. We also need to inspire people in homes across the country by proving that we get their frustrations about Tory policies, understand their impatience for change and want the public to have greater power over their own lives. That’s why we will freeze energy prices. Governments – north and south of the border – are too close to the big energy companies. Labour will give a fair deal to families while sorting out the energy market. We’ll build new houses in Scotland – jobs, homes and apprenticeships for Scots. A Living Wage will lift more from poverty.

There is an uneasy contradiction at the heart of the Yes campaign. What would change after separation? Apparently, everything and nothing. Every core British institution will remain – the Crown, the Army, the BBC, the NHS, even the currency. Yet at the same time we will be utterly changed with Norway’s oil fund, Sweden’s welfare state, Finland’s education and Denmark’s renewables. All with an American-type tax regime.

Of course, this can’t happen. In reality separation would force some very hard choices. Currently, the UK offers the best insurance policy Scotland could ever have. During the global financial crisis Scottish banks went down, but they were bailed out by the Bank of England and a Labour government. The worst was avoided. ATMs still functioned. Mortgages stayed low. Gordon Brown led a European, and international, response that boosted government spending and global demand, thus avoiding a world-wide depression.

As Alistair Darling and Better Together successfully emphasise, the United Kingdom offers a broad and sophisticated safety net in bad times and prosperity in good. In defence terms, this has stretched from the threat of French invasion to the Cold War and the new world of rogue states and failed nations. In economic terms, we have moved from access to bigger markets and greater capital to a diversified economy that mitigates all but the greatest risks. For example, oil price fluctuations would hit a separate Scotland hard – where oil and gas production would be 10 per cent of GDP – but can be absorbed by the UK where it represents 1 per cent of GDP. In social terms, education has become a universal enabler, and a welfare state has been grown and evolved – from the old age pension in the 1900s through social housing and the NHS to tax credits and now the push for the Living Wage. Nothing can entirely insure any country against external shocks – the globalisation that brings prosperity also interlaces our fate with other countries. But we can protect ourselves best as part of a tried and trusted system – one of the largest economies in the world – rather than taking the risk of voting in the referendum to become the 50th biggest economy.

In the end, this is a choice about who we are, and more importantly, what we could be. I’m a socialist as well as a Scot. What holds us back has never been the United Kingdom, it has only ever been the type of government in the United Kingdom. But they’ve always been chucked out; as Cameron and Clegg’s coalition can be just months after the referendum. The things that Scots have demanded – jobs, homes, devolution, a health service and so much more – have always been delivered by ambitious Labour governments. And those achievements have been irreversible. Scots are restless folk. We’ve made Scotland, Britain and the world a better place through our talent, our ambition and our hard work. We’ve always been changers. We’ve never been quitters. Why would we leave now when a fairer Scotland can still be ahead of us?

• Jim Murphy is MP for East Renfrewshire and Shadow Secretary of State for International Development