On Wednesday of this week, the House of Commons assembled in subdued mood, to mourn the death of the Labour MP for Wythenshawe, Paul Goggins, who died on Tuesday. Mr Goggins was not well-known to the British public, despite his former role as a junior minister in the Northern Ireland office; but he was clearly well-known and loved by his colleagues at Westminster, across all parties. Ed Miliband, in a warm tribute, described him as “dignified, wise, humane, and loyal”, while the Prime Minister remembered him as both kind and brilliant; and the House proceeded to a quiet Question Time, united in sadness, and in solidarity with one of its own.
There are times, these days – and this was one of them – when the Palace of Westminster seems like a fine and private place inhabiting an unchanging world of its own, rather than an institution at the heart of a nation undergoing rapid and possibly terminal change. Around the members on their green benches, the mighty Gothic building stands as it has since 1870, steady, imposing, confident; as ever, MPs are lulled by the chimes of Big Ben, borne along on a tide of generous allowances, and transfixed by the day-to-day ritual of party politics, to the point where they imagine that in the end, all issues can be resolved through the mechanisms of Westminster business-as-usual.
Move outside the Westminster bubble, though, and the soothing certainties of traditional British political debate soon begin to recede, crumbling as fast and as alarmingly as those Sussex cliffs battered by last week’s storm. And it’s perhaps because many of its leaders have spent so many years at Westminster, soothed by its familiar sounds and certainties, that the Better Together campaign in the current Scottish referendum often seem to be inviting us to remain in a Britain that is fast receding into the past.
Few of campaign’s leaders seem to have noticed, for example, that the main Westminster parties – facing one another across the traditional two swords-lengths in the Commons chamber – increasingly now represent no-one but themselves, and the wealthy backers who fund them. The combined membership of the Labour and Conservative parties, at just over 350,000 people, is less than a tenth of what it was in the 1950s; the main parties, no longer mass movements, retain their brittle arm-lock on parliamentary politics through habit and custom rather than genuine grass-roots strength, making them ever more vulnerable to challenge both by the centre-left SNP, and by populist far-right parties such as Ukip.
Then there is the small matter of the economy, and the slow disappearance of the Labour Party as purveyors of a serious alternative to the neoliberal politics embraced by the Conservatives since the 1970s. To put it simply, it makes no sense for Better Together to warn Scots against a generation of austerity and spending cuts in an independent Scotland, when George Osborne is explicitly promising perpetual austerity for the UK; and Labour is saying – in order to reassure the markets – that it will broadly follow the same spending plans.
The electoral logic that propelled Labour in this direction is obvious; to win Westminster elections, parties have to attract the votes of right-leaning swing-voters in Home Counties marginals. Yet it remains true – as Martin Kettle pointed out in a fine Guardian column this week – that the gradual eclipse of Old Labour has left huge geographical and social tracts of Britain completely disenfranchised, their voices and priorities unheard, their potential unnoticed, and their very presence barely recognised by an increasingly insular London elite.
Then finally, there is the matter of Europe; for whatever you make of the current wave of anti-immigrant hysteria in England, it clearly makes no sense for Better Together to try to frighten Scottish voters with the idea that an independent Scotland would be excluded from the European Union, at a time when the whole UK seems increasingly likely to leave the EU, following the promised referendum of 2017. Yet once again, the none-too-impressive politicians in charge of Better Together seem not to have noticed that the political ground has shifted under their feet; and that long-term EU membership now seems rather less likely for a continuing UK, than it does for an independent Scotland.
It’s true, of course, that this display of confused and out-of-touch thinking by Better Together has not done much damage to the No campaign; Scots who prefer to remain in the Union have their own reasons for voting No, regardless of the absymal performance of those who are supposed to speak for them.
Yet still, this image of a bunch of grumpy, old-fashioned politicians living in the past – inviting us to cling to a set of British securities and certainties that are crumbling away as they speak – should act as a warning to everyone in Scotland of the extreme challenges we may face, in the event of a No vote next September. There are millions of people in Britain – perhaps a clear majority – who share the broad aspiration for a 21st-century social democracy that inspires many Yes-leaning voters in Scotland, and many supporters of Alex Salmond’s SNP.
At UK level, though, there is now no national grassroots movement – outside the trade unions, which are facing growing restrictions on their role in party politics – which seems remotely ready to take up that cause, to challenge the flawed narrative of austerity, and to start rebuilding the vision of a diverse, progressive and socially just Britain for the 21st century. At the end of his powerful column, Martin Kettle suggests that the UK can only save itself by rededicating itself to the welfare of all its people, regardless of where they live. But although the idea of the Common Weal is alive and well in the Scottish independence debate, the task of making it into a force in UK politics, following a No vote next September, would be a daunting one indeed; hindered at every turn by a Westminster political class who seem largely unaware that their system is broken, and who therefore cannot see any need to fix it, even as parts of their kingdom shudder and groan, and threaten to break away, for good.