SCOTLAND, please stay with us. It’s only five words, and more of a plea than an argument; but with that brief sentence, read out for him at a Brit Awards ceremony he didn’t even attend, the Thin White Duke – the mighty pop icon David Bowie – added a final touch of glamour to a fierce ten days in Scotland’s independence debate.
From George Osborne’s Edinburgh speech rejecting a shared currency, through Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso’s negative view on Scotland’s likely EU membership, to Gordon Brown’s warning on pensions, and finally the great Bowie intervention, the No camp have been rolling out the big guns, in the hope of halting the momentum the Yes campaign has built up in recent months. The irrepressible online Yes movement was unabashed; some decided to take the “stay with us” invitation literally, and took to bantering in fine style on Twitter about a possible sleepover at Bowie’s place in New York.
For all the sound, fury and jokery of the debate, though, I can’t help feeling that the larger narrative of how Scotland came to this point is being sidelined in the heat of battle; ignored inside Scotland, and completely misunderstood outside it. For in a sense, the rise of the SNP to its current dominant position in Scottish politics is only part of a much wider story about UK politics over the last 25 years; the story of the decline of the Labour Party as a serious alternative force in our society, and its gradual transformation from a party founded by trade unions to represent ordinary working people, to the party of Tony Blair, whose instinctive affinity with some of the most over-rewarded elite figures in British history was exposed again this week, with the emergence in court of his e-mails to Rebekah Brooks, of Rupert Murdoch’s News International empire.
There are still many decent and intelligent people involved in Labour Party politics, of course; and they will doubtless point to this or that policy that they would have shaped better than the Tories and their Coalition allies. The big picture, though, is of a party now terrified of the tiny cohort of south-eastern swing voters on whom Westminster victory has come to depend, even more frightened of the right-wing newspapers they read, and unsure from top to bottom about how far it wants to regulate and oppose the worst excesses of 21st-century capitalism. On vital matters of social security and compassion, the Labour Party now finds itself well to the right of the 27 bishops of the Church of England who this week wrote a letter of protest about “food bank Britain” to the Prime Minister. And instead of nailing the right-wing myths about the need for austerity in public spending which are acting as a pretext for these measures, Ed Miliband last week announced that an incoming Labour government, after the next UK general election, would adopt and continue the Coalition’s austerity plans.
Add the lamentable performance of the Labour Party in the referendum campaign so far – its knee-jerk support for the Tories’ high-handed Unionism despite the long Labour Home Rule tradition, and its absolute inability, until now, to generate a devo-plus scheme that might put it back at the centre of the constitutional debate – and you have a portrait of a party in profound and possibly terminal confusion about its identity and policies; a party that has, over 25 years, effectively allowed the over-mighty voices of reaction in British society to drive it from centre-left to centre-right.
And that move means half of the British electorate, who actually believe in public ownership of certain strategic services, and who have wit enough to see through a transparent attempt to make the poorest pay for a crisis created by the wealthiest, are left without any electoral home to go to. Except, of course, in Scotland, where a centre-left SNP has been booming, in recent years, thanks to the drift into their arms of disillusioned Labour voters who hear Nicola Sturgeon defending NHS values with a conviction rarely heard at Westminster, or note Alex Salmond standing up fiercely for the principle of free university education.
In England, by contrast, the choices on offer have been less positive, and more worrying. At the last general election, many tried the Liberal Democrats, with disastrous results. And now, it seems as though some older voters with “old Labour” views about the economy are drifting towards Ukip, as the only party that seems – like all populist right-wing parties – to be speaking up for the common man, provided he belongs to the right ethnic group.
We should note this, in other words: that whatever the outcome of the referendum, the slow-burning crisis that has led to such widespread disillusion with Labour, both north and south of the Border, will not be resolved by it. At Westminster, politics seems to continue as usual, the old Labour-Tory ding-dong as loud and abusive as ever. Behind the scenes though, too much has changed. Too many consultancy fees and non-executive directorships have changed hands, too many Labour figures have drifted into the camp of the privatisers and asset-strippers, too many doors have quietly been closed again to people from ordinary working families, as British society has returned to pre-war levels of economic inequality; so that when those of us outside the Westminster bubble press our noses to the window, and look – like Orwell’s animals – from one group to the other, we struggle to tell the difference.
After the referendum, in other words, either Scotland will be independent, and the UK political game will change for good; or if not, then a new struggle will begin. This will either be about recapturing the Labour Party as a voice for the ordinary people of all the neglected reaches of the United Kingdom, from the Somerset levels to the East End of Glasgow; or about founding a completely new political movement that will once again speak truth to power on behalf of the people, instead of representing power to us, and telling us that we have no choice but to wave goodbye to the basic economic rights, freedom and dignity for which Labour once stood, but which it now seems to defend no more.