Joyce McMillan: Leaders still miss bigger picture

Douglas Alexander says we should back Union - 'even if the Westminster system is broken'. Picture: Alan Murray
Douglas Alexander says we should back Union - 'even if the Westminster system is broken'. Picture: Alan Murray
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Better Together turned down the negativity a bit last week, but nowhere near the radical rethink needed, writes Joyce McMillan

This week, two of Scotland’s most senior Unionist politicians took to the political stage, seeking to present a positive message to voters considering a No vote in September’s referendum. At the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on Wednesday, the Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander further developed his argument that the British people should stick together “even if it is the case that the Westminster system is broken”, and that history proves that Scotland can flourish as a distinctive nation within the Union.

Meanwhile, along at the Scotland Office’s northern headquarters in Melville Crescent, Alistair Carmichael was issuing invitations to an autumn conference on the New Scotland, designed to develop cross-party plans for new powers for Holyrood in the event of a No vote. Both developments were obviously welcome to anyone who prefers a referendum debate based on competing positive visions of Scotland’s future rather than on a battle between hopeful scenario-sketching on one side, and bitter nay-saying and scaremongering on the other.

For one of the most unexpected and – in the long term – disturbing aspects of the referendum campaign has been the almost uniformly reactionary and depressive tone of the No campaign so far. The symptoms of this mood of reaction range from the No campaign’s apparent cross-party conviction that there really is no viable alternative to the UK’s present politics of fierce austerity, rising inequalty, and blame-shifting onto vulnerable groups, to the sneering schadenfreude with which some Unionist commentators like to debunk the very idea that Scotland might aim for something more like the Nordic social and economic system that currently produces the world’s most successful societies.

This broadly right-wing, conservative, and anti-hope stance has left some left-leaning No supporters curiously trapped in the blue corner of the debate, condemned by their allegiance to the No campaign to rubbish the very idea of a progressive Scotland emerging after a Yes vote, to disparage the wave of thoughtful and positive grass-roots activism that has accompanied the Yes campaign, and even to rejoice when polls suggest that Nigel Farage’s Ukip might confound ideas of a different political climate in Scotland by winning a Scottish seat in the European Parliament. To say that these are strange thoughts and emotions for any respectable liberal Unionist to be nurturing is to understate the case; but the current lamentable state of UK politics often leaves them with little alternative.

So it is right and necessary to offer a modest salute to any Unionist politician who sets out on the relatively lonely road of trying to imagine a more positive UK future. The truth is, though, that both Alistair Carmichael and Douglas Alexander face an uphill task. Alistair Carmichael’s proposal makes the elementary mistake – currently common among Scottish Unionist politicians – of imagining that the referendum debate in Scotland is all about constitutional matters, when in fact the roots of Scotland’s discontent tend to be primarily political and economic. To put it bluntly, a No vote in September would now be much more secure if Alistair Carmichael’s party, traditionally so widely supported in Scotland, had not signed up to what is perhaps the most ideologically-driven neoliberal programme of economic austerity ever imposed on the British people.

And as for the Labour Party – well, Douglas Alexander’s talk of “broken” Westminster at least shows that he has been listening to the content of the Yes campaign, rather than, like many of his colleagues, shadow-boxing a wild and woad-painted ethnic nationalist movement of the imagination. When it comes to remedies for that perceived “brokenness”, though – for a Parliament that seems bought and sold by corporate influence and donations, for MPs still pocketing outrageous amounts in “legitimate” expenses, or for a Labour Party that lacks the courage even to stand up and expose the lies on which Ukip’s anti-migrant hate-mongering is based – well, I imagine even Douglas Alexander himself would admit that the debate has barely begun.

For to put together a party that would begin to address those “broken” aspects of Westminster would involve adopting an ideology of consistent resistance, not to capitalism itself, but to the extreme form of corporate power that has come to dominate western politics over the last 20 years. There is clearly something wrong with – and completely undemocratic about – a system where elected governments have lost all control of their own money supply, where attempts to make major corporations conform to the rule of law tend to be met with threats of economic meltdown, where harsh austerity in the public sphere is mocked by huge accumulations of private wealth, and where the British government’s best response to the looming global crises of resources and climate change is to remove the modest green levy from our power bills rather than attack the soaring profits of major power companies.

Yet Labour believes that all this can be tackled by simply getting rid of the Cameron/Clegg coalition, and electing Ed Miliband, whose idea of an alternative policy is to be a bit less harsh with the next and fiercest round of austerity measures. To put it politely, such confidence seems highly optimistic, given the absence of a clear Labour critique of our present position, and of a credible raft of policies reflecting it.

There is, of course, one party represented at Westminster and Holyrood which has the beginnings of a coherent centre-left position, and a commitment to working for a sustainable future – the Green Party, for which I gladly cast my vote in yesterday’s European election. It will not have escaped the attention of Douglas Alexander, though – or of Alistair Carmichael, in the Scotland Office – that the Scottish Green Party declared itself for independence long ago. It did so not because its members are nationalists, but because it sees the glimmer of a chance that an independent Scotland might be able to carve a path towards a sustainable democratic politics for the 21st century at a pace that would leave unwieldy nation-states like the UK standing, still wrestling with a weight of history that often conceals the depth of their problems, and prevents them from changing at anything like the necessary speed.