Saturday, September 13, 2014

Thatcher, Blair, Brown, Cameron...All are to blame

Today's column in The Journal, tying together some of the independence referendum threads I have blogged about this week.

SOON it will all be over.  By the next time this column appears, the debate that has dominated British politics for the past six months will finally have been settled, and Scotland will have voted yea or nay to independence.

It has been, without doubt, the hardest vote to call in living memory.   For a long time the ‘Better Together’ campaign appeared to hold an unassailable lead, but as was always likely, the gap began to close as the emotional case for independence began to sway the hearts of voters.

Belatedly, the No campaign has this week tried to come up with some emotion of its own, temporarily setting aside all the dry arguments about currency with a series of impassioned ‘Please Don’t Go’ type appeals.

Prime Minister David Cameron has even joined the fray, despite having previously concluded that such direct personal involvement would simply play into the hands of the Yes campaign with its adroit portrayal of him as the representative of an out-of-touch, English Westminster elite.

Writing as a committed unionist, these have been worrying days indeed.   Many of a similar persuasion have asked the question how on earth we got into this mess, and specifically, how Mr Cameron allowed us to get to a point where the break-up of the UK is now a very real prospect.

To my mind, the answer is clear.  What we are now seeing is the inevitable outworking of the Conservative Party’s decision, after 1979, to eschew One Nation politics in favour of a free market ideology that found little favour with the Scots – or, for that matter, the Northern English.

It is easy to blame Margaret Thatcher for the country’s ills, but it was her government’s abandonment of the post-war political consensus that began the progressive estrangement between Scotland and Westminster that could now lead to outright separation.

It may have won her three elections, but it was done with no regard for how it would affect the social fabric and essential political unity of the UK, and no thought for whether the Scots would still want to be part of the country she was creating.

Three and half decades on, the differences over the future of the National Health Service provide perhaps the clearest illustration of the growing disconnect.

Mr Cameron’s decision to enact the 2012 Health and Social Care Bill, which potentially paves the way for the future privatisation of the NHS, has been exploited to the full by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond.

It matters little, as Gordon Brown pointed out this week, that health is already a devolved matter for the Scottish Parliament and that a Westminster government would therefore find it hard if not impossible to privatise health services in Scotland.

The fact that the legislation was passed at all is tells Scots all they need to know about the gulf in values that now exists.

There was a brief, evanescent moment, in May 1997, when I thought that Tony Blair was going to restore that lost sense of shared values, to stitch the country’s frayed political bonds back together and forge a new consensus.

Asked to describe the new Prime Minister’s mood following his landslide victory the night before, Alastair Campbell responded:  “He realises he has been given a remarkable opportunity to unite the country.”

Alas, he chose instead to triangulate Labour’s own values out of existence to the point where even a relatively left-leaning leader such as Ed Miliband is now no longer trusted by the party’s traditional voters - in Scotland most of all.

It is too late to put Humpty together again now.   The only thing that will now save the union is rather by recognising the distinctive political cultures that exist within different parts of the UK and allow them to go their own ways, within the overall UK umbrella.

Mr Brown, belatedly, has come to realise this, although his intervention in the debate this week rather begs the question why he did not do more to decentralise the UK while in office.

Devolution could have been his Big Idea.  But though we waited and waited and waited for him to “set out his vision,” his government had become so politically enfeebled by then that it seemed in a permanent state of intellectual stasis.

So he, too, is culpable along with Thatcher, Blair and Cameron for what has been a collective failure of leadership over many, many years. 

One thing is certain whatever the result on Thursday.  The country over which they presided will never be the same again.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Should The Queen speak out?

Nigel Farage thinks so, and with the independence referendum vote still poised on a knife-edge, I can see his point.

Yes, it's important that the monarchy remains above politics, but the question which I think needs to be answered is whether that principle of constitutional impartiality is actually more important than the survival of the country itself?

I would argue not.  Even if it were to ultimately cost her the throne, then surely that would be a price worth paying to maintain the integrity of the country she has reigned over for 62 years?

After all, it's not as if she has never made her views know on this issue before. As we have been reminded this week, she made an avowedly pro-Union speech during the 1977 Silver Jubilee celebrations when she said:  "I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland."

In my view, the line from the Palace this week should have been: "In response to suggestions that the Queen should intervene in the current debate over Scottish independence, Her Majesty made her views clear in her speech to both Houses of Parliament during the 1977 Silver Jubilee. She does not intend to add to them."

This would have made clear beyond any doubt where she stands on the matter without getting actively involved in the referendum campaign.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why weren't expat Scots given a vote?

Here's a front page from the Northants Telegraph that we featured this morning on HoldtheFrontPage as part of our latest round-up of how regional newspapers are covering the independence referendum.

It's not only a great regional newspaper front page, it makes an important point about the forthcoming referendum: namely, that hundreds of thousands of Scots who now happen to be living outside Scotland do not have a vote in it.

I'm not entirely sure how we ended up at this pretty pass, or why David Cameron agreed to a referendum which allows English people living in Scotland to vote on whether Scotland should be an independent country but not Scottish people living in England.

A much fairer solution, surely, would have been to allow anyone born in Scotland who meets the age criteria for the referendum to apply for a postal vote, so long as they were able to provide documentary evidence of their place of birth.  It would also, as Mr Cameron seems to have failed to realise, have made it much less likely that there would be a 'Yes' vote.

As Prime Minister, Mr Cameron could have insisted on this course of action. Had he done so, it would have been very hard for Alex Salmond, as a Scottish Nationalist, to argue that anyone of Scottish birth should be denied a vote.

It is tactical blunders such as this that have led some people to argue that Mr Cameron's position would be untenable if, God forbid, the Scots do vote to break away.  I am afraid I am one of them.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Doing my bit to save the union

I've been thinking for some time about starting blogging again.  When I put the blog on hold last October, I said that the level of interaction no longer  justified the effort, and to be honest I don't expect that to change in a hurry.  But I have missed having an outlet for my thoughts on the political scene, and the current state of play in the Scottish independence debate, with the United Kingdom facing a real threat of break-up, means it's all hands to the pump as far as I am concerned.  And while I am not expecting the traffic on this blog to reach the levels it achieved eight years ago when political blogging was all the rage, if just one person - just one - reads anything I've got to say over the next eight days and votes no as a result of it, then it will have been worthwhile.

Why do I care about this? Well, fundamentally because I consider myself to be British.  Indeed, with Highland Scots ancestry on my father's side and Jersey ancestry on my mother's, I think my antecedents can claim a fairly wide geographical spread of Britishness!   But it's also because I believe in the idea of Britain - not just as a geographical entity but as a political union.  And as a man of the centre left, I believe the Scots - as well as the Northern English - bring something to the UK politically - not just Labour MPs, but a belief in the value of collective effort that helps to balance out the more individualistic culture prevalent in London and the South.

It is the juxtaposition of these essentially contradictory values that makes Britain what it is, but the problem is that those on the right of politics have by and large failed to appreciate this for the past 35 years. What we are seeing with the way the referendum debate is playing out is the outworking of the abandonment of the post-war political consensus after 1979 - the imposition of free market ideology by the Tories with no thought for how this would be perceived in Scotland, Wales and the North and seemingly no regard for how it would affect the fabric and essential political unity of the UK

I gave an example of this on my Facebook page today in a link to David Cameron's otherwise welcome defence of the union in today's Daily Mail. I wrote:
Welcome from Cameron, but if he really wants to save the union, he should announce the immediate repeal of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act which potentially paves the way for the future privatisation of the NHS and make clear that a future Conservative-led government would never do this. It is clear  to me that it is fears about the future of the NHS - particularly among traditional Labour voters - which is driving the Yes campaign and has brought this country to brink of disintegration.
I don't really expect Cameron to do this of course, but the point is that he should have realised that the NHS is part of the glue that holds this country together, and that embarking on a road which seems likely in the end to turn it into no more than a brand operated by multifarious private providers was always likely to weaken those bonds.

I will develop some of these thoughts this weekend in my column in The Journal - still going strong after 17 years but still only available in the paper's print edition - and this will also be posted here.