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.

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