Scottish referendum: morning after thoughts

So Scotland voted to stay with the Union – the silent “no” vote giving a bigger “no” majority than once seemed likely, on the back of a huge turnout.  Immediately, David Cameron appears before the cameras to start talking about English devolution, calling for a cross-party consensus.

For the British political establishment, this has been a difficult experience – there is a powerful sense that everything has changed. For me there are a number of key lessons that need to be drawn:

First, when people are offered a prospect of real change, they will re-engage with politics and political debate.  Political participation and electoral turnout have been in long-term decline for many years, but the referendum has changed that in Scotland; the active, serious participation of 16-18 year olds was an important and hugely encouraging factor.  And we need to ask why that has happened – what sort of change were people seeking, and what were the issues?  The Yes campaign – an uneasy coalition of groups with often conflicting aims – coalesced around a sort of softish social democracy, arguing (not necessarily truthfully) that Scotland had a leftish tradition which was distinctive from the rest of the UK and could only find expression through independence – an emotion that overcame Salmond’s notable failure to answer the big economic questions.  This may have sounded incongruous coming from Salmond, but it appears powerfully the case that the economic and social experience of Scots under austerity was linked to the Union.  Glasgow, with its huge social and economic deprivation, voted yes; Angus, Alex Salmond’s heartland but prosperous and rural, voted no.  It is impossible not to see social and economic factors at work here.

Second, the Better Together campaign was, for the most part, disastrous.  It was patronising and the level of argument was often, frankly, pathetic.  It was only far too late that it began to expose the fault-lines in Salmond’s economic agenda.  If there was ever a case of one speech swaying a campaign, it was Gordon Brown’s extraordinary return to front-line politics; a reminder of what might have been and what we are missing.  Somehow it made up for months of arrogance and complacency.  Crucially, they allowed the Yes campaign, up until the final few days, to frame the terms of the debate.

Third, Cameron’s proposal for more general devolution – English votes on English issues – is something he cannot deliver and should not be treated as a cross-party issue; it is a matter for the next general election.  It is a warming-over of past policy initiatives that have led nowhere, and is a sop to UKIP supporters.  A cross-party consensus looks like a Westminster stitch-up, and we need a lot more humility and realism from Westminster politicians about the esteem in which they are held by the electorate.

Fourth, we need to ask the question of whether insurgency politics can deliver.  The Yes campaign was a strange and incoherent coalition of groups and parties whose aims were fundamentally incompatible.  Salmond’s economic model (such as it was) was based entirely around North Sea oil revenues; the Greens wanted a carbon-free economy.  A Yes vote would have been the start of a long and bloody process, in which those incompatibilities would have been ruthlessly exposed.  There was no agreement on what a new independent Scotland would look like.  We will of course never know what kind of a fist the Yes parties would have made; but it most certainly would not have been plain sailing.  UKIP and to a lesser extent the Green Party are engaged in much the same type of insurgency politics as the Yes campaign; we need to learn lessons about exposing their incoherence in the face of their superficial attractiveness.

For British politics – and above all for the Labour Party – there are important lessons.  Labour remains the only credible vehicle for delivering progressive politics in Government; but this referendum has been a sobering experience.  It has shown the importance of engagement, but also of optimism and of being able to present a big, hopeful narrative that is deliverable in Government – and of using its values and groundedness to frame that debate.  It means not being afraid to talk about the big issues – falling pay, underemployment, jobs and social security – in a grounded and radical way, one that relates to the daily lives of people who have seen their living conditions hit so unprecedentedly and convinces them that Labour can offer real alternatives. Above all it means not allowing the Tories to frame the debate (as has been the case with social security).  It means trusting people sufficiently to challenge and engage in debate when faced with tabloid narratives on immigration, social security and nationality on the doorstep. It means not acquiescing in Cameron’s attempts to neutralise the debate by engaging in cross-party discussions over English devolution – Labour already has a radical, credible plan for devolving power to localities, including real economic power – but by recognising that the political settlement cannot be disconnected from social and economic issues.  As Chris Dillow points out, all main parties have indulged in top-down, managerial methodology, so it makes it easy for us to be tarred with the same brush.  We in Labour need to proclaim our values loud and clear, and recognise that there is no progressive agenda in nationalism.

I have a feeling that Ed Miliband, and the people around him, get all this.  Some people in the Labour party still seem not to, and to be reluctant to reframe the economic debate in particular.  But as Ed Miliband considers his conference speech, I hope that it will reflect the lessons of the Scottish independence debate: the important of boldness, passion and the need to set the terms of the debate in a radical and grounded way.


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