Nigel Farage likes to be seen as anti-establishment, but his party is anti-political in any constructive sense. It is a measure of how far conventional politics has failed that his candidate in Rochester talks about being in government whilst proposing measures that can only be feasible in a vacuum of leadership. But maybe the Scottish referendum can offer a way forward for the left.
The Scots may have rejected full independence but throughout the campaign it was crystal clear that they have had enough of Westminster, ‘little England’, conservativism with its anti-welfare, anti-immigration, anti-European rhetoric. The language of the Scottish referendum debate, from both sides, was about community, inclusiveness, social justice, the embrace of Europe and, above all, fairness. Unlike the Conservatives who used the phrase as a superficial trope whilst ramming through policies that achieved the exact opposite, the Scottish political parties sought to invoke a vision of society where every citizen would be ‘in it together’, whether fully independent or as a province of the United Kingdom with greatly increased devolved powers.
Cameron got the result he wanted. The Scots opted to remain in the Union. But in terms of being a vote of confidence for the present Conservative government you could hardly have a more thorough repudiation of everything David Cameron and George Osborne stand for. Most Scottish voters despise English Tories, especially the perpetually outraged, Eurosceptic zealots who would rather view the English Channel as a moat to be guarded than as a gateway to our future prosperity.
What is really interesting to me is how in the last few weeks since the referendum, Scotland has been in confident mood. It is as if the country has been given a huge shot in the arm from having made some kind of decision: the fact remains, the Scots chose to stay. It was an active, rather than a passive, choice. And, having been persuaded by just about every means to remain a part of the United Kingdom, the Scottish have realised something else. They now have real power at Westminster again. Promises were made that need to be honoured and Scotland in future will become a far more distinctive country, socially, economically and politically than it is today. England is geographically split between Labour and the Conservatives and the Scottish MPs at Westminster will be just as significant, if not more so, than the LibDems and Ukip in the hung parliament that seems like likely next spring. You wanted Britain to remain who, Mr. Cameron? Well, you got it, and now you’re going to get ‘whole Britain’ politics too.
One aspect of this that I hadn’t thought about until this week’s SNP party conference was that whilst Cameron and Farage might like to think, and indeed talk about the in/out referendum on European membership as if it were somehow the exclusive domain of the shires of England, the fact remains that the UK is comprised of four home nations. For that reason, I fully support Nicola Sturgeon’s argument that it would be inconceivable for a Westminster government – especially a minority right wing coalition – to enact legislation that could result in Britain leaving the EU without the full support of all constituent devolved assemblies and peoples. We hear much about what largely retired, white, middle-aged voters in England want. But the European debate has yet to be fully framed as a British constitutional question. When it is, I have to believe the outcome will be very different to the one hoped for by Ukip supporters. And woe betide the Tory politician who tries to avoid letting all of the UK have its say, or who tries to present a narrow, washed out ideal of carved choir stalls and duck ponds as somehow reflective of Britain as a whole.
It’s a certainty that the Conservatives don’t speak for Britain and I don’t see how one can argue they speak for England any more. The mythical, idealised country they lament has long since disappeared. Some core right wing values, like self-reliance, enterprise and faith in well-regulated market forces are things that I can agree upon with any conservative. But when they come wrapped up with irrational parochialism and vitriol towards minorities, you have to shake your head and wonder if they have lost the plot. Harold MacMillan must be turning in his grave.
As I am writing this piece, the by-election campaign in Rochester and Strood has just been blown to new heights of absurdist anti-immigration rhetoric by Mark Reckless’s statement that some immigrants could be repatriated if Ukip were in government. What new madness is this? The very fact that a Ukip politician can talk about government office as an obtainable electoral goal shows how far the country has moved to the right since 2010. Part of me thinks that the country must come to its senses soon. Surely the moderate majority will finally rouse itself and say ‘enough is enough’ and slice through the emollient pseudo-reasonable curtain of the Ukip policies and leave the ugliness exposed for what it is.
And then I think to myself, what if it doesn’t? History shows us that extremism tends to gather momentum like a boulder crashing down hill. You may just about be able to stop it as it begins to roll, but further down the slope it will flatten everything in its path until its momentum runs out. What Mark Reckless said was undoubtedly extremist in a way that mainstream British politics hasn’t encountered for generations. No politician within an ace of Westminster has been able to utter such noxious tripe with a hope of being elected. When Nick Griffin said such things on Question Time representing the British National Party a few years ago, he was demonised and portrayed as a threat to civilisation. In Rochester, many regard Mark Reckless as their saviour.
I would like to think that Labour would stand up for common sense and have the courage of its convictions to say that the current frenzy over immigration and Europe is actually stupid, ridiculous and an embarrassment to the nation. Ten years ago, employers couldn’t get enough willing workers from the European Union to fill the gaps in skills and labour that the British job market could not provide. Post recession, when job opportunities have shrunk and most people (except plutocrats) feel worse off, it’s only human nature to look for causes and something or someone to blame. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it as a truth.
I think it’s misjudged to think all our ills entered through the door of freedom of movement for EU migrants, or that we would somehow benefit from splendidly stupid isolation. There is ample data to prove that immigration is beneficial. Even the Daily Torygraph couldn’t avoid the truth of a comprehensive OECD report. Sadly, Labour has been indefensibly weak in standing up to the Conservatives and Ukip on immigration and quite inept in defending its own economic record. I genuinely think that if it could do both of these things coherently it would not just win the next General Election, it would do so quite handsomely. I plan to write in a future post about why Labour’s economic record is nothing like as bad as George Osborne would have us believe, but for now, let me just say that had we lived in a parallel universe where Conservatives had been in government between 1997 and 2010, the economic crash we suffered in 2007 would have been much, much worse. Not only do I believe that, I think official Office of National Statistic data supports this view and it is mystifying to me that Labour has been so weak in presenting the facts of the economic argument.
I’ve met Ed Miliband and in private, he is passionate, articulate and genuinely progressive. But in public, I think he feels an obligation to try and pander to the centre ground because it is conventional wisdom that this is how Tony Blair won three successive general elections. What he or his advisers don’t seem to realise is that the centre has lurched so far to the right that this is no longer fertile ground for a Labour leader. And the more he neglects his core values and base, the more the risk that disillusioned working class voters switch to Ukip because they, at least, seem to offer something different to the flabby floundering of ‘he said, she said’ that passes for debate in Westminster.
Of course, when you live in a blighted English coastal town being crushed by economic hardship, lack of opportunity and shortages of housing and public services, fancy pie charts and hypothetical economics are just fuel for a bonfire of vanities that does nothing to keep the cold at bay. I completely understand this. But encouraging these communities to heap the blame for their predicament on an army of bogeymen from Eastern Europe is wrong and dangerous.
So that is why I think the Scottish independence campaign could be remarkably significant as we look forward to the next election. The Scots have re-discovered something that the rest of Britain appears to have forgotten: politics is no longer a dirty word. The independence campaign was divisive – it was a yes/no vote, so it could hardly have been otherwise – but the high levels of engagement have set a bar for accountability and a new belief that politics is the means by which things get done. Over 84% of the eligible population voted, a new record for any election held in the UK since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918. Scottish politicians cannot so easily retreat back into the petty arguments and internecine cat-calling that drive voters to apathy. Unionists need to respect the vast numbers of people who disagreed with them, whilst the nationalists can only further their agenda for a possible future referendum by working closely with those who chose to remain part of the UK. And the Scottish parliament has been promised a new raft of powers that will see the region become ever more distinct from England whenever and as long as the Conservatives hold sway south of the border.
In her recent maiden conference speech as party leader and First Minister in waiting, Nicola Sturgeon promised increased spending on the Scottish NHS to protect it from cutbacks and privatisation, increases in free childcare provision, new measures to tackle poverty and exclusion and additional support for small businesses. Immigration wasn’t mentioned once as far as I could tell. Whether you like or dislike the SNP (and I was opposed to Scottish independence), what seems clear to me is that Scotland is looking forward with fresh energy and dynamism. For sure, problems abound in Scotland as elsewhere in the UK, but I do not hear the same frustrated, impotent resentment and blaming of others. In a few years, if the country enjoys better public services and welfare provision whilst England is being crushed beneath austerity, how long can autonomy for the northern industrial heartlands be resisted? On current spending plans, the Greater Manchester council will have a budget of £5 billion by 2018/19, compared to £10 billion in 2010 before David Cameron became Prime Minister. Is this what the people of Greater Manchester will have voted for? And will EU immigration be wholly to blame? I think the answer in both cases is an emphatic “no”. But in Rochester and Medway, forces are being unleashed that could potentially harm the prospects of the whole nation. That is not just undemocratic, it’s downright terrifying.
Nigel Farage likes to present his party as anti-establishment but really, Ukip is anti-political in any constructive sense. It is a measure of how far conventional politics has failed that his candidate in Rochester talks about being in government whilst proposing measures that can only be feasible in a vacuum of government when no politician or party (other than the SNP and perhaps the Greens) has really articulated core values that could be viewed as remotely progressive. The retreat to the right has become a rout as the boulder smashes its way downhill. I just have to hope it will run out of steam before May 2015.