This year is witnessing several battles for Britain – of numerous anniversaries of past military triumphs, of the Scottish independence referendum, and the rising tide of the Tory Party’s continued obsession with Europe.
All of these are inter-related in the long-term, almost existential, crisis of what Britain is, what is it for, what kind of society and values it represents, and what kind of future it offers its people. This tumultuous moment we now find ourselves in is one with many layers: economic, social, democratic, and even geo-political (in where Britain aspires to ally itself internationally).
The Scottish independence referendum is fascinating and not a narrow or arid constitutional debate, but influenced by these wider concerns. Revealingly, to most of the London political classes it is seen as marginal, disconnected from their concerns, of episodic interest, and discounted (as they already assess they have won), as noted by Alex Massie in his front cover piece in this week’s ‘Spectator’ .
The formal independence campaign is widely seen as highly professional and sophisticated. Opponents speak in not so hushed awe of the SNP’s campaigning prowess and that of its leading figures and strategists. But underneath this there is an element of arrogance and anxiety: the former because they don’t understand this debate and think they have won; the latter due to their fear factor over SNP abilities and because they never really wanted to have this debate in the first place.
David Cameron’s intervention today is revealing. Choosing the opening day of the Winter Olympics at Sochi to make a major speech on independence at the Olympic Park in London, illustrated the lack of a sure political touch Cameron’s office displays on issue after issue. There was little new in word or deed in Cameron’s speech, but the very fact of its delivery and its sentiment and spirit said many things about the British political elite’s understanding of where we are and where Britain is.
Cameron attempted to invoke directly, and by his choice of venue, that great British ‘summer of love’ that was the Olympic celebration of 2012, declaring, ‘It’s Team GB I want to talk about today – our United Kingdom’. He went on to use advertising and marketing language to invoke the practical and emotional appeal of the union. ‘The UK is a powerful brand in the wider world’, he asserted, ‘with a global reputation for being unique, brilliant, creative, eccentric, ingenious’.
This is the language of a state and union which its political classes have forgotten how to relate to, understand and describe. The UK as a ‘brand’ is an insidious, elite-driven, managerial whizz kid outlook, redolent of ‘Cool Brittania’ and Blairism at its worst. And in his list of words there is the echo of Cameron’s infamous Hugh Grant moment in Moscow, when post-Syria vote, the Russian Government had dared to note some realities, saying that Britain was ‘just a small island … no one pays any attention to them’.
Cameron’s Moscow litany of the things that made Britain great, from abolishing slavery to pop culture, was filled with a kind of upper middle class cod poetry, as he signed off saying ‘I’m thinking of setting this to music’. It was the political equivalent of a bad Richard Curtis movie (there being no other): of a once proud country and its adept elites lost in the modern world.
Then there is the continual rhapsody of British exceptionalism and uniqueness with Cameron calling the UK ‘the most extraordinary country in history’, even using the language of the Olympics to invoke this: ‘Team GB – the greatest winning team in the history of the world’.
This is related to the widely invoked meme that ‘the UK is the greatest ever union created by humanity’ which is an incredulous, fact-defying statement. Great for whom and decided by who? It is not great in terms of how it treats its people, whether its poorest, who it demonises, targets and punishes, or the super-rich, who it fawns over and never lectures about rights, responsibilities and its moral and ethical behaviour.
Nor is the UK ‘the greatest ever union’ in terms of longevity. The UK political class like to portray the seamless story of the advance of rights and checking of arbitrary power from Magna Carta onward which can then be celebrated in a ‘1,000 years of history’. But the UK only dates back to 1801 and the union with Ireland; and today’s boundaries are less than one hundred year’s old – established with the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922.
Beyond the usual rhetoric Cameron is caught in a number of tensions. There are the short-term fissures of how Cameron appears north of the border and the toxic Tory brand. For all the supposed passion of Cameron’s speech today and his belief in the UK as ‘our home’ and ‘family’, he knows that he is a liability electorally in Scotland. However important he believes this campaign is and the cause of keeping the UK together, he knows that he dare not venture north of the border for fear of giving the SNP and the forces of self-government numerous hostages to fortune.
Cameron knows that, despite being Prime Minister and stating this is a conversation which should involve the 63 million subjects of the UK, he cannot contemplate debating with First Minister Alex Salmond. To do so would be to profile one of the critical faultlines: the negative, declining appeal of Toryism in Scotland, and the fact that Cameron is Prime Minister of the UK with a miniscule Scottish appeal.
There is also a longer-term problem. The evasion of the above by Cameron, Osborne and other Westminster Tories gets them out of the immediate fix of having to debate Salmond. Yet, what it does is it shores up future problems for the state and durability of the union. What kind of United Kingdom is it which has a huge ‘no go area’ to Westminster Tories and the Prime Minister? Not one that is exactly in good health. There is no easy answer to this, but a long-term thoughtful unionism would recognise and begin playing for the long-term as the SNP are, and acting now in that way. Otherwise they are continually playing catch-up.
There are important differences in how this plays out in Scotland. The forces for independence are mobilised around ‘Yes Scotland’, but also in a host of energising, imaginative self-organised groups (Radical Independence Campaign and National Collective are but two examples). These latter groups might not be crucial in the official ‘fog of war’ campaign, but they matter in another way, aiding the morale and motivation of the pro-independence campaign. In short, despite the SNP and ‘Yes Scotland’ embracing lots of the usual professionalising, top down, marketising methods of doing politics, a broader independence movement has emerged post-2011. This isn’t just a nationalist offshoot, but is radical, left, green, feminist, representing an ecology of self-determination voices.
This matters compared to the reality of ‘Better Together’. They are for all intents and purposes a virtual campaign which only exists in TV and radio studios and on the newspaper front pages of pro-union papers. This is actually an over-statement of their strength, for they have a consistent problem in studioland, often being unable to put up spokespeople (to the point that TV and radio broadcasters are toying with empty chairing ‘Better Together’).
Alistair Darling, head of ‘Better Together’, has done decently with his ‘desiccated calculating machine’ style and passionless approach to politics. Yet he is a clearly uncomfortable and reluctant leader. This is not the terrain or battleground of choice for pro-union parties and it shows every day: in campaigning, language and body language. They don’t want to be here, unlike the Nationalists.
Then there is the techy alliance of Labour, Lib Dems and Tories. The latter two have been battered and hollowed out: the Tories over two generations, the Lib Dems over the last three and a half years, while Scottish Labour not only hasn’t adjusted to the challenge of the SNP and independence, but even the devolution environment. The three parties couldn’t even agree a simple plan to each provide a party spokesperson to support Darling.
It is serious, and matters, that all three cannot provide much of a willing army of foot soldiers and campaigners. This will matter in terms of voter engagement, contact and mobilisation, and particularly in relation to ‘the missing Scotland’ of non-voters, if turnout is relatively high. The virtual nature of ‘Better Together’ can be seen in its non-existent public presence in rallies, meetings and even stalls; this week as in nearly all weeks, its website lists not one meeting across the entire nation.
What pro-union opinion struggles with is the wider nature of this debate. Firstly, this is not a discussion just about the constitution, narrow political rights, and the formal trappings of statehood. Scottish Labour people try to focus the debate on the constitution, and say other such debates as welfare and the kind of society people want to live in are for other occasions. This misunderstands the debate going on which isn’t just about the constitution in a traditional way, but borrows on ‘the new constitutionalism’ internationally, which is about economic and social rights, welfare and the wider question of society.
Second, this is not just about Scotland, but about Britain: a point belatedly acknowledged by Cameron today, but of which all his actions have shown his incomprehension. The Scottish debate shows the increasing problem a majority of the citizens of the UK have with the economic and social concentration of wealth, power and privilege in London and the South East. They have in effect declared de facto independence from the rest of the UK with Boris Johnson head of their fledgling separatist movement, as London repositions itself as a global city semi-detached from the UK and focus on elites, networks and trade across the world.
Attempting to address this poses a serious challenge to the British political elite. The answer cannot come just from talking about constitutions and formal political structures. One mistake made by Scottish pro-union political opinion is to believe this can be solved by talking about more devolution and what future offer Scottish Labour in particular can make at its conference next month. This doesn’t connect to the economic and social issues, and the grotesque imbalances of the UK.
The UK political classes are in trouble here whatever their hue. This goes as much for constitutional reformers as minimal reformers. For example, in Scotland, commentators such as Iain Macwhirter continually misuse the word ‘federalism’, regularly declaring that the UK is moving in a federal or quasi-federal direction.
The trouble is it isn’t. The UK is not a quasi-federal entity even after devolution; it is a union state, made up of a multiplicity of unions and fuzzy arrangements. It is a myth that the UK has ever in its history been a unitary state. Once the British political classes, and in particular British Toryism, understood this organic, patchwork nature of the UK; no longer could that be said to be true after Thatcher.
The mismatch between the union state reality of the UK and the rising tide of an intolerant unitary state mindset in Westminster, is a major challenge to the durability of the UK. Similarly, the sweeping use of the term federalism misunderstands both history and the nature of the UK, and perhaps more critically, it fails to comprehend the multiple crises of the union: and the huge economic and social imbalances of power and wealth as London and the South East have declared a virtual divorce from the rest of us.
The state of Britain is one of the main drivers of the independence debate. The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. It is an atrophied, truncated democracy: a pre-democratic political country in an age of the rise of the post-democratic elites. Increasingly, it is living in the past; a place where the imagined power of previous generations, and their sacrifice, honour and duty is being used by the elites to try to legitimise this unequal kingdom and tell an emotional, instinctual story. What is self-evidently missing is the story of the Britain of tomorrow and a future which is inclusive, positive and shaped by hope and progress. There used to be such a British story: one that included Labour and Tory versions alongside a deeper civic and institutional account led by the BBC and other guardians and shapers of opinion.
Cameron may try and invoke a British story, talking of a ‘moral, economic, geopolitical, diplomatic, and yes, let’s say it proudly – an emotional case for keeping the UK together’, but it is a bit late, thin and desperate. Rory Stewart, Tory MP for Penrith and the Border, who is planning his ‘Hands Across the Border’ initiative (2), talks passionately of Scottish independence resulting in the UK being ‘embarrassed in our souls’, but that doesn’t relate to the disconnected society and non-democracy that is the UK today.
This isn’t a debate just about economics, cost-benefits spreadsheets and competing accountancy visions. Nor is it about an instinctual, knee-jerk ‘Braveheart’ nationalism. Thus, the statements of Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, that the debate will be won by which side can most convince voters they will be £500 per year per household better off, is hugely over-stating the evidence. Instead, it is about something more intangible: the psychologies of how people see their lives, and whether they want to grow up, to mature and take more responsibility: to be independent in a wider sense of the world. That debate isn’t about identity or economics, which matter, but more about a sense of confidence as individuals, a society and nation.
The Scottish debate with all its qualifications and limitations is offering the potential of a very different prospectus and future. It is one that can claim to look bright, new and promising compared to the bitter, petty, punitive realities of Britain. This may not be enough to win the vote on September 18th, but it could do, and it already has won on a more fundamental level: normalising independence, and even more importantly, declaring that Scotland wants to have a very different future and be a very different country and society from that of Britain.
1. Alex Massie, ‘Alex Salmond is within striking distance of victory. Why hasn’t England noticed?’, The Spectator, February 8th 2014, http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9131482/union-in-peril/
2. Hands Across the Border, http://handsacrosstheborder.co.uk/