The English left should focus less on telling Scotland what to do and more on shaping the narrative

The independence referendum, whatever the result, presents huge opportunities and risks for the English left. It must focus on these, rather than on what it thinks Scots ought to do. And this must start with controlling the narrative.

Michael Chessum
12 September 2014

If Scotland votes Yes on 18th September, then whatever stripe of the left you come from, there will be one overwhelming bonus: the crestfallen look on the faces of rightwing politicians. It may be true that losing Scottish constituencies would mean a stronger Tory majority, but the break-up of the UK would disrupt something far more fundamental in the core identity of the political elite. Any idea that the Conservative Party would gleefully shrug its shoulders has been shattered by the desperate scramble in recent days.

But just as the political Establishment are panicking, the English left, too, is in danger of being caught in a moment of mesmorisation, too excited at the prospect of major change to properly work out what its practical role should be. This yearning is wholly understandable: perhaps the most stifling thing about the British political context is the stability of its constitution, the fact that we so rarely get to ask fundamental questions about power.

Any approach that regards Scottish nationalism as a benevolent or semi-permanent ally for the left will walk into an open trap. In the event of a Yes vote, there will be a long bout of saltire-waving, followed by an attempt to steal the left’s burgeoning Scottish base to a pro-business nationalist programme, whose backers, and often policies, would rightly belong to the centre-right of the spectrum were it not for the social-democratic gambit that the SNP has undertaken in recent years.

The rationale for a Yes vote from the perspective of the English left is that it will shake up and divide the political elite, give Scotland licence to provide a social-democratic alternative, and, most crucially, be a pivot around which we can construct a case against neo-liberal orthodoxy. But the benefits are all contingent: none of these processes are automatic, and in fact they will all require a concerted effort from progressive forces south of the border.

At present, the majority of the English left – whether pro- or anti-independence – is obsessed with telling Scots how to vote; everyone must have their position, no matter how irrelevant it is to the outcome. Tired activists joke about migrating to the new republic: Scotland, they say, should jump from the sinking ship. The English left must snap out of this fatalism, and fast, in order to seize the initiative lost by the establishment and mitigate the resurgence of reactionary nationalism on both sides of the border.

The Conservatives in Westminster will be no different and in fact far more assertive in their flag-waving and chest-beating than the SNP. In order to explain Scottish independence without acknowledging it as a product of Thatcherism and its descendants, it is primarily they who will have to resort to essentialism, claiming that the Scots are just ‘different’, or, as parts of the right-wing press might well put it, stupid or naïve.

The first task for the English left, and the core one, is the battle for a popular narrative. Whatever the outcome next week, there will be a scramble for explanations for why Scotland has voted yes, or come so close to doing so. The anti-austerity narrative is a cornerstone of the case for independence in Scotland, and it is about more than that: an increasingly sharp divergence of visions about the role of the state in society. But it is not at all clear that this is understood or shared by political forces in the rest of the UK, let alone the bulk of the English population.

A Yes vote or even a close vote could well be the catalyst for a major crisis for the centre-right mainstream, but only if its anti-austerity and anti-neoliberal elements are relayed and built from the base upwards. There are already admirable attempts to push the narrative at the level of political commentary, but the real task will be giving it mass appeal – in workplaces and on the street. This will rely in part on the health and activity of England’s own anti-austerity movement. Still more important, though, will be the attitude of the ambivalent and anti-independence left and centre-left, and the ability of the entire left to unite around a central message: that whatever you think about it, Scottish independence is the product of popular discontent with Thatcherism, to which there is an alternative.

The second task is the battle over the divorce settlement. Scotland may not be ‘oppressed’ in the colonial sense, but it could well face the threat of having its resources stolen by a larger neighbour. As soon as Scotland votes to leave, Westminster politics will be dominated by the marginal constituencies of middle England, where opinion already favours a ‘hard line’ on negotiations.

Having made numerous economic threats in the course of the No campaign, Westminster will have a direct interest in the failure of the fledgling Scottish state, both electorally and in terms of narrative. After all, if social-democratic Scotland is driven bankrupt, it won’t be an alternative to anyone. The English left has to be willing to launch a major campaign over the course of the next two years in defence of Scotland’s right to its resources and independence – and it could be the only political force inside the remnants of the UK which does so.

A lot will depend on what position the Labour leadership takes south of the border. If independence becomes a reality, Milliband will have two options: either to trail the Conservatives’ narrative and strategy – that the Scots are just naïve, and that the rest of the UK should drive a hard bargain – or to decisively break with them, arguing that the loss of the union is the result of a separation of visions for society; of the cuts and privatisation introduced over the past thirty years; and implicitly the rightward drift of Labour. To take such a line would be a serious shift, and would require a level of political imagination that may already have evaporated from Milliband’s inner circle.

In a new era of large-scale constitutional change, which will occur regardless of the outcome of the referendum, many things which seemed impossible will become reality. It is possible that this may be the moment that the tide finally began to turn towards a modernised social-democratic state, but it could just as easily give the Conservatives – dragged to the right by UKIP and unopposed by Labour – the opportunity to shut down the debate. In order to gain anything from Scottish independence, the English left must stop gazing into the void in the hope of a miracle, and start the work that could bring about a major shift: by building a popular narrative beyond the commentariat leading from the election of Thatcher to break-up of the UK, and by preparing a campaign to stop Westminster from robbing Scotland on its way out.

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