If Scotland votes for independence next week, it is the British establishment and the establishment alone that is to blame.
The yes surge is not being driven by blood-and-soil nationalism, by dewy-eyed Celtic nostalgia or the resurrection of a Braveheart spirit. It is a defiant protest at a bankrupt order built by Margaret Thatcher and then preserved and entrenched by New Labour. David Cameron’s Conservatives will bear most responsibility for the break-up of the country, but the last government and a hollowed-out Scottish Labour party cannot escape the blame.
Most Brits voted against Thatcherism, but the Scots like the northern English voted more passionately against, and yet suffered some of the worst consequences. In 1981, Glasgow was ranked 208th among British local authorities for economic inactivity; a decade later, it had jumped to 10th place. Middle-income skilled jobs were stripped from the economy, often in favour of service sector jobs with lower pay, fewer rights and less security. The mass sell-off of council housing never replaced left many working class communities bereft of affordable homes for their children. The slashing of taxes on the rich in favour of indirect taxes, the crippling of trade unions, mass privatisation and the relentless promotion of the City, all ensured that inequality levels exploded.
But New Labour’s surrender to the underlying assumptions of the Thatcherite crusade gave the independence movement its greatest opportunity. Yes, the Blairites could not entirely purge Labour’s traditions, and so the minimum wage was introduced (albeit at too low a level), poverty was reduced and public services were invested in.
Yet they illegally invaded Iraq with Conservative support, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and 179 British military personnel before handing much of the country over to fanatics. They punished aspiration by introducing tuition fees, saddled public services with long-term debt through the colossal rip-off of PFI, and began privatising our NHS, laying the foundations for some of the pernicious policies of this coalition as they did so. They allowed the living standards of millions of working people to begin falling years before the crash, even as the coffers of corporate Britain prospered like never before. They failed to solve an ever-worsening housing crisis, leaving 5 million languishing on council housing waiting lists. They cut taxes on corporate Britain while indulging in entirely destructive gimmicks such as scrapping the 10p tax rate.
Many Scots look at the Britain built by this political elite, they don’t like it and they want out. If, say, northern England was a nation rather than a region, it would surely be bolting for the door by now. Sixty-four per cent of eligible Britons voted against the Conservatives in 2010, but in Scotland they have all but collapsed to fringe party status.
To most Scots, living under a Tory-led government seems absurd, like being forced to live under a hostile foreign occupying force. Why do we have to scrabble around for spare cash to counteract cartoonishly unjust policies such as the bedroom tax that attempt to balance Britain’s books at the expense of predominantly poor disabled people, they wonder. Labour, meanwhile, left the Scottish National party ample progressive political turf to seize and claim as its own. On the ballot paper on 18 September, yes seems to read “never live under a Tory government ever again”.
You would think that Labour’s leaders might have learned from their grievous mistakes. Rather than joining forces with a Tory party that the independence movement owes everything to, Labour should have treated the Conservatives as political Ebola. The Tory vote has been in long-term decline not just across Scotland, it could have said, but across much of England and Wales too: now is our time to finish them off together. Rather than attempting to defeat a yes campaign championing hope with the politics of fear, it would have promised to build a socially just Scotland as part of a new federal Britain.
Such is the desperation within this camp that John McTernan, former adviser to Tony Blair, has dirtied his knees by coming crawling to yours truly. In the fight to stop independence, he writes, “the preachers of old time religion” – including myself – need to take to the streets of Scotland. Desperation and chutzpah have been rolled into one neat package. It was the likes of McTernan who championed policies that fuelled the independence movement, who sidelined and demonised dissident voices who protested: critics who – if listened to – may have prevented this unfolding debacle. And now New Labour ideologues come crawling to those they demonised to help prevent the all-too-plausible break-up of the country they are partly responsible for.
Defending a union forged by two kings over three centuries was never of any interest to me. What appeals is the common traditions shared by Scottish, English and Welsh people as they confronted, fought and defeated the powerful. Suffragettes such as Edinburgh’s Ethel Moorhead and Manchester’s Sylvia Pankurst; socialists such as Fife’s Jennie Lee and her Welsh husband Nye Bevan; trade union leaders such as North Lanarkshire’s Mick McGahey and Liverpool’s Jack Jones – all confronted a common enemy.
Glaswegians, Mancunians and Cardiffians fought for and built the welfare state and the NHS with their own hands. A movement of Scottish, English and Welsh citizens not only defeated the poll tax, but ejected Margaret Thatcher from office too. Our common enemies remain economy-trashing financiers and poverty-paying bosses, whether they speak in an Edinburgh lilt or with the Queen’s English.
Even if it is a close no, Scotland will be gone within a decade unless there is dramatic change: only the over-65s firmly oppose independence. The old order is dead, whatever happens. A new federal constitutional order – with sweeping devolution to the English regions and Wales, and to Scotland if it remains – must be built. Drawing on our shared traditions of fighting the powerful, English, Welsh and Scots must confront an establishment that will still reign, even if Scotland is formally independent. Too much damage may have been inflicted for anyone to listen to such a call. But the establishment should know: it is responsible for the looming break-up of the country.
If Scotland votes to leave, or only narrowly remains, there will be a reckoning, and our bankrupt status quo must surely be swept away.
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