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A shattered union: the final days of the Scottish referendum campaign

If Britain cannot work out how to stay together when so much unites us – language, culture, shared sacrifice, blood – the portents for the 21st century are dark indeed.

Early on the morning of 5 September, two days before a poll put Yes Scotland ahead for the first time in the referendum campaign, Gordon Brown was reacquainted with Westminster when he delivered an impassioned speech to a small gathering of admirers in the Attlee Suite at Portcullis House. He was among friends and he seemed relaxed, even if he looked ashen and deeply tired. There was something monumental about him, with his big, bulging head, his large rugby player’s hands and narrowed eyes, a modern-day Gulliver back in the land of the little people. As he returned reluctantly to front-line politics, the former Labour prime minister’s mission was nothing less than to save the United Kingdom, and in the days that followed, it seemed at times as if he was dictating policy to the Conservative-led government.

For nearly an hour, Brown spoke with a Gladstonian fervour, without notes and in complete sentences, about why the UK was unique in the world, a model of multinational interdependence in an age of globalisation. “No nationalist should be allowed to split it asunder.” He cited John F Kennedy’s celebrated 1961 inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”), mentioned the fallen of the First World War, the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish soldiers who fought and died together and who were buried side by side, and made the familiar economic case against independence and for British social justice. It was a bravura, even romantic performance, imbued with deeper historical resonances and a sense of moral purpose of a kind entirely absent from the vocabulary of Alistair Darling, the leader of the struggling cross-party Better Together campaign.

This was a Brown seldom glimpsed during his premiership, and perhaps most strikingly only late in the general election campaign of 2010 when, knowing he was beaten, he gave a fiery speech at a London Citizens interfaith event, as if impending defeat had liberated him into being the politician he knew in his heart he was or could have been.

Darling, for all his good intentions, is a technocrat; he shrinks when he ought to expand. He uses arid management speak when poetry and passion are called for – compare his low-toned closing statement to Alex Salmond’s inflated rhetoric in the second televised referendum debate on 25 August, a debate that marked a turning point in the campaign and a narrowing in the polls. Darling warns continuously about the macroeconomic risks of independence but never rouses himself to speak about what the United Kingdom has represented through its long history – its purpose, its achievements – and why it must change if it is to survive. Nor does Darling, as Brown did in his Westminster speech, call for a new “statement of national purpose”. Of course, issues such as the currency, pensions and North Sea oil revenues are fundamental – but much more than relentless questioning was required from the Yes campaign, because nationalism ultimately is as much about the heart as the head. It’s about identity and codes of cultural belonging; about self-perception, self-determination and the feelings a nation has about itself – something
approaching a sense of enraptured togetherness. It’s about what the novelist Irvine Welsh has called the “metaphysical hope that the world could be made into a better place”, hence all the discussion about Scotland being remade as a Nordic-style social democracy, however fanciful it might be.

There seems to have been too little understanding of the deeper trends and long-term structural forces cleaving the United Kingdom: the end of empire, deindustrialisation, the decline of cross-border working-class solidarity, the weakening of Protestantism and of the trade unions, as well as a general anti-politics, “stuff them” attitude.

In his speech, Brown said that “Britishness” had lacked a central, driving purpose, something comparable to the American belief in freedom and opportunity for all or France’s revolutionary commitment to liberty, equality and fraternity. There is something in that. For the profoundly Scottish Brown what really unites the people of these islands is a “shared British com­mitment to values of liberty, fairness and social responsibility”.

What attracts me about Britishness is its very plurality and ambiguity; it’s an inclusive, civic, non-racial identity as welcoming now (though it once wasn’t so) to a black Londoner as it is to a Glaswegian Muslim Asian. Indeed, part of what it is to be modern and British is to have and be relaxed about compound identities, to share sovereignties in supranational institutions (the UK, the EU) and to pool resources.

I grew up in a house in a quiet cul-de-sac in an Essex new town. Among my immediate neighbours were three Sicilian families from a poor rural community. They had come to England after the Second World War in search of security and opportunity. Their children, my friends, were born in England but they struggled to call themselves English. They supported the Italian national football team and rampaged delightedly through the street when Italy won the 1982 World Cup in Spain. And yet, they were confidently, unapologetically British. I once tried to convince one of my friends that he was Sicilian, English and British. He almost agreed; I say almost because the word “English” seemed to stick amen-like in his throat as he attempted to define himself as such in response to my prompting. He just couldn’t say the word or describe himself as English. “I’m British,” he said.

Scotland has experienced nothing comparable to the levels of immigration of England – one sees few black or mixed-race faces there, though you hear many eastern European accents – and so many Scots do not quite understand why Britishness means so much to so many people from minority backgrounds and why they fear it being ripped away from them. Britishness is a wide umbrella under which so many of us can shelter happily in spite of our differences. We would be bereft without it, drenched in uncertainty and confusion.

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What of the London question? The capital city of the imperilled state is much maligned – it is Alex Salmond’s “dark star, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy”; it is Vince Cable’s “giant suction machine draining the life out of the rest of the country”. The dominance of financial turbocapitalism has certainly unbalanced and distorted the British economy, resulting in grotesque inequalities and an insanely inflated property market in the south-east. But that is only one version of London, the city of the financiers, rentiers and tax-avoiding, deracinated plutocrats. There is also the gritty, creative city I know well, with its admirable diversity and thrilling possibilities, a city of interconnecting urban villages and of resilient people trying to make their way even when the system seems rigged against them. This London is liberal and open and votes Labour in defiance of much of the rest of the English south. It overwhelmingly rejected the small-minded nationalism of Ukip.

London remains the ultimate global city, Europe’s only megacity, a teeming, vibrant, amorphous, polyglot metropolis that is still recognisably the place that H G Wells described, at the height of empire, as “the centre of civilisation, the heart of the world”. I agree with Danny Dorling, the NS contributor and author of All That Is Solid: the Great Housing Disaster, that London too much dominates the national life. However, that’s an argument not for breaking up the United Kingdom but for decentralisation, radical economic reform and a plan for national reconstruction. That’s an argument for harnessing the wealth-generating potential of London for the good of all.

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A week before the 2011 Scottish general election the New Statesman published a leader in which we warned of the consequences of a victory for the Scottish National Party, which seemed to us highly likely. A few days later, Ed Miliband said to one of my colleagues: “Why is Jason writing about Scotland?” He got his answer when Labour, the last truly national British party, was deservedly routed, a result that set us on the road to Thursday’s referendum.

If ever one needed an illustration of Labour failure this was it: the party had grown so complacent in its Scottish heartlands that it couldn’t see the ground was shifting beneath it and that it was about to be swallowed up in an earthquake.

The referendum campaign has reinvigorated the non-Labour left – Gerry Hassan, the author of The Strange Death of Labour in Scotland, calls the new pro-independence groupings “third Scotland”, because they occupy their own space and are affiliated to no party – just as the Yes campaign has engaged much of the wider population. There has been a ceaseless flow of energised debate on social media and elsewhere online, led by websites such as Bella Caledonia and the anti-neoliberal Common Weal project, which has published its own manifesto for economic and social transformation.

“The more politically engaged people are in Scotland, the more inclined they are to vote Yes,” Hassan told me. “I still feel culturally British; I just don’t feel any loyalty to the British state. Nor am I attracted to the SNP machine view of Scotland – it’s too technocratic, too optimistic, and there’s a lot of people out for preferment after the referendum. Then there are the myths about Scotland – that it’s more egalitarian, more civic. Of course all nationalisms aren’t completely civic.

“This is an existential moment for the British state . . . And you know, Labour could have told a story about Scotland and Britain that would have outflanked the SNP on the left. They could have had a classic Labour message in a modern setting.” He paused. “There’s just a chance that a high Yes vote might [yet help] redraw the nature of the United Kingdom. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful and unique British compromise? Scots don’t want to give up on being British unless they really have to.”

Even the centre right, for so long embattled and embarrassed in Scotland, has perked up. Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, who recently made the case for full fiscal devolution for Holyrood, is considered to have had a far more convincing campaign than her Labour counterpart, Johann Lamont, who is presiding over a calamitous loss of faith in Scottish Labour.

The debate, for and against, is being carried out in town squares, in village halls, in offices, clubs and pubs, on the doorstep. There are divisions within families, even between husbands and wives. Tens of thousands of voters have returned to the register, including many who “disappeared” from it at the time of the poll tax, the memory of which continues to motivate the nationalists in their hatred of the Tories. The Yes campaign, driven by the zeal of the true believer, and with its vastly superior ground operation, has been particularly active in the old working-class Labour strongholds of Glasgow and the central belt. Alex Salmond is tremendously popular among the poorest Scots, who understandably feel they have little to lose by voting Yes. They are hardly being well served by the status quo.

What we have been witnessing over the past year or so is a nation’s democracy renewing itself, and all of us who live in these islands should be grateful, because the complacent and smug London elites – political, financial, media, bureaucratic – are finally being forced to take notice. But it could already be too late.

During the referendum campaign, more than any other London publication, the New Statesman has reached out to the nationalists. We collaborated with Alex Salmond on a special issue of the magazine, Scotland: in or out (28 February 2014), and in March the First Minister came at our invitation to Westminster to deliver the New Statesman lecture “Scotland’s Future in Scotland’s Hands”; it was then he popularised the metaphor of London as the dark star. I had also visited him in June last year at Bute House, his official residence in Edinburgh’s magnificent New Town. That afternoon the First Minister explained to me how he intended to approach the referendum. Back then he was physically much heavier – he began a crash diet last Christmas – and he seemed a little breathless as we spoke, as if he’d just hurried up some stairs. There was much speculation then at Holyrood about his health. Not that he seemed bothered.

He told me we were merely passing through the “phoney war” stage of the campaign. He was relaxed that Yes was a long way behind in the polls – and he remained so when he came to London in March, with the polls largely unchanged. He repeatedly referred to the 2011 Scottish election, when the SNP came from behind in the final two weeks to win an astounding landslide victory. “Part of [being positive] is getting your party into the attitude in a campaign that, if it applies itself properly, it can win,” he told me. “Since 2007, that’s what I’ve done and since 2007 I haven’t lost a national election.

“We’ll approach the referendum in the same way we approached these two Scottish elections. And that is, we will set a vision for the people. I’ll certainly hypothesise on the future and I shall do so on the basis of success, not failure.”

Salmond has been true to his word and yet his “optimism strategy” – his brand of “Borgen nationalism” – has often seemed ludicrous. He admits no doubt. In spite of Scotland’s entrenched social problems, lack of intergenerational social mobility and dependence on high state spending, he promises only success for his country. The newly independent nation would be as wealthy as Norway, which chooses to remain outside the EU and produces almost twice as much oil as Scotland does with an almost identical population. (Child poverty in Scotland is also more than double that in Norway.) And Salmond wants to wrestle sovereignty from Westminster while being entirely relaxed about surrendering it to the EU.

The First Minister is a Celtic Dr Pangloss, forever proclaiming that all will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The No campaign and the Westminster parties have attempted to call his bluff and to call him out – but still the polls are narrowing in his favour.

“My view is that the Union can be saved once,” Adam Tomkins, John Millar Professor of Public Law at the University of Glasgow and an adviser to the No campaign, told me. “If No win narrowly, as they did in Quebec [by 51 per cent to 49 per cent in the second of two independence referendums] in 1995, the British state must reinvigorate itself – and that means more devolution. If circumstances require us to have a second referendum in a parliament or two’s time, Yes will win by a country mile.”

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With less than a week to go to polling day, Alex Salmond is just where he would wish to be, on the shoulder of his opponent with the final bend fast approaching. He remains slightly the underdog and yet seems increasingly confident that he can win, having seized the momentum after a sustained late surge. And even if he loses, he would still have won a kind of victory: the independence movement is stronger than it has ever been and the anti-Westminster forces it has unleashed cannot be contained.

It’s just possible that they could be rechannelled for the ultimate good of a reconfigured, federal or neo-federal United Kingdom – but only if Westminster is properly serious about creating a new constitutional settlement that attempts also to address long-held English grievances. (There is, too, somewhere in the near future, a final reckoning to be had on the EU.)

If the Westminster establishment is serious about far-reaching reform of the kind being proposed in a blind panic and about addressing the decline of parliament, then Alex Salmond, whose political mission from the outset was to break the Union, might end up creating the conditions in which it could be remade and thus saved. For now, as we enter the last days of the referendum campaign – perhaps the last days of Great Britain – those of us who do not have a vote, who loathe neoliberalism but who feel culturally British and believe in the multinational ideal of the United Kingdom, for all its flaws and incongruities, can only watch and hope that pragmatism will hold sway so that Scotland is not lost as Ireland was before it.

These are dangerous and unstable times, with the beginnings of a new cold war and the Middle East in flames. As John Gray has written, we are witnessing the return of classical geopolitics – “a struggle for resources between contending empires not unlike that in the late 19th century”. If Britain cannot work out how to stay together when so much unites us – language, culture,
shared sacrifice, blood – the portents for the 21st century are dark indeed.

If the vote is Yes on 18 September, the 307-year-old Union will have been shattered, the British state will have been broken and we will be plunged into a constitutional crisis with devastating consequences for David Cameron and Ed Miliband. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

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The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

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The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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