Labour's revival could sink Scottish independence

When it comes to the Union, Miliband matters.

There has been almost as much speculation about the timing of the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) referendum on independence as there has been about the outcome of the referendum itself. One common interpretation is that the autumn 2014 date was chosen because it roughly coincides with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. Ask any SNP politician and they’ll tell you this is nonsense. The real explanation is that SNP strategists believe Scottish voters will become increasingly susceptible to the appeal of complete political separation from England the closer they get to a Westminster election the Conservatives look likely to win.

The problem for Alex Salmond and his allies in the Yes Scotland campaign is that the odds on David Cameron achieving a second term seem to be steadily diminishing. When the SNP leader revealed his referendum timetable back in January, the Tories enjoyed a lead of five per cent over Labour. The slump in Labour support was precipitated by a string of weak performances by Ed Miliband at Prime Minister’s Questions and a damaging spat with the unions over cuts. Today, following George Osborne’s disastrous budget and the British economy’s slide back into recession, the situation is transformed, with Labour leading the Conservatives by as much as 13 points. What’s more, the confidence of the British public in the Conservatives to manage the economy effectively - an important indicator of any government’s success - has been shattered.

All this bodes well for Labour, but it should be equally encouraging for supporters of the Union: a sustained revival in the party's electoral prospects could seriously damage nationalist hopes of securing independence in two years time. Scottish political culture is to a large extent defined by its anti-Conservatism. Scots see Labour as the most reliable safeguard against the Tories at Westminster and, these days, the SNP as the most effective advocates of Scottish interests from an Edinburgh base. This translates into the constitutional sphere as well. The decisive factor in the reversal of Scottish attitudes towards devolution between 1979 (when just over 50 per cent of voters backed a Scottish legislative assembly) and 1997 (when nearly 75 per cent did) was 18 years of Tory government. This means that if the prospect of an extended period of Tory rule continues to deteriorate over the next 18 months or so, the nationalist argument that independence is a necessary bulwark against the English right could begin to lose its force.

Yet, in terms of the bare politics of the referendum campaign, Labour continues to make bad tactical and strategic errors. Two weeks ago, Miliband - displaying a remarkable disregard for Scottish political sensibilities - said he was “sure” Tony Blair would play a significant role in the fight to save the Union. But nothing would delight nationalists more: by 2007 Blair’s unpopularity in Scotland was so great it helped propel the SNP to power at Holyrood for the first time. The continued support of both the UK and Scottish Labour leaderships for Britain’s Clyde-based nuclear deterrent hands the SNP another campaigning advantage. Most Scots oppose the renewal of Trident, and Alex Salmond will be sure to place his pledge to remove it from Scottish waters at the centre of his case for secession. Finally, and above all, Labour’s refusal to articulate a radical devolutionary alternative to independence leaves the nationalists free to dictate the terms and conditions of the constitutional debate. Scots will be more likely to vote to leave the UK if the unionist parties fail to explain how they want the next phase of devolution to develop.

The challenge for Miliband is to incorporate his party's defence of the Union into a wider narrative of Labour renewal. Recent successes notwithstanding, the party still seems uncertain about how it should reconstruct its identity in the post-Blair era. A commitment to fully modernise the British constitutional system, including fiscal autonomy for Scotland and significant new powers for the Welsh assembly, might be a good way to start. Nevertheless, some members of Scottish Labour may be left wondering why they should look to Miliband and the UK leadership, rather than to Johann Lamont and her team, to secure Scotland’s future as part of the UK. The reality is that for as long Scottish Labour remains a subordinate and attenuated version of British Labour, it will always be a secondary player in the battle against the SNP.

A sustained revival in Labour's fortunes could seriously damage the independence campaign. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear