The referendum no one is talking about

While Westminster is fixated on the EU, Scotland is moving ever closer to independence.

While the Tories have been warring over whether to hold a national vote on EU membership, Alex Salmond has been quietly devising his strategy for a different referendum. As the SNP leader confirmed at his party's conference last weekend, the ballot paper will contain two questions. The first will be a straight yes/no question on Scottish independence, the second will be on full fiscal autonomy or "devolution max" (devo max).

Aware that he may not be able to win a majority for independence, Salmond is attempting to ensure that the SNP ends up with a consolation prize. But no one should underestimate how radical a step fiscal autonomy would be. Scotland would win complete control over spending, borrowing and taxation, leaving Westminster in charge of foreign affairs and defence. In an ingenious move, Salmond is attempting to turn the SNP into the party of independence and the party of devolution. The distance between the two is smaller than some imagine. An independent Scotland would retain the Queen as its head of state, British military bases (although the Trident subs would go) and the pound until, in Salmond's words, "it was in Scotland's economic advantage to join the euro" (in other words, indefinitely).

However, there is every reason to believe that Scotland will vote for full independence in the second half of the five-year Holyrood parliament. The SNP has already amassed a £1m campaign war chest and the polls are moving its way. A ComRes survey published on 15 October showed that 49 per cent of Scots now favour independence, with just 37 per cent opposed. Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie posed the question: "What if devo max got 99 per cent 'yes' and one per cent 'no' in the vote while the independence option got 51 per cent 'yes' and 49 per cent 'no'?" But Salmond has already confirmed that a slim majority for independence will trump a large majority for devo max. A brilliant politician and strategist, he will wait until discontent with the Westminster coalition is at its height before calling a referendum.

Labour and the Tories, leaderless as they are in Scotland, are not even close to devising a strategy to combat Salmond. After the SNP's remarkable victory in May, David Cameron vowed to defend the United Kingdom with "every fibre in my body". But we've seen little evidence of that so far. As for Ed Miliband, he has largely avoided the subject since forgetting the name of one his party's leadership candidates (Ken Macintosh), even though Scottish independence would automatically strip his party of 41 seats. For now, all the momentum is with Salmond and the SNP. This must change. And soon.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition