The amazing time travelling Alex Salmond.
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A shameless, self-interested plea to Scottish voters

Don't let go of the balloon.

Ian McEwan's 1997 novel Enduring Love begins with a hot air balloon that gets out of control. Half a dozen people cling on to its ropes, hoping to use their combined weight to drag it back to the ground; but gradually, it begins to lift and one by one, each fearing the danger of hanging on too long, they let go. The last to do so falls a very long way.

I've not really expressed any opinion on the Scottish independence vote before now. I'm entirely English; most of my time in Scotland has been spent in Edinburgh in August, making me the very worst kind of Englishman; and, more to the point, nobody cares what I think. The whole thing feels like it's nothing to do with me.

But recently I've realised two things. One is that most English people were acting like it wasn't anything to do with them either, treating the referendum as simply a quarrel in a far-away country.

This is silly: it is, after all, our country that could conceivably get dismembered. More than that, though, it's insulting. By declining to offer a UK-wide broadcast of the first debate between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond, ITV managed to imply that the whole affair was nothing more than a matter of local politics. (In 2012, ITV1 did manage to broadcast the London mayoral debate, albeit only on its HD channel.) If I lived in Scotland, I suspect this would have pushed me to jump ship and take my chances with Salmond all by itself.

The other thing I've realised is that, actually, I do care what happens on 18 September. I care very much. I desperately want Scotland to vote no, not because of any misty-eyed attachment to nation or flag, but because of real, boring, practical reasons. The independence lot are letting go of the balloon.

There's an argument I keep hearing from Yessers, that's become ever louder the longer the campaign has gone on: vote yes, and never have a Tory government again. Vote yes and be free of those bastards. Even if the idea that an independent Scotland would never again elect a right-wing government looks ever so slightly delusional, I can sort of see how it might be seductive to those of a certain viewpoint. 

And yet, from a purely selfish point of view, it pisses me right off. It feels – this may be irrational of me, but it's the right word nonetheless – like a betrayal. 

Because there are those – there are many – in the rest of the UK who are not nuts about the modern Conservative party either. I like the NHS, and the BBC, and the welfare state, and not picking fights with our closest trading partners just to prove how hard we are. I'd like to keep those things. And until the Conservative party recovers from the psychotic episode it’s been going through for most of the last 30 years, I don't think I can trust it to protect them.

Scottish independence would make Tory majorities in the rest of the UK a damn sight more likely. It would gut the Labour party, and take out a big source of its talent over the last few decades. It’d deprive us of a helpful reminder that there are alternatives to the lingering post-Thatcher consensus, and they can work even within the UK. It’d move the whole centre of gravity of British politics three notches further to the right.

I'm sure it'll be lovely in the socialist paradise north of the border (actually I'm not, I think it'll be a disaster, but that's a whole different thing). Those of us still down here, though, will get totally and utterly screwed.

I'm aware that this must sound massively selfish – it is utterly selfish. But so, frankly, is the Scottish left's plan to cut and run, and to hell with the neighbours. So, with apologies for all the other shitty things the English have done down the years, just this once I reckon I'm on safe ground.

Here, then, is my shamelessly self-interested plea to Scotland: don't do it. Vote no. With you here, it's easier to win the argument for social democratic policies. With you here, it's easier to persuade Westminster that not all financial or political power can or should reside in London. Stick around, and we'll work out how to push more power out of the capital – not just to Edinburgh, but to Cardiff and Manchester and Birmingham and Leeds. Please, don't go.

Because, we are stronger together than we are apart. And every time someone lets go of the balloon things get a little bit worse for those of us who are still hanging on.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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The NS leader: Cold Britannia

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. 

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. The polls suggest a series of grim election defeats across Britain: Labour is 10 points behind the Conservatives even in Wales, putting Theresa May’s party on course to win a majority of seats there for the first time in a century. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the psephologist John Curtice expects the resurgent Tories, under the “centrist” leadership of Ruth Davidson, to gain seats while Labour struggles to cling on to its single MP.

Where did it all go wrong? In this week’s cover essay, beginning on page 26, John Harris traces the roots of Labour’s present troubles back to the scene of one of its greatest triumphs, on 1 May 1997, when it returned 418 MPs to the Commons and ended 18 years of Conservative rule. “Most pop-culture waves turn out to have been the advance party for a new mutation of capitalism, and so it proved with this one,” Mr Harris, one of the contributors to our New Times series, writes. “If Cool Britannia boiled down to anything, it was the birth of a London that by the early Noughties was becoming stupidly expensive and far too full of itself.”

Jump forward two decades and London is indeed now far too dominant in the British economy, sucking in a disproportionate number of graduates and immigrants and then expecting them to pay £4 for a milky coffee and £636,777 for an average house. Tackling the resentment caused by London’s dominance must be an urgent project for the Labour Party. It is one that Mr Corbyn and his key allies, John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott, are not well placed to do (all four are ultra-liberals who represent
London constituencies).

Labour must also find a happy relationship with patriotism, which lies beneath many of the other gripes made against Mr Corbyn: his discomfort with the institutions of the British state, his peacenik tendencies, his dislike of Nato and military alliances, his natural inclination towards transnational or foreign liberation movements, rather than seeking to evolve a popular national politics.

New Labour certainly knew how to wave the flag, even if the results made many on the left uncomfortable: on page 33, we republish our Leader from 2 May 1997, which complained about the “bulldog imagery” of Labour’s election campaign. Yet those heady weeks that followed Labour’s landslide victory were a time of optimism and renewal, when it was possible for people on the left to feel proud of their country and to celebrate its achievements, rather than just apologise for its mistakes. Today, Labour has become too reliant on misty invocations of the NHS to demonstrate that it likes or even understands the country it seeks to govern. A new patriotism, distinct from nationalism, is vital to any Labour revival.

That Tony Blair and his government have many detractors hardly needs to be said. The mistakes were grave: the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, a lax attitude to regulating the financial sector, a too-eager embrace of free-market globalisation, and the failure to impose transitional controls on immigration when eastern European states joined the EU. All contributed to the anger and disillusionment that led to the election as Labour leader of first the hapless Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time rebel backbencher.

However, 20 years after the victory of the New Labour government, we should also acknowledge its successes, not least the minimum wage, education reform, Sure Start, a huge fall in pensioner poverty and investment in public services. Things did get better. They can do so again.

The far right halted

For once, the polls were correct. On 23 April, the centrist Emmanuel Macron triumphed in the first round of the French election with 24 per cent of the vote. The Front National’s Marine Le Pen came second with 21.3 per cent in an election in which the two main parties were routed. The two candidates will now face off on 7 May, and with the mainstream candidates of both left and right falling in behind Mr Macron, he will surely be France’s next president.

“There’s a clear distinction to be made between a political adversary and an enemy of the republic,” said Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the governing Parti Socialiste, who had strongly criticised Mr Macron during the campaign. “This is deadly serious now.” He is correct. Mr Macron may be a centrist rather than of the left but he is a democratic politician. Ms Le Pen is a borderline fascist and a victory for her would herald a dark future not just for France but for all of Europe. It is to Donald Trump’s deep shame that he appeared to endorse her on the eve of the vote.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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