Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, gives an interview following an addressing a Business for Scotland event on February 17, 2014 in Aberdeen. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Even if Scotland votes No, the status quo will not hold

Whatever the outcome in September, Scotland won't have to wait too long for even greater autonomy

A couple of weeks before the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, I wrote a leading article in the New Statesman warning Labour that they were facing a defeat that would have profound consequences for the party, Scotland and the United Kingdom. Labour leader Ed Miliband was baffled. He said to a colleague of mine (and I paraphrase): "Why is Jason warning us about Scotland?" He got his answer when Labour were deservedly routed and the SNP won a landslide victory.

For far too long, the Westminster establishment has been complacent about Scotland and the aspirations of the Scottish people. It’s as if they misunderstood or hadn’t bothered even seriously to think about why so many Scots were restless for change. Or why so many Scots felt alienated from the globalised quasi-city state that is London and from the Westminster jamboree. A politician such as the clownish UKIP leader Nigel Farage has huge influence in England, even though his party does not hold a single Westminster seat. His populist anti-immigrant, anti-European rhetoric is shaping Conservative and Labour party policy. In Scotland, UKIP are an irrelevance.

In the 1955 general election, the Conservative and Unionist Party won a majority of seats in Scotland. In 1997, in the last general election before the introduction of devolution, they won none out of 72 seats. A spectacular decline.The harshness and cruelty of the Thatcher years destroyed the Tories north of the Border. They dumped the poll tax on Scotland first and myopically opposed devolution. Today, PM David Cameron would rather lecture the Scots from the safety of an empty velodrome in east London than dare to speak in Edinburgh or debate directly with the First Minister. If he did, he knows he would be traduced and ridiculed.

Labour have big problems, too. They have lost the support in Scotland of many intellectuals, writers and artists who now favour independence, if not the SNP. These people matter because they create a culture and a climate of opinion. Meanwhile, among the poorest fifth of Scots, Alex Salmond has an extraordinary approval rating of +26. The battle for independence is increasingly dividing along class lines. For decades, Labour treated Scotland as if it was their personal fiefdom. The party became bloated and the talent pool more shallow as the most able Labour politicians – Donald Dewar, Robin Cook, John Smith, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, Douglas Alexander – all headed south.

At Westminster, Salmond is respected as a dangerous and formidable opponent but until very recently the standard line on Scottish independence was: "It won’t happen." But now there is a palpable sense of panic among English elites. London-based liberal media commentators are writing plaintive pleas for the Scots not to go. Even veteran rocker David Bowie has a view – from New York. There is growing anxiety, certainly among Labour supporters, that independence would result in an increasingly Eurosceptic, permanently Tory-dominated, rump-UK. Meanwhile, Scotland would be free to forge a new identity as a Nordic-style social democracy.

In a New Statesman essay last week, Salmond writes of how an independent Scotland could act as a progressive beacon for those in these islands who yearn for a fairer society. On Tuesday evening, he will, at our invitation, come south to give a lecture making the case for independence in the heart of Westminster. The English are belatedly waking up to the threat he poses to the unity of these islands. His long-held mission is to break up the British state. The British state is fighting back, hence George Osborne’s declaration –supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats – that the UK would not enter into monetary union with an independent Scotland.

When I visited the FM at Bute House in Edinburgh last summer, he told me we were in the early stages of a "phoney war". "We are just clearing the ground," he said. Well, the ground has been cleared and battle begun in earnest. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the status quo is unacceptable. I expect Salmond will lose narrowly in September but be able to claim a kind of victory. He must sense the UK is moving inexorably towards federalism. Even if it remains inside the Union, Scotland will not have to wait too long for even greater autonomy.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Mail

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.

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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.