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To challenge nationalism, liberals must be bolder about what they can achieve

Progressive parties should use the opportunity of the economic recovery to suggest that politics can lift its sights. 

Progressive parties should use the opportunity of the economic recovery to suggest that politics can lift its sights.
Alex Salmond delivers his speech to delegates at the SNP's spring conference on April 12, 2014 in Aberdeen. Photograph: Getty Images.

Returning to London last week after a trip to Glasgow to see family, I had the words of Alex Salmond ringing in my ears. Speaking as the European election results were coming in, he remarked: "I’m not going to spend the next few months or years talking about the difference between good Romanians and bad Romanians." This is what he is able to offer the Scots, an opportunity to talk about something else, while they watch us in the south squabble about immigration and Europe.

Though I’m Glasgow-born and studied law in the city, I’m no nationalist. Yet I have seen some of the best minds of my generation resuscitated by the SNP. While the UK was tumbling into one war after another, the SNP spoke to people who were uncomfortable about the implications of those wars. Now with the referendum on independence just a few months away, Salmond and his colleagues are describing an imaginarium of freedom and prosperity. I’m pretty sceptical about their claims - for example, I find the Treasury's analysis on the cost of independence more persuasive than the Scottish government's paper on the "independence dividend" - but the idea that an independent Scotland might become a progressive beacon to the rest of the UK became more plausible on Sunday night every time another English region reported its votes.

Then at 3am, something happened. London declared. We’re alright Scotland, said the capital, stick with us. Perhaps we hatch a plan to speed up the building of HS2 and then we can all secede together, the liberal metropoles with the progressive north.

But this is likely to be fantasy. This is a small enough country as it is, with a declining proportion of world GDP. Splitting it up into parts is unlikely to work, though the direction of travel in policy towards stronger city-regions and "devolution max" for Scotland potentially provides all the same benefits over time without constitutional and economic ruptures.

Meanwhile, the urgent question for English politics – with a feedback effect in pre-referendum Scottish politics – is whether the liberal imagination is up to the job of confronting right-wing populism and, just as importantly, the views and attitudes that it speaks to. Talking about racism is important. Frankly, and for the most part irrationally, I’ll be thinking about the fact that almost four million fellow citizens voted for Ukip the next time I travel outside a major city. I don’t believe that most of them are racist but I’d prefer to know for certain and, if they are, then I’d like to persuade them to reconsider their views. Progressives have fought and won other battles on rights and recognition in the past two decades, going all the way back to the introduction of the Human Rights Act in 1998 through changes in the law to recognise the acquired gender of transsexual people and more recently gay marriage. It looks like we have to restart a discussion about race.

On immigration, on the other hand, all the major parties have been talking about it without stop and they are in a tough stance already. Yet the likelihood is that they now try out initiatives that are damaging to the economy and the prospects for integration of immigrants. But the economic risk in particular will be difficult to illustrate over the next year as GDP growth out-performs many of the forecasts. Writing in the Times last week, John Hutton and Alan Milburn suggested that limiting immigration will lead to a 3 per cent drop in GDP per capita by 2060. That’s not a compelling argument right now. The same appeal to narrow economic margins undermines the Better Together campaign. Yes, Scotland may benefit by £1,000 per person per year by being in the Union but when GDP per person is more than £25,000 per year then this can seem slight.

The better approach to winning over voters – and those people who didn’t vote at all last week – will be to use the opportunity of the recovery – the change in mood as well as the uptick in investment – to suggest that politics can lift its sights. It is to follow Salmond in talking about something other than the difference between good Romanians and bad Romanians.

For him this will be creating a sovereign wealth fund from oil revenues to invest in the future, attracting entrepreneurs to Scotland and revitalising public services. Can UK politicians make visions too? They could match the idea of a sovereign wealth fund and raise it, by committing future shale gas revenue on top of the oil money. If we’re taking assets out of the ground, let’s use them to make new ones in their place. Could we use half of the money to create a fund that pays for nature reserves and the other half is a start on the largest education endowment in the world?

Scotland is rightly proud of its science and research base. In truth, the links between scientific institutions north and south of the border are pretty deep. So let’s be positive about this part of our public realm too. Other things being equal, it’s still possible for the government to run a small budget surplus by the end of the next Parliament even after it has doubled the science budget. Earlier I wrote flippantly that we could speed up the building of HS2. Perhaps that isn’t feasible. But it would be quite a signal if we started building the northern end at the same time as the southern one. And presumably, as a rich country with cheap debt, we can invest in more than one grand project at any one time. I don’t know what the next one should be but could we start a competition to decide?

This might not be the right set of policies but the underlying point is simply this: if liberal politics – the idea that freedom and progress are possible and desirable – is to prevail over the next year, first in the Scottish referendum and following that in the general election, then it has to give some powerful examples of what it can achieve. Mere talk about "reconnecting" with the electorate or sub-poetic speeches about why together is better will not be enough.