Tony Blair attends the 2013 CCTV's China Economic Person Of The Year Award on December 12, 2013 in Beijing. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Blair on Miliband: disagreement, but also consensus

The two men remain at odds over the financial crisis, but there is a meeting of minds over the EU. 

At the start of his speech at Church House in Westminster, the venue where he celebrated his election as Labour leader 20 years ago, Tony Blair declared: "I only ever want Labour to win." He made the point again in the Q&A that followed. On one level this was remarkable: why wouldn't the man who served as Labour leader for 13 years want his party to win? But of course on another it was not. Upon his election as Labour leader, Ed Miliband broke unambiguously with New Labour, the political project Blair founded, and has never wavered from this stance since. 

Ten months away from a general election, the former prime minister was too shrewd to be explicitly critical of Miliband, but his disagreement could be easily detected. He argued that the financial crisis was not a great turning point, but one that "simply reinforces what we have always known". For Miliband, by contrast, the crash was the disastrous collapse of an economic model that had failed Britain for three decades, and proof of the need for fundamental reform. Blair takes a far more modest view: "we adjust, we reform, we regulate and supervise with the knowledge of this experience". He warned that the crash "doesn't mean that the whole private sector is somehow contaminated". Miliband would not dissent from that, but it is clear that Blair disagrees about the level of market intervention now required (he is privately critical of policies such as the 50p tax rate and the energy price freeze). 

On public service reform, too, Blair is in a different place to his party. In a line that could have been delivered by Michael Gove, he called for Labour to be "iconoclastic in reshaping public services" and to be prepared to take on its own "interest groups" (for which read the trade unions). Frustrated at how the Tories have claimed ownership of education reform, he called for the party to "be leading the battle of ideas", adding that "where, as with the Academy programme, the Tories are forced to follow, that should be a matter for rejoicing, not anguish." When Blair urged progressives to "relax" about "a certain convergence of thinking with the centre-right" it was an acknowledgment that he often now agrees more with Conservatives than he does with his own party. 

But if the disagreement was striking, so were the points of consensus. Blair praised Miliband's speech at the National Policy Forum for its rigorous focus on "value for money" and argued that the party's recent policy work - the Adonis review, IPPR's Condition of Britain - "brilliantly" confronts "the hard realities we face with new policy solutions at a time of limited resources". He warned that the crash "doesn't mean that people have fallen back in love with the state", a point that Miliband made repeatedly in his recent Hugo Young Memorial Lecture and that has defined Jon Cruddas's policy review. 

It was on Europe, though, that the overlap was most notable. Blair passionately denounced the Tories for allowing UKIP ("a backward force that doesn't offer anything for our country") to shape their stance and said it was "important to give Ed credit" for making "the right call" (that Blair is prepared to publicly praise some of his stances is evidence that he disagrees with others). With Miliband promoting the case for EU membership as part of his US trip, one Labour strategist told me that this intervention, and Blair's other supportive words, were "helpful". 

While the ideological differences between Blair and Miliband will likely never be bridged, both sides are relieved that they have found something to agree on. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.