Scotland in the sun. © Terry Vine/J Patrick Lane/Blend Images/Corbis
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Leader: After the referendum

If Scottish Labour is to be rebuilt, it must draw inspiration from the energy, civic nationalism and creativity demonstrated by the pro-independence movement.

The Scottish independence referendum was one that Labour long believed would never come to pass. Optimists were bullish: the former cabinet minister George Robertson confidently predicted that devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead”. Others, among them Tony Blair, recognised the potential for the Scottish National Party to dominate the new parliament but believed that the proportional electoral system used by Holyrood would deny the party the majority it needed to win a mandate to hold a referendum on independence. Both were wrong.

After forming a minority government in 2007, the SNP achieved a landslide victory in 2011. That result, which we predicted, exposed the enfeebled and hollowed-out state of the Scottish Labour Party in a country it once dominated. Having won nearly a million constituency votes in the first devolved election in 1999, Labour achieved just 630,000 in 2011. Its local branches have the lowest membership of any outside of southern England and it now holds fewer council seats than the SNP. In addition, many intellectuals, writers and artists in Scotland have long since given up on Labour. These people matter because they help to create a climate and a culture.

The SNP, once derided as a fringe party of eccentric nationalists and “tartan Tories”, has prospered by colonising the social-democratic territory historically occupied by Labour. As the frontiers of the welfare state have been rolled back in England, Alex Salmond has rolled them forward in Scotland. Since taking office, his government has scrapped National Health Service prescription charges, abolished university tuition fees and introduced free social care for the elderly. When the Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, denounced this settlement as fiscally unsustainable and declared that Scotland could not be “the only something-for-nothing country in the world”, she misjudged the national mood.

From the beginning of the referendum campaign, Mrs Lamont and her colleagues struggled to win over disillusioned voters. Labour’s decision to offer the lowest level of devolution of any of the three main Westminster parties, despite polls showing majority support for “devo max”, left it without an attractive alternative to the status quo, until a desperate late scramble led by Gordon Brown.

With the exception of the quietly effective Douglas Alexander, it was outside the party’s front ranks that the most signs of life were shown. Jim Murphy, the shadow international development secretary, engaged thousands of voters through his admirable “100 Towns in 100 Days” speaking tour. In an age when stage-managed appearances drain mainstream politicians of all authenticity, Mr Murphy’s unrelenting defence of the Union from a platform made of two Irn-Bru crates was proof of the virtues of traditional campaigning. He has the look of a future Labour leader in Scotland, someone who has the qualities to take on and even defeat Mr Salmond and his popular deputy, Nicola Sturgeon.

Against the expectations of many, Mr Brown thrived in the final weeks of the campaign. Having presciently warned in the summer that Westminster had mistakenly framed the contest as a battle between Scotland and the UK, rather than one about Scotland, he seemed to take charge as the cross-party Better Together campaign floundered.

The former prime minister spoke at public meetings with passion and clarity. It was Mr Brown who reframed the debate by proposing a “modern form of home rule” and who, because of his deep understanding of history, articulated the unique achievement of the Union: the creation of a multinational state in which not merely civil and political freedoms but economic and social rights are shared.

Such was his righteous fury at the SNP’s claim that the Scottish NHS was threatened by Westminster, despite health being a devolved matter, that Mr Brown even vowed to stand for election to Holyrood if the First Minister did not desist. If, as expected, he resigns his Westminster seat in May 2015, he could yet thrive as a political pugilist in a new arena.

Yet if Scottish Labour is to be rebuilt, it will not be through the efforts of individuals such as Mr Brown and Mr Murphy alone. Rather, it must draw inspiration from the energy, civic nationalism and creativity demonstrated by the pro-independence movement. The emergence of what Gerry Hassan, the co-author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, calls the “Third Scotland” has been one of the most inspiring legacies of an invigorating campaign in which a nation asked itself fundamental questions about identity and purpose and, in so doing, inspired a democratic reawakening. 

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder