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The Scottish independence surge has forced a complacent and smug elite to take notice

Alex Salmond, whose political mission from the outset was to destroy Great Britain, might end up creating the conditions in which it can be remade and thus saved.

The recriminations have already started inside the cross-party Better Together campaign, with senior figures briefing against one another and the toxicity of the Tories being blamed for the existential crisis engulfing the British state. The British government’s reluctance to allow for a multi-option ballot could well prove to be a fatal error, with devastating consequences for David Cameron’s premiership.  So deep is the crisis that the Prime Minister of the state that could be shattered in 10 days’ time is unwelcome in Scotland and is thus unable to make a substantive contribution to saving the Union in which he so passionately believes. He has been rendered virtually mute by the decisive defeat of conservatism in Scotland. To paraphrase Charles Kennedy: Margaret Thatcher did more for independence than any Scottish nationalist. Her party’s legacy could yet be the break up of Britain.  

But it is not the failure of the Tories alone that is powering the nationalist surge. There has been a catastrophic loss of trust in Labour and, according to the YouGov poll for the Sunday Times that has so unnerved the British establishment, a majority of Scots of working age now support independence. As our pro-independence blogger Jamie Maxwell has long predicted would happen, low income Scots are abandoning Labour and falling in behind the Yes campaign. The anti-politics mood in the country at large – the mood that the likes of Nigel Farage and Russell Brand have channeled so effectively – is also contributing to the collapsing authority of the old established parties.

When I visited Alex Salmond in June last year at Bute House, his official residence in Edinburgh’s magnificent New Town, he explained to me how he intended to approach the referendum. He said we were then merely passing through the "phony war" stage of the campaign. He was relaxed that Yes was a long way behind in the polls – and he remained so when he came at our invitation to Westminster in March, with the polls largely unchanged, to deliver the New Statesman lecture, "Scotland’s Future in Scotland’s Hands", which was when he popularised the metaphor of London as the "dark star" sucking the life out of the rest of the country. He repeatedly referred to the 2011 Scottish election, when the SNP came from behind in the final two weeks to win an astounding landslide victory. 

"Part of [being positive] is getting your party into the attitude in a campaign that, if it applies itself properly, it can win," he told me. "Since 2007, that’s what I’ve done and since 2007 I haven’t lost a national election.

"We’ll approach the referendum in the same way we approached these two Scottish elections. And that is, we will set a vision for the people. I’ll certainly hypothesise on the future and I shall do so on the basis of success, not failure."

The First Minister has been true to his word and his "optimism strategy" could carry him all the way to the ultimate triumph.

Yet all is not lost. If the Westminster establishment is serious about far-reaching constitutional reform (something we have long advocated even as supporters of the Union) as has been suggested in something approaching blind panic in recent days, then Alex Salmond, whose political mission from the outset was to destroy Great Britain, might end up creating the conditions in which it could be remade and thus saved. Perhaps. What is obvious is that the British establishment is becoming desperate and things might turn nasty – no more talk of border posts and military guards, please - in the final days before 18 September.  

What we have been witnessing over the last year or so in Scotland is a nation’s democracy renewing itself – the flourishing of the forces that the writer Gerry Hassan calls "third Scotland", whether it is the excellence of the Bella Caledonia website or the anti-neoliberal Common Weal project, which published its own plan for economic reconstruction. 

All of us who live in these islands should be grateful because the complacent and smug London elites – political, financial, media, bureaucratic – are finally being forced to take notice: but how late it is, how late! The house is on fire and the flames are close to getting out of control. 

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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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