Alex Salmond with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon last year. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
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Miliband v Miliband, Big Alex at Westminster and the rise of quiet conservatism

New Statesman editor Jason Cowley gives his election post-mortem.

On the morning of 12 May I visited Portcullis House in Westminster to see who might be around. The first MP I met was none other than a very cheerful Alex Salmond, who had just discovered that his new office overlooked the Treasury: “I can keep an eye on them from there.” He said that he would naturally have preferred a “balanced parliament – as you would”. And he asked for 50 copies of our recent issue in which, in one of David Young’s cover illustrations, he was featured alongside Nicola Sturgeon as they rode the Flying Scotsman south. The train was hurtling towards Ed Miliband and David Cameron, both prostrate and tied to the track, resigned to their fate.

Cover image by David Young.

 

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A few of our readers complained we’d made the mistake of equating Scotland with the SNP. That wasn’t our intention. But whether Westminster likes it or not, the SNP has arrived en masse, the largest grouping of nationalist MPs in London since the early 20th century, when the Irish Parliamentary Party enabled Asquith’s reforming Liberal government to hold power after the ­December 1910 general election. Their presence adds a fascinating dimension to the new parliament and will be a daily rebuke to a shattered Labour. The wipeout of Labour in Scotland, though it was not unexpected, has left the party understandably traumatised. “We did everything we knew locally but the national wave was just too strong,” one defeated Scottish MP said to me.

In the SNP landslide Labour lost two of its most intelligent MPs – Douglas Alexander and Gregg McClymont – and, in Jim Murphy, one of its toughest street fighters. Murphy will continue for now as leader of Scottish Labour. He ought to ignore the bullying of the Unite leader, Len McCluskey, who has called for his resignation and gives the impression of preferring the futilities of opposition to power.

The forces powering Scottish nationalism are varied – deindustrialisation, the fracturing of cross-border class ­solidarity, the decline of trade unionism, the rise of identity politics, and so on. Yet, in spite of all this, as I have written before, the Labour leadership in London was complacent about the events unfolding in Scotland and was unable to respond until it was too late.

Perhaps arrogance and a sense of entitlement blinded Labour to the seriousness of the nationalist surge. I’m a frequent visitor – my oldest friend is an academic at Glasgow University – and it was obvious to me, even as an Englishman, that Labour was destined to lose the 2011 Scottish election – as it did, badly, creating the circumstances in which an independence referendum could be held. There was little Labour could do to resist the torrential surge in support for the SNP in 2015; there was much it could and should have done to thwart the nationalist victory in 2011.

Now activists to whom I have spoken are seriously asking if Labour can ever win again in Scotland. Back in the 1980s when the party was weak it was still strong in Scotland. Today it faces a dual challenge: of trying to win in Scotland, where the SNP has positioned itself to the left and campaigned as an anti-austerity party, as well as south of the Severn-Wash line where, excluding London, it holds only 11 of 197 seats. Deep is the grave in which . . .

 

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The New York-resident David Miliband has moved quickly to say what his younger brother got wrong – he mentioned “aspiration and inclusion” and said that Ed had given the impression the party was going “backwards” under him. When asked by a BBC interviewer about their relationship, David said, his eyes cold and dark, that they “were in touch”, no more or less than that.

Also on Tuesday David tweeted a link to a column by the New York Times writer David Brooks, the paper’s resident conservative. Brooks is interested in ideas and social trends, and uses data intelligently to support his arguments. Like many conservatives, he was intrigued by the Tory election victory and asked why after the financial crisis and the consequent Great Recession – especially considering the “unpopularity of the right’s stances on social issues and immigration” – the world had not turned left. Ed Miliband wagered his entire leadership and election strategy on a belief – and it was no more than this – that the electorate was yearning for a more egalitarian society and a return to socialism. Voters were certainly disturbed by widening inequality but just as important were a desire for fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets.

Yet, according to Brooks, as well as people’s scepticism about the left, “there are a few things centre-right parties have done successfully”. They have championed “national identity”, they have been “basically sensible on fiscal policy” and they have not “overread their mandate”. He went on:

Globally, voters are disillusioned with large public institutions. They seem to want to reassert local control and their own particular nationalism (Scottish or anything else). But they also seem to want a slightly smaller public sector, strong welfare state reform and more open and vibrant labour markets as a path to prosperity.

So if, as Brooks suggests, we are entering a new era of pragmatic conservative rule how should Labour respond, if it is not to be locked out of power for the next decade?

So far, the leadership contenders putting themselves about in the aftermath of defeat have been muttering about “aspiration”, as if the act of articulation were simultaneously an act of redefinition – and of absolution. Meanwhile, in other news, Ed Miliband has gone on holiday to Ibiza.

 

Now read Jason Cowley's pre-election piece on "white van conservatism" and the battle for the soul of Essex Man

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.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.