All Scots south of the border are being asked what they feel about the referendum on Scottish independence. Most that I know say they want Scotland and England to remain wedded. “No divorce” is the heartfelt position of wandering Scots of left persuasion because, as progressives, they do not want to be marooned in an England that will be entrenched in conservatism. And that is how they read the likely ramifications of separation. We are better together, they say, without even realising they are uttering the newly minted slogan that binds Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour in opposition to a pro-independence vote.
Yet, friends at home in Scotland whom I respect and admire politically, and who are not nationalists as such, are quite decided that independence might be the only way to challenge orthodoxies that have captured the Labour Party. Their old allegiance has been tried to breaking point and they are not receiving strong enough signals that Labour is taking a new course. They want to challenge Labour to express a clear departure from the ideology that has held the three main UK political parties in its thrall.
The London orthodoxy has been that markets should drive social and economic development, that competition is the primary motor for that development and that the role of the state is to give the market its head and merely ameliorate its worst failings.
Well, we have seen the cost of those policies. We have seen a huge division develop between rich and poor; we have seen the promotion of low-pay industries and poor-quality jobs but high corporate profits; we have seen governments of all shades bow to the demands of the bankers; we have seen markets and the profit motive introduced into the provision of fundamental, essential services, such as health and education, to their detriment. We have seen the privatisation of utilities on the promise of competitive pricing, only to find that we are captive consumers to price-fixing cartels.
We have seen virtually everything turned into a commodity and forgotten the concept of the common good. While Scotland has doggedly held out on university fees and still provides amazing social care for the elderly, higher education in England and Wales is now a sales item and we even charge people in prison who want to study as part of their rehabilitation.
My progressive friends in Scotland want a clearly expressed step change in Labour’s stance on the relationship between the market and the state. The position they often take is articulated in The Common Weal, a discussion paper published by the Jimmy Reid Foundation. It is the product of lively, invigorating debate in Scotland about new economic and social models. Some of its ideas romanticise the Nordic countries and others are a trifle woolly, but at least its arguments are buzzing. What is tantalising is that the paper argues that if there is an emphasis on mutuality and equity, rather than crude competition and inequality, there will be better outcomes for society and individuals alike. It calls for stronger action on bonuses and banking abuse, the creation of a national investment bank for industry and a fairer taxation system.
These debates are not confined to the UK, however. In the United States, the Democratic Party is facing its own battles on the same issues, with Senator Elizabeth Warren and the mayor of New York, Bill
de Blasio, leading the fray on behalf of progressive change. This has prompted a furious backlash by the old third-wayers, the pro-Wall Street wing of the party, who denounce such “populist economics”. It all feels very familiar.
For me, the referendum should be providing Labour with an opportunity to engage in Common Weal-type debates across the UK. Instead of just aligning with the Tories in a simple No campaign,
Ed Miliband should be coming out loud and clear against the orthodoxies that have so alienated many voters in Scotland and, indeed, many others in the rest of the UK.
The economic disaster of the past five years should have taught us that a different politics is needed. If we continue on the current path the inevitable destination is greater inequality and even fewer public services. The public debate has to rise above hair-splitting discussions of how to manage a failed orthodoxy. Most people want a fairer society – whether they live in Scotland or in any other part of the UK. They want decent services and they are happy to contribute to them so long as they feel the system is grounded in fairness. Labour should be giving new meaning to the idea that we are all in this together.
Are we better together? Yes. Because together we can find better solutions. But am I grateful to Alex Salmond? Yes, because his challenge provides Labour with an opportunity for a rethink – if we are prepared to seize it.
Helena Kennedy is a barrister and a Labour life peer