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“I do not intend to hold another referendum”: this is the speech Nicola Sturgeon should give

Before the Scottish parliament returns from recess in September, the First Minister should take independence off the table – for now.

It is late August 2017, one week before the Scottish parliament returns from summer recess. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, has called a surprise press conference. She has also invited all SNP MSPs and MPs, and the leaders of the opposition parties.

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming along to Bute House today. I have, I believe, something important to say.

“It will be of no surprise to any of you when I say that I am and always will be a passionate believer in Scottish independence. This is not because I think we are better than anyone else – and certainly not our friends across the rest of the UK. And neither is it because of any ‘blood and soil’ view of the world.

“I could have joined the Labour Party. In fact, I very nearly did. When I was still at high school my English teacher brought in membership forms for me to sign. Perhaps it was my stubborn, contrarian nature – must you nod quite so vigorously, Peter? – that led me to think ‘fuck you, I’m going to join the SNP’.

“But it was also a reaction to what was going on in British politics at that time. Margaret Thatcher was being returned with huge majorities, even though Scotland repeatedly rejected the Tories at the ballot box. Politics, it seemed, was something that was being done to us rather than for us. This, to me, was unacceptable – I felt that a nation as old, proud, successful, and respected as Scotland should be in a position to make her own decisions, her own choices.

“Again, this is not any kind of anti-English point. I didn’t agree with Mrs Thatcher’s ideology, policies or tone. I watched men of my father’s generation in the West of Scotland lose their jobs as the factories and shipyards and steelyards closed. Stripped of their identity, their dignity, their future, the impact on them and their families was a tragedy. It’s hard to get over that, to forgive it or forget it, when it’s all around you.

“Many south of the border – and some in Scotland – saw what Mrs Thatcher was aiming for and liked it: an economy hammered into shape for the modern world, a capital-owning democracy in which each looked out for him or herself, favouring the private over the public. That’s fine – we all have our views. That’s politics. That’s life.

“But I believe that for most Scots, this ideology was antithetical to our view of the Good Society. We value community, mutuality, the common weal. We’re not afraid of change, but we try not to forget there are human beings at the heart of it. And we don’t lose sight of the fact that the vulnerable usually suffer the most.

“So that is why I joined the SNP. To give Scots the opportunity to make their own choices – and their own mistakes! My ideal has not really changed across the years. It remains one of an independent, self-confident nation working closely with our friends across the UK, the EU and beyond, based on those values. For Scotland to have its say. For Scots to have their say.

“Which brings me to my main point. It’s been a hell of a last few years, right? First, the independence referendum, a passionate, exhilarating and, yes, bruising experience, that forced us all to think hard about who we are and why. My side came close, but not close enough. The campaign created some quite deep divisions that have not yet healed.

“Since then we have had two general elections, a Holyrood election and a referendum on Brexit. The last of these went off like a bomb. It is the defining point of today’s politics, hanging over us like a mushroom cloud. It has destroyed the Conservative government, divided the Labour Party and at the moment it’s hard to see it leading the UK to anything other than outright catastrophe.

“Again, in Scotland, this is something that’s being done to us rather than for us. We have not given our consent. On June 23 last year, 62 per cent of Scots voted to stay in the EU. But because 53 per cent of English people wanted to leave – a pretty narrow majority, you’ll agree – we are being dragged towards the cliff edge. This is due to the sheer size of England – its population of 50 million dwarves our five million.

“I have tried, in the year or so since the referendum, to secure a deal from the British government that recognises Scotland’s differing position. I have, to be honest, had no success. None. They’re not listening. They’re not interested.

“This, to me, makes the case for thinking again about the 2014 result. I believe that, once the outlines of the final Brexit deal become clear, Scots should be allowed to vote for the future they want. Should we be outside the EU as part of a UK that has lost much of its global influence, that has voluntarily excluded itself from the most successful single market on earth, and that pursues the kind of brutal, low-tax economy that we rejected in the 1980s? Or should we opt for self-determination, with all the hurdles that would entail, but with the guarantee that in future the big decisions are taken by us and us alone? Should we, to coin a phrase, ‘take back control’?

“However. The general election in June was tough for my party. We lost 40 per cent of our seats and half a million votes, just two years after the best Westminster result in our history. It is a privilege to be First Minister, but I work long, hard hours. I genuinely give it my best. I won’t deny that the result hurt.

“I went on holiday this summer determined to have a break. Like the rest of you, I really needed one. I read a bunch of crime fiction – if you haven’t read Oliver Harris’s Nick Belsey books, you really should – which gave me some time out. And maybe some space and perspective. And so the reason for asking you here today is to tell you and the people of Scotland this: I get it. I really do. Most Scots do not feel ready for another referendum. And that includes a fair number who are in favour of independence.

“It is also clear that our long national wrangle over the constitution has sometimes crowded out serious debate about areas of public policy that affect our lives every day – our schools and hospitals, our economy.

“So here’s what I’ve decided. I do not intend to hold another referendum during this parliament. It’s off the table. Up to the election in 2021 my government will focus exclusively on our domestic agenda. I care deeply about education reform and will personally drive the changes that are needed to give all our children the best chance in life. I will work to make our NHS better and more patient-friendly.

“I will ask you to come with me on this journey, as it will mean making some hard choices, including on taxation. We can’t do everything. It’s a question of priorities. As Scots, I hope we can agree among us what those are.

“If Brexit must happen, then I will continue to push the UK government to devolve as many of the repatriated powers to the Scottish government as possible. In areas such as agriculture and fisheries, we will seek to show what could be done if we were truly our own masters.

“I have come to the conclusion that Scotland will only vote for independence when it has greater confidence in itself and its track record; when it can look at what it has achieved as a nation under devolution and grasp how much more could be done if the next step were taken.

“The decision, when it comes – as I believe it inevitably will – must be a positive one, taken with open eyes and an awareness of the challenges as well as the opportunities. Not a rejection of the United Kingdom, but an embrace of the thrilling potential of what might come next.

“So that’s it. Over the next few days I will announce a major reshuffle, bringing into my government some of the fresh young talent on the backbenches. I will be meeting with the opposition leaders to seek agreement on key areas of public policy reform. And I will be honest with the Scottish people about what I’m trying to do, what’s being achieved, and what isn’t going so well.

“It’s time for a grown-up conversation. I am going to put Scotland first, hoping that in time you will trust me to take Scotland further.

“Thank you.”

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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Thatcher’s long shadow: has the “miserablist” left exaggerated her legacy?

A new book argues that Britain is far from the “neoliberal nightmare” decried by Corbynites.

In the archives of Newsweek magazine is a 2,000-word article credited to Margaret Thatcher, published in April 1992, and headlined “Don’t undo my work”. It is an amazing thing: a vulgar rendering of the basic argument of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, mixed with the pain of a once-powerful politician who now had precious little to do with her time, and outrage at the European Union’s Treaty of Maastricht. “I set out to destroy socialism because I felt it was at odds with the character of the people,” she wrote. “We were the first country in the world to roll back the frontiers of socialism, then roll forward the frontiers of freedom. We reclaimed our heritage.” In its final flourish, she refers to herself in the third person: “Thatcherism will live. It will live long after Thatcher has died, because we had the courage to restore the great principles and put them into practice, in keeping with the character of the people and the place of this country in the world.”

Up – or down – in the hereafter, what must she make of the strange point reached by the country she once ruled? Britain’s exit from the EU is an essentially Thatcherite project, which may yet result in the kind of laissez-faire dystopia she and her followers always wanted. But at the same time, we have seen something they thought they had ruled out for ever: the revival of an unapologetically socialist Labour Party, which is seemingly backed by a convincing majority of people under 40, and is possibly on the verge of taking power. Meanwhile, no end of wider developments – from the crises of such outsourcing giants as Carillion and Capita to mounting public unease about corporate tax avoidance – suggest that a sea-change is coming. Perhaps, in the midst of Brexit’s mess, we might be starting to wake up from what some people see as the 40-year nightmare of neoliberalism.

But what if Britain was never that neo-liberal, and there was not much of a nightmare in the first place? This is the argument attempted by Andrew Hindmoor, a professor of politics at Sheffield University. He wants to discredit an oft-told story: that “Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 marked the start of a still-continuing fall from political grace”, manifested in “dizzying levels of inequality, social decay [and]  rampant individualism”, and the surrender to free-market ideology of the Blair-Brown governments.

His contention is that “neoliberalism has had a surprisingly limited impact on our collective understandings of the world around us” – and that the realities of inequality, privatisation, and the shrinking of the state have not turned out to be as awful as some people think. He wants to nudge Corbynite readers away from the idea that the New Labour era represented a long period of political drought. Britain, in his reading, has obvious problems but is hardly the scene of a disaster – and the people he maligns as left-wing “miserablists” ought to recognise it.

At a time when polarised argument on social media has obscured the fact that politics is usually cast in shades of grey, his nuanced case ought to be welcome. Indeed, as a trigger for thinking deeply about what has happened in and to this country – particularly since the mid-1990s – the book just about does its job. Part of its argument is based on a familiar script, and a list of (mostly) undeniable New Labour achievements: “significant public expenditure increases, the introduction of tax credits, a minimum wage, devolution, and freedom of information”.

Hindmoor also eloquently sets out evidence that public opinion, in so far as it is measured by pollsters and academic researchers, is now more socially liberal than it has ever been, and also full of the kind of left-of-centre thinking (redistribution of wealth, nationalised utilities) that Thatcher thought she had expunged. From time to time, all this skirts close to the blindingly obvious, but it’s at least built on solid facts about the country’s recent history. Hindmoor’s problem comes when he pushes his arguments into much more contentious areas, and everything threatens to unravel.

Whether his points are always sincere or sometimes part of an academic thought experiment is unclear. Among his other arguments, he underplays the severity of post-2010 austerity by citing both slight increases in real terms in overall public spending, and the Conservatives’ failure to convincingly cut the deficit. But neither detracts from millions of people’s experience of cuts, whether through the NHS crisis or the savaging of services provided by local councils – something he half-acknowledges before dropping a real clanger. “The costs of austerity have not been loaded on to the poorest and most vulnerable,” he writes, which is most of the way to being absurd.

Elsewhere, Hindmoor claims that in education policy, “academisation [sic] is not a form of privatisation”, on the basis that schools run by independent trusts are funded by government and subject to Ofsted inspections. He apparently refuses to entertain the idea that if schools are snatched away from elected local authorities and put in the unaccountable hands of often questionable organisations (some of which are now in grave financial difficulties), something significant has happened. In an equally flimsy treatment of the health service, he says that there should be an argument “whether the contracting out of NHS services to private companies is… tantamount to privatisation”, which is some logical somersault to attempt. And he has almost nothing to say about what has happened to the benefits system, in which a once collectivist, benign set of institutions and arrangements has been replaced by a machine that represents individualism – or, if you prefer, neoliberalism – at its nastiest.

A section about inequality is stuffed with graphs and desiccated numbers that ought to strengthen his case, but end up adding to its weakness. “The UK is a country in which a significant redistribution of income still occurs,” Hindmoor says, which is true, but still leaves open the question of whether “significant” equates to “enough”. His evidence for an upbeat verdict largely rests on a rather laboured concept – also used by the Office for National Statistics – which includes basic public services in its definition of “final income”. The problem there is that you end up trying to make a positive case for the state of the country based on the continuing availability of free roads, schools and hospitals, which strikes me as an argument built on somewhat lowly aspirations.

His reliance on macroeconomic statistics, moreover, cuts him adrift from reality. Inequality is not just about numbers but people’s sense of opportunity, having a stake in the future and connection to the rest of the country. In the end, even Hindmoor does not seem convinced. “Inequality did rise significantly in the 1980s,” he writes. “Wealth inequality is growing. Social mobility is poor.” The abiding impression is of someone needlessly tying themselves in knots.

Does believing that Britain has been repeatedly pushed in the wrong direction over the last three decades make you a “miserablist”? Not at all. Like many others I think Thatcherism wrought damage that has never been healed, and that New Labour swallowed far too much of its legacy and set precedents for subsequent Conservative politicians. The invasion of Iraq was probably the single biggest policy disaster in post-war history, and compared to the hallowed Labour government of 1945-51, the Blair administrations’ institutional legacy – beyond Sure Start centres, which are now being closed at speed – was pitiful. At the same time, I well know that Blair and his colleagues improved the country in lots of ways, and it would perhaps be nice to go back to the halcyon period of 1997-2003. But that is now impossible, thanks to a range of watershed developments that point to the need for something very different.

Hindmoor’s text only briefly touches on them, but in case anyone hasn’t noticed: wages have been stagnating for more than a decade, near-zero interest rates have not triggered any surge in investment, unsecured private debt is at its highest level since the 2008 crash, and the idea that profit-making corporations are the answer to the modernisation of the state looks increasingly threadbare. Put another way, an era that began in the early 1980s may well be in its death throes, a realisation etched on to the upbeat faces of the people who now crowd into Jeremy Corbyn rallies, and rarely look like “miserablists”.

For many reasons, their politics is not really my thing, but I can see why their movement fits its time, in a way that this book’s glossing-over of deep political and economic failures does not. Its author should maybe bear in mind the closing lines of Thatcher’s Newsweek piece: “You always have people who take the soft option. The apparently easy way out is the way that gets you into deepest trouble. The lesson is, you don’t soften fundamental principles. You positively push them forward into the future.” 

John Harris writes for the Guardian

What’s Left Now? The History and Future of Social Democracy
Andrew Hindmoor
Oxford University Press, 285pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist