Aux barricades, citoyens
During a Sunday morning politics show on the BBC (Andrew Marr), the front-man of the successful ‘better together ‘campaign—Alistair Darling, a former Labour party big hitter—agreed with Marr’s statement that there is a quiet uprising against politics as usual. Had I have been on that program, I would have added that the English are slow to lose their tempers but the fuse has been lit. Politicians ignore this at their peril.
The referendum in Scotland might initially have been of only passing interest to many people in the rest of the United Kingdom but the promise of further devolved powers to the Scottish Assembly by January of next year got a lot of peoples’ attention. Prime Minister David Cameron responded to the referendum result by giving a press conference at seven o’clock the same morning. He linked the devolution of further powers to the Edinburgh with constitutional change throughout the UK and specifically spoke about the need for an English voice in matters which pertain to England alone. Although he stopped short of suggesting an English Assembly, he was adamant. The ‘West Lothian question’ must be answered; it could no longer be fudged. For those readers outside of the UK, what this means is resolving the situation whereby MPs who are elected in Scotland (the same applies to MPs elected in Wales and Northern Ireland but they are never mentioned) vote on matters which effect solely England. Is it a problem? It is—and for two reasons. Prior to the establishment of the Scottish Assembly in Edinburgh it could be—and was– argued that matters decided in Westminster effected all of the UK, even if the measures being discussed were only to be enacted in England and Wales. For those who aren’t aware, there always have been significant differences between Scottish Law and English Law. The question of whether Scottish MPs should vote on laws which were not going to be implemented in Scotland was regarded as too difficult and subsequently put to one side. In truth, there are reasons why simply preventing Scottish MPs from voting on English matters is complicated constitutionally but once the Blair Government (Labour) started the devolution train rolling, it was only a matter of time before the question would have to be settled once and for all. Preferably, most MPs agreed, after many years of obfuscation, numerous all-party parliamentary committees, a Royal Commission and many lengthy lunches at the tax-payers expense.
At seven o’clock on Friday the nineteenth of September, Captain Cameron fired a torpedo and holed that ship below the water line. In some ways it was like the sinking of the Lusitania—a defining moment.
Come the revolution, the first up against the wall will be…
Ed Miliband and the Labour party. A rather sweeping statement, so allow me to explain. There will be a general election in the UK in May 2015. Most politicians, mainly those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, were assuming that the big election issues would be the economy, the National Health Service and whether the UK should remain in the EU. The interest in the Scottish referendum south of the border probably came as a shock to them. It might even have come as a shock to most voters south of the border as well but what galvanised them into becoming vocal was the question of the Pound. They could not have cared-less if an independent Scotland used the Euro, the Ruble or sea shells as currency but they were collectively buggered if ‘they’ were going to use the Pound. The Government were fairly quick to cotton on to this, the Labour party had to play a bit of catch-up, once they sensed the popular mood.
I’ll come back to the future of the Labour party in Scotland in a moment but first let’s take a look at the situation in England. England contains 85% of the population of the UK and returns the most MPs. From the perspective of the Conservatives (Cameron’s mob), the UK economy is growing although the benefits haven’t yet filtered down to the population at large. They are the only party to date offering an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU and they are the only party who have set a timetable for discussions on EU reform. The problem with all that is will the benefits of an improving UK economy filter down to the electorate in time to help Cameron and do people really believe that he will be successful in any negotiations with the EU? Will he actually hold a referendum if he isn’t and would he, under those circumstances, recommend exiting?
Labour’s ploy for the coming general election is to promise—as always—that they are the only party which will ‘save the NHS’. They waffle on about a fairer, more equal Britain and have just promised to raise the minimum wage to £8 per hour. By the end of the next parliament, in 2020. Not much of a promise then. What Labour are really doing is keeping the ‘class war’ alive and hoping that the Unions and traditional Labour voters will stick with them. I give as an example a recent pronouncement that under a Labour government, businesses and the Civil Service would have to make public the ‘background’ of their employees. In other words, do they employ a load of Oxbridge toffs or does anybody else get a look in? Up until seven o’clock last Friday morning they might have got away with this, although Miliband is a liability for them and in matters of the economy the Tories do rather better. A question of trust, backed up by track record. It is true that people do predominantly vote with their wallets and Labour’s promises can sound seductive until you realise that in reality they remain a ‘tax and spend’ party. Most people realise that actually they are more of a ‘borrow and spend’ party and that leads to problems further down the road.
You’ll have noticed that I am not mentioning the Lib-Dems. Sorry chaps, you are irrelevant. I’ll explain why I think UKIP is a passing phenomenon later. They might cause trouble in the two forth-coming by elections but as the Scots have just admirably demonstrated, what people say to pollsters and how they actually vote are two different things.
Politicians of all colours take it as read that people are no longer interested in politics and they feel that their voices are not heard. The latter might be true at the moment—it almost certainly is—but I rather feel that the turnout in the Scottish referendum (85% in round figures) gives lie to the proposition that people cannot be motivated to be interested in politics. Quite apart from gravity of the question posed to voters in the referendum, what happened was that people felt involved, they were told that their voices would be heard and they felt empowered. A strong emotion that, empowerment. If people feel empowered then all sorts of results—mostly unexpected—flow from that feeling. The Scots had to think about the economy, the real economy as it might effect them. Not pie-in-the-sky promises about the economy, how well things might turn out, but what were the risks implicit in their collective decision. In the forth-coming UK general election, many of the same risks will have to be evaluated but what is different is how people will now and in the immediate future, think about the political parties.
Cameron and the Tories represent the revolution—for the moment at any rate—whilst Miliband and Labour represent the Ancien Régime. The Tories are for change, comprehensive change. Cameron has publicly stated that the current situation vis a vis Scottish MPs will not stand. He has explicitly said that more power must be devolved to the English regions. He is talking about empowering people and what is more he is talking about doing it NOW. Well, not quite right now but he has linked the timetable for enacting the promised further devolution of power to Edinburgh to the timetable for the devolution of power to the English regions. Further, he has stated that the timetable promised the Scots will not be delayed. As this unfolds, the English—and Scots– will take note of the fact that the Tory proposals for Scottish devolution are more far-reaching than those of either Labour or the Lib-Dems. Miliband is desperately trying to play catch-up but he has a major problem or two. He has promised a constitutional commission—sometime after the 2015 election and long after more power has been devolved to Edinburgh—and does not sound as decisive as Cameron. Labour are keeping the class war alive, which for many English voters is a bit passé and in any event is not as sexy as a cry of ‘power to the people’. The English might be instinctively conservative (small c) but the promise of economic power being taken away from Westminster and being put in the hands of local communities will most likely sweep away reservations about change. I also think that most people are shrewd enough to realise that if radical change does not come quickly then it will not come at all. Do English voters want radical change? They certainly want their voice to be heard, so yes, I would say they do.
Not only might Miliband have a problem with English voters, he could well have a problem with Scottish voters as well. Leaving aside the former Scottish Labour big hitters who came out of retirement to aid the ‘better together’ campaign, the Labour team in Scotland is visibly second-rate. Now here is an interesting thing. Listening to many ‘yes’ supporters in the debates, frequent mention was made of Margaret Thatcher and how the Scots hated her for the damage that she (and her Tory government) had done to the Scottish economy. Whilst that may be true—another debate—the fact is that since Thatcher left power there was a Tory government in power until 1997. Blair (Labour) then came to power, introduced devolution, and Labour remained in power until 2010. I have a sneaking suspicion that most—let’s say 55% on recent showing—of Scots voters reject the argument that it’s all the Tory party’s fault. In the interim of course we saw the rise of the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party) which eventually formed the present Scottish Government. I don’t know how this will translate into votes in the 2015 election, but Scots have just voted to keep the union and the unionist party is—the Tory party. So the Scots will have a choice between a Labour party which if they are not careful will be seen as holding up the promised further devolution powers to Edinburgh, a well-supported SNP and a quietly resurgent Tory party. That would probably translate into more SNP MPs being elected to Westminster with possibly a couple more Tory MPs (currently one). Perhaps the former Labour big hitters might be tempted back to the political fray to shore up the Scottish Labour Party? Ah yes, but which battleground? Alistair Darling would probably be easily elected to either Westminster as an MP or Holyrood as an MSP. Which would he choose? If he chose to stand for Westminster Miliband has a problem. In the event of a Labour government he would have to give Darling a cabinet post. If Labour do not win the 2015 election—and they will only do that if they do well in Scotland– then a newly-invigorated Darling could well be a leadership contender. If not a contender then at least a kingmaker and would he support Miliband? Gordon Brown, former Labour Prime Minister erupted onto the Scottish political stage after four years of Bruce-like brooding in his cave. What will he do? Certainly not stand for Westminster but he might well see himself as a future First Minister of the Scottish Assembly. He will now be considering whether Labour could ever win a majority in elections for the Edinburgh Assembly. He might aim for a larger stage, like Blair. In that case he will be of no further assistance to Milliband and the Labour party.
Miliband’s present position is that major constitutional change cannot be done ‘on the back of a fag packet’. Cameron’s position is that radical change is needed and is being demanded. Radical change, by its very nature, does not usual come about after lengthy deliberation. Cameron, whether by design or accident, has started a revolution. Like most revolutions, the outcome is unpredictable and events have a way of slipping out of control of those who start them. In this article I’ve made some references to the French Revolution. In a later piece I will consider if there are actually any parallels.
In the meantime
I’ll leave you with this interesting, if slightly depressing, statistic. Last year a survey in the UK found that 52% of newlyweds did not have sex on their wedding night. In 25% of cases the groom was too drunk, in 13% of cases the bride was too drunk and in 10% of cases the couple had had an argument before the reception ended….cheers.