Is this the Beginning of the End for the British State?
Much can be said about the results of the general election. We will concentrate on the continued existence of the British state. It is being said by most pundits that Labour lost because they forsook the legacy of Blair and abandoned the centre ground. This is strange reasoning. The legacy of Blair lost Scotland to Labour and large swathes of the core electorate to UKIP in England. The Liberals were virtually annihilated – hardly an endorsement for occupation of the centre ground. Cameron has won an election but lost the basis of the Union. The deal since 1707 is that Scottish concerns were respected, not swamped by the much greater wealth and population of England. Cameron has followed Thatcher in thinking that Union means Scotland doing what it is told by England. The attitude of Labour has been the same. This has no chance of working.
The Labour Party allowed the Tories to paint them as economically incompetent. Like the Liberals, they said almost the same thing as the Tories on austerity. Labour failed to develop a relationship based on social partnership with the trade unions who are just beginning to re-evaluate their role in British society. The damage done by Blair and Brown could not be completely undone, but it might have been mitigated. The likelihood now is that Labour will revert to Blairism, to become a purely formal Tweedledee to the Tory Tweedledum and playing permanent second fiddle to the Tories as well.
The British state may not survive the next five years. Scotland has already exited the British party political system. Since the party system is the foundation of the constitution, this has to be seen as an important preliminary to leaving the British state. In effect, Scotland is now in a half-way house between the UK and independence.
English politicians have made it plain that there is no place for Scottish aspirations within the UK. Thus the likelihood is that the Scottish electorate will take them at their word within the next few years. Cameron’s move to reduce Scottish MPs to second class status will further alienate the Scots. The general mean-spirited tendency of English politics towards immigrants, the unemployed and those on low wages will accelerate this trend. Not only will the continuation of austerity policies and creeping privatisation in England and Wales continue to antagonise the Scots, but the developing assault on the EU and its institutions will do so as well.
Within months we will see the opening of a referendum campaign on Britain’s EU membership. The objective of the Tories, as opposed to their more extreme Europhobe MPs, will be to further emasculate the EU and to break up the Eurozone. This has been Britain’s objective since the founding of the EU, with a partial break in the policy in the Heath and Wilson eras. It is difficult to have much faith in the resolve of EU political leaders to resist this assault but at least Juncker, the current EU President, much hated by the Tories, is aware of the danger and is prepared to resist it. The best result for the Tories of negotiations within the EU will be a ‘stay in’ recommendation based on an agreement to weaken EU treaties and to block further Eurozone integration. This is quite possible given the absurd deference to Britain that prevails amongst most EU governments.
The danger for the Tories is a twin process of treaty negotiation which places Britain in a looser association with the EU while at the same time consolidating the Eurozone. This would have the effect of diminishing Britain’s ability to weaken the EU. A third possibility, which also represents a danger to Cameron, is that the EU heads of government do nothing more than agree to cosmetic changes to some policies and no treaty change. This is a danger to Cameron because it will enrage some of his MPs and destabilise a government which is already less secure than its predecessor, with a majority of only 12 and plenty of scope for dissidents to wreak havoc. UKIP will get legs in the referendum campaign. Although ‘Brexit’ is unlikely, the bile and anti EU rhetoric will have a long lasting effect on the Union and it won’t be a good one.
We now have a government committed to the turmoil of a long referendum campaign, first with Europe and then within Britain, with a possible further Scottish referendum following rapidly thereafter. This project will rapidly become an obsession consuming much of the attention of British politicians. This will further weaken the British state. If the Tories succeed in getting a compromise arrangement with Europe, it is possible that the Scots will be at least temporarily neutralised. Brexit will lead to their insisting that Scotland has an interest in staying within the EU and that England and Wales are damaging that interest. They will be able to say, quite rightly, that England is moving away from them and there will be a strong moral as well as practical legitimacy in any call for a fresh referendum on whether Scotland remains part of the UK. This time the result is likely to be a Scottish exit.
British party politics tends to be tactical. Each party seeks a temporary advantage over the other without too much concern for the long term well-being of the country. The general election was no exception to this pattern except in Scotland, where the SNP is in the course of developing an idea about a new state, more close in spirit to northern Europe, where social welfare and social partnership in the running of the economy are more congenial. In these countries, Christian Democrats are well to the left of the British Labour Party. An influx of Labour party members into the SNP will tend to consolidate it as a social democratic nationalist party.
It is hard to see where Labour goes from here. It cannot fight one kind of battle in Scotland and another in England and it is unlikely to fight the battle in England that will enable it to revive in Scotland. The likelihood is that it will have to reconstitute itself as the second liberal party of England, hoping that the need for Tweedledee in a two party system will lead to an eventual revival. In the meantime it will have lost Scotland forever. It is a kind of established wisdom amongst the media commentators that England will not stand for any form of social democracy. The effect of this is that they are writing off the Scots as part of the UK.
At one point last year, Ed Miliband spoke of One Nation Labour. But that was but a slogan of the moment. It was not filled out. The Labour Party did not even try out social democracy on the English electorate, so we are not in a position to assess the claim that social democracy could have had an appeal to the English electorate. The need for good jobs and a more productive economy, something that could be achieved in partnership with the unions and some employers, was never put on the table. The Labour Party is criticised for not recognising the role of wealth creation and aspiration. Here was a chance to put some proposals on the table that would have an appeal outside London which could appeal to a wide range of workers. The benefits of industrial democracy, selective investment in productive sectors, enhanced vocational education and encouragement to employers to move up the value chain could all have been part of such a package.
Labour’s social and redistributive agenda was equally feeble and the commitment to ending the creeping privatisation of the NHS and education wavered between the half-hearted and the non-existent.
Perhaps the press is right and England won’t tolerate either Social or Christian democracy based on social partnership – it is now unlikely whether we will ever find out, since there is no party in England and Wales that will ever be likely to put the issue to the test.
English politicians have made it plain that there is no place for Scottish aspirations within the UK. The likelihood is that the Scottish electorate will take them at their word within the next few years. The best that can come out of this is that England’s capacity to make mischief in the world will be diminished. But that will be small consolation to those without a job or in a bad and insecure job. The next few years are likely to be politically turbulent.