Will this be the Last British Election?
Before the last General Election the editorial of this magazine was entitled ‘Choosing Between Liberals”. As far as England is concerned this is still a fair description. There are still three liberal parties in contention in England (plus a spoiler in the shape of UKIP, who are unlikely to make much of an impact in terms of representation in Parliament).
However, this description is no longer true of Scotland, which has an alternative in the form of a nationalist party with hankerings for a mild form of social democracy that even incorporates elements of the European social partnership approach to politics and economic policy. Ireland was lost to the UK in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through misgovernment and neglect from Westminster. Most of Ireland overwhelmingly rejected Westminster parties and left the UK.
Although Scottish nationalists lost the referendum last year, party politics at Westminster ensured that they did not lose momentum. Indeed, if anything the Scots nationalists were energised by the campaign and their party, the SNP, turned itself into a mass political party, something not seen in the UK since the 1960s. Scottish Labour had fatally entwined itself with Toryism, long a toxic brand north of the border, by campaigning for the union in a negative way that made no concessions to the Scottish desire for a more social democratic approach to policy. They managed to appear as Tweedledee to the Tory Tweedledum and thus sealed their fate.
The Tories immediately took short term party political advantage of this by proposing that the the referendum justified making Scottish MPs become second rate in terms of their powers at Westminster. Short term party politics trumped preservation of the union. In terms of their Atlanticist and Imperialist aspirations the Tories may come to regret this, but British politics is all about securing short term party advantage, and on this issue no exception was to be allowed. Labour should have understood this beforehand and campaigned for union on party lines during the referendum campaign, promising more social democracy and social partnership for Scotland if they were to stay within the union, which is what the Scots obviously want. The two factors Tory-twin Labour and the prospect of disenfranchisement at Westminster infuriated the Scots and ensured that independence continues to be a live issue.
The Labour Party has compounded its mistake during the referendum campaign by further strategic errors during this general election campaign and has thus virtually assured victory for the SNP at the general election through their insulting approach to the Scottish electorate. The Labour line of ‘Vote SNP in Scotland and get the Tories at Westminster’ represents the Scottish electorate as ‘useful idiots’ of the Tories while at the same time not offering the Scots any of what they want. The sheer stupidity of this can be seen that a consequence of the fact that Labour has set its face against any form of social democratic or even Christian democratic programme in either England, Wales or Scotland is that a powerful social democratic party with the likely power to make or break governments will be elected to Westminster in May. If Labour will not offer the Scottish electorate what they so obviously want – some mild form of social democracy in Scotland, then they will be rejected with contempt by that electorate, and they will deserve to be.
We have already noted in previous issues how the Labour Party has set its face against moves towards social partnership approaches in some sections of the trade union movement, will not tackle the rent-seeking from the welfare budget by business and is incapable of improving VET and addressing youth unemployment and the low skill equilibrium economy. They are terrified of being accused of being ‘anti business’. They seem incapable of working with those sections of the trade union movement and those in the business world who would like to move away from the doldrums which the British economy finds itself in, particularly with the neglect of most of the British regions and unwillingness to incentivise moves towards a high skills equilibrium through rewarding firms that wish to invest in know-how and move up the value chain and by implication not bestowing undeserved favours on those that do not. It is thus unlikely that Labour will form a majority. They may have to deal with the SNP in order to form a minority government. This will involve making concessions to the SNP. They would be better off stealing some of their clothes now rather than having to borrow them under duress after the election.
It is increasingly hard to see how the Scots are going to remain happy within the British state. In effect they are no longer represented within the two party system. This is based on divisions of economic and social interest that apply throughout the country. The three parties now largely represent one interest, that of finance capital and a large proportion of the electorate are disenfranchised. The so-called centre ground of politics, beloved of pundits is located in a place that may suit the major parties, but does not suit the electorate. The response in England has been to support UKIP, which does not have a coherent programme, although it can sometimes talk sense on foreign policy questions. The Scots want much more than a programme of inchoate protest and because their response is more coherent, they are more likely to get some of what they want. Any move to launch an in-out EU referendum during the next parliament is likely to alienate them still further as it threatens increasing isolation from the European political currents which they would like to identify with.
It is hard to see how giving enhanced powers to the Scots, while at the same time continuing to exclude them from the Westminster system is going to do anything other than to give legs to a further referendum campaign within the span of the next five year parliament. When it does happen, the result is likely to be different from what it was last year. The chances of a Scottish exit from the union are so high because it is highly unlikely that the Labour party will change from its current stance of being Tory-lite, anti state and terrified of the press and business and financial community. Whether the various strands within the Labour and trade union movement such as Blue Labour and the leadership of the TUC will succeed in getting changes made to the current sterile approach of a tiny tweaking of the Blair-Brown consensus is hard to say, but at the time of writing the omens are not good.
As we did five years ago, we see little prospect of anything other than a choice between three liberal parties in England and Wales. The difference in five years time may well be that this is a choice confined to England and Wales. The Scots will have made their own political weather, moving in a direction that is more like the norm in much of northern Europe. If that happens Labour will only have itself to blame.