Monday, September 22, 2014

Only major constitutional reforms at Westminster and at Brussels will securely hold our Union together.

What now for the Scottish National Party? As I wrote after the outcome of the Independence referendum was known they were a one trick pony, and that pony has been shot. This conclusion was strengthened by the decision of Alex Salmond to stand down as leader. He was saying "That's it" - or it is , as he put it "for a generation". Salmond’s  subsequent backtracking and the emergence of the “45” movement makes little sense. He got it right the first time around. The independence game is up for the foreseeable future.

The SNP's single manifesto position was independence for Scotland. They pursued it doggedly, secured 45% of the vote both in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election and in the referendum campaign and have run Scotland for seven years. But with independence not on the agenda - at least for a very long time - what will the SNP and Scotland do? That will be for the electorate to decide of course as I don't imagine that the SNP will disband. Power is addictive, they have it and I doubt that they will give it up willingly. But given that the General Election in 2015 and the Scottish election in 2016 will not be about independence, and that further devolution to Holyrood should have been agreed before both, why would a voter choose the Nationalists ahead of the broad manifesto parties Left, Soft Left and the Right?

The three main UK parties have to offer policies on all major issues at General Elections. It would lack credibility for them not to do so. While one or two issues may be dominant - the Economy, the NHS, immigration (possibly) - and while the character and personality of the Party leader is important they still have to present a broad manifesto. Single issue parties don't have to do that - if, as in Scotland, that single issue is all pervasive they can win and gain power.

Fitting the SNP on the Left/Right political axis has always been difficult. When I lived in Scotland in the 1980s they were sometimes referred to as "Tartan Tories" though they weren't very successful from this position. More recently, and knowing that to win the referendum they had to persuade Labour voters, they moved to the Left - the referendum campaign was unashamedly Left driven. The SNP could build on this and become a sort of Scottish Socialist Party and challenge Labour from that position but I doubt that that would be likely to succeed. Most voters, understanding that independence is off the agenda for the foreseeable future, will surely prefer to chose whether they want to be governed from Centre-Left (Labour, LibDems) or Centre-Right (Conservatives) and vote accordingly. I would expect the outcome of the 2016 election to be a Labour Government, possibly in coalition with the LibDems, with the Nationalists and resurgent Conservatives (helped by the PR system) vying to be the official opposition.

Which brings us to the “UK Independence Party” which like the SNP is unashamedly (though differently) nationalist. UKIP is not a “broad manifesto” party – ask even their supporters what their position is on any subject other than the one of nationalism and they wouldn’t know. Indeed their leader also seems not to know sometimes.  UKIP’s nationalism is based on xenophobia – which the OED defines as a “deep dislike of foreigners”. These foreigners are the apparatchiks in Brussels, the EU citizens who have the temerity to exercise their right to come and work in the UK and the multicultural Britain that now exists following decades of immigration and the growth of “ethnic” families. This extreme xenophobia is illustrated by, for example, the admission by Nigel Farage that he feels “uncomfortable” when he “doesn't hear English in the train” ! Trivial though this borderline paranoid silliness is it illustrates neatly the inward-looking nationalism that grabs at the Union Flag to symbolise the party – (as the even more extreme nationalist British National Party does):Nigel-Farage-008Linked with the nationalism of UKIP, and a key element in the SNP’s Independence referendum positioning, is the rejection of traditional politics. For both parties Westminster is the villain – in UKIP’s case for having sold Britain’s soul to the devils of Brussels. This is an appeal to the guts and, of course, a convenient opportunity to blame somebody. The growth of UKIP has been fuelled not by the chattering political  classes but by those who feel disenchanted and disadvantaged. In Scotland the “Yes” vote was much stronger in the more deprived areas such as Glasgow (53.5%) than in the much more prosperous one like Edinburgh (38.9%). UKIP’s strength in seaside Essex (Clacton etc.) is the same.

History teaches us that radical often single-issue parties do well in times of economic difficulty. If that difficulty is unfairly being experienced by one segment of society then that is a happy hunting ground for extremists. By any definition the break up of the United Kingdom was a pretty extreme proposition, but 45% of the Scottish electorate voted for it. Similarly the raw and often bigoted nationalism of UKIP is extreme, but 28% of UK voters in the European elections chose it – more than any other Party.

In these febrile times, with a hard core of deep resentment among many who voted “Yes” in Scotland and those who vote for UKIP in England, it would be dangerous if the traditional broad manifesto parties do not respond. I say “dangerous” advisedly because while both the Scottish referendum and the rise of UKIP have been peaceful that may not continue. Extreme nationalism, history also teaches us, can have a violent edge to it. Mosley's blackshirts were militaristic – as, of course, was the IRA. The SNP – a Party in many ways akin to Sinn Fein – does not have a military wing, but it could.

The response to the SNP has to be simultaneously to build on the “No” vote by strengthening British institutions, while honouring in full commitments made to greater devolution to Holyrood. These twin objectives are not incompatible. A Federal and elected Upper Chamber in Westminster looking after pan-British interests is, for example, an option worth considering. At the same time UKIP can be defused by working with our partners in the European Union to implement more fully the Union’s principle of “Subsidiarity”. There is a direct parallel here. Delegate to our Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies everything that logic says would be better devolved. Create an English assembly to do the same for England. Meanwhile ensure that these same principles apply in Europe. Our membership of the EU is undisputedly of great value, though the case is not always well made. But that does not mean that it should not change and that certain things that are done in Brussels should in future be done in London – or Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast for that matter.

Self-interest, particularly Party interest, should not dictate something as important as constitutional change. The “West Lothian”  question is long overdue to be solved – and the narrow interests of the Labour Party should not stop this happening. Scottish MPs should no more vote on English matters than the reverse! And we should create, at last, a proper written Constitution for the United Kingdom – one that will endure and be the glue that holds us all together much longer than a generation!


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