Wednesday, 24 September 2014

What Now?

There are so many “What Nows” that, like Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, one can be easily answer another point when the question is put.  Let’s just take stock and first ask “What just happened?”

Thursday was nerve-wracking for all of us who cared, either way.  There seems to be most of us, as 84% of the Scottish electorate turned out to vote.  Safe to say, in terms of numbers that is the highest figure one can expect in modern day politics: everybody who ever intended to vote in this nation did so on Thursday.  It means therefore that the result is valid and credible.  After two years of campaigning by Yes, the campaign to stay in the Union won.  The result may have been despite some of the Better Together efforts: one cannot say that Alistair Darling was an inspired leader.  From Labour, Jim Murphy and that grand old bruiser Gordon Brown came good.  From the Libdems, Alistair Carmichael and Jo Swinson shone brightest.  For Yes, Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie should be acknowledged    On both sides though, it was thousands of grass-root activists that were the real stars.  When the Yes campaigners had the feather banners, balloons and badges, there were a lot on the No side too, no posters in their windows or badges for their lapels, just quietly going door-to-door, sliding leaflets through letterboxes.  On both sides, it is those new to the realities of political campaigning that should be honoured most highly.
Of great interest though is is those who, when asked, answered “I don’t know.”  Now, I am sure that at the outset of the campaign, that was a viable option.  On the day of the referendum though, it is clear that the Don’t Knows mainly voted No.  Although it could never be proven, I suspect for this campaign at least, “I don’t know” really meant “I’m not telling you.”
Although there were highly publicised instances of companies threatening to head south upon a Yes vote, dismissed by the SNP as moving a brass plate on the door, there were others not reported that would have had a huge impact on jobs across Scotland.  Their preparations were share-price sensitive hence the media silence, but one preparing for immediate departure, a major UK utility company, would have had a profound effect on Scottish homes and businesses.  Many owners of small and medium businesses linked to financial services and IT were also preparing to move south.  Most of us, including myself, did not at the time realise how rapidly some businesses were prepared to leave Scotland.  Although the result was a profound disappointment for many, in economic terms we had an extremely narrow squeak.  

What now?  The first thing is new powers for Scotland.  This has to be decided as a matter of priority and I urge all interested parties and individuals to make their voices heard.  It cannot be agreed around a table in London and handed down.  The three main Westminster parties disagree as to the level of autonomy to be ceded: the Scottish Government needs to be a party to negotiations as well.  It should not just be left to politicians though: bodies such as the CBI, research councils and trade unions, will have views and should be heard.  This may slow matters down a bit but it is necessary to get it right, whoever is in power in Westminster.  It should certainly be all in place by the end of 2015, before the Scottish parliamentary elections the following year.  Gordon Brown has came out with a very rapid timetable: it sounds great but I have no idea how he came up with it.  If we just spent two years fighting over independence, we can take a year sorting out the actual future of our nation.
Out of all the Westminster parties, the Labour proposals are the most modest.  In 2012, the Liberal Democrats came out with a manifesto for Scotland which is effectively one of self-rule within the United Kingdom.  The key points, with a link to the full version can be viewed here.  Whatever is finally agreed though, it has to come first and not be linked to reform within the rest of the United Kingdom.  Hardly fair, might be your response, but if you have not been living in Scotland for the past few years, you haven’t been through a two-year independence referendum campaign.  In its way, the trauma has been intense.  All of Scotland is united in this one thing: we expect reform.  The other night I was speaking to some of the most ardent supporters of the No campaign and all of us agreed that we would review our support of the Union if the promises made are not delivered upon.  Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Milliband, you have been told.  Take it seriously.

As an aside, before we get objections about levels of spending per head of population in Scotland compared to England, just remember that we have one third of the landmass of mainland Britain with less than one tenth of the population.  We do not have the economies of scale enjoyed by many parts of England, especially in the South East.  The Highlands and Islands are especially awkward in demanding luxuries like roads, hospitals and schools, despite not having the density of population that, apparently in the eyes of some, discounts their worth as citizens of the United Kingdom.

What follows for England?  As made clear above, David Cameron’s attempt to link change for Scotland with change for the rest of the United Kingdom at the same time should be utterly rejected.  Change is necessary though, not least because it is fair.  Why should Scotland have more democracy and have government closer to the people than the English?  I am disturbed for this scheme of English MPs only voting on English affairs in the House of Commons.  The parliament represents the whole of the UK and every MP should have equal weight.  Besides, what are English affairs?  Say the discussion is on health, for an example: an area devolved in Scotland so should be a no brainer for England.  In reality though, the NHS is only devolved in terms of priority of national spending on services.  The research and academic components are firmly UK-wide issues.  The same can indeed be said for universities: while some in England resent Scottish undergraduates not having the pay for tuition, the systems are totally integrated for post-graduate and higher research.  Another instance would be strategic transport: the planning of further airport capacity and H2S high-speed rail ultimately affects all of us.  
One simply cannot say “this area is for England, so MPs from other parts of the UK have no right of say.”  Each issue would have to be looked at case-by-case.  While some maybe easily agreed upon by the party whips, others would not.  It would not be a system: it would be chaos.
What is to be done?  The obvious solution is that England needs to devolve powers away from Westminster and into the regions.  It is up to themselves whether that means a new national parliament or regional assemblies but what is clear is that the state quo is no longer tenable.  Such a process of reform may have a the similar effect of reviving political debate among the wider public as the referendum did here.  A system of first and second class MPs is not viable: the Westminster Parliament should remain the ultimate sovereign body for the United Kingdom with equality for its members.

What now for Scottish politics?  The first thing that the SNP has to accept is that they lost the vote.  Naturally though, they are not accepting the democratic outcome.  Despite claiming that Yes was not the SNP, that it was a broad coalition and a grassroots organisation throughout the campaign, on the Friday they immediately set up a new organisation called 45, officially in order to carry on the fight for independence.  Their party membership has ballooned: putting on 20,000 over the weekend.  I cannot blame the SNP from wanting to preserve the campaigning organisation that arose during the referendum campaign, but to tell these new members that a new referendum can be recalled and won in the short term is simply a lie.  Even the name, 45 (the percentage who voted Yes), is a misrepresentation.  I personally know many Yes voters and while some are firm SNP supporters, other Yes voters are far from their camp politically and have very different visions for the future of Scotland.  This division within Yes was hidden in order to present a united front but I will predict that non-nationalist members of the coalition will not continue with the fight for Scottish independence because, unlike the SNP, that is not at the heart of their politics.  They will instead attempt to see their politics take root through existing avenues, of which there are now many and more to come.  Even the cracks in the SNP are beginning to show with MSP John Wilson resigning from the SNP, citing differences with leadership and policy. 
What I ask new members of 45, many new to politics, is while I genuinely welcome your entry into political involvement, the question for you is what do you want?  Yes, I know that you want independence for Scotland but what then?  A change of government is not an end in itself: it is a means to an end, usually a better life for citizens.  How are the changes you wish for going to better the lives of Scottish citizens?  Much of the reason why Yes lost was that they were unable to convincingly answer this question during the campaign.  The question has not gone away.

What is clear though is that forty-five percent of the Scottish electorate that did vote Yes, for whatever reason, have one thing in common: they have lost faith in current UK politics.  That is a matter of upmost seriousness.

It will be an interesting couple of years ahead for us all.

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