Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Legacy of History

While I was away I read Robert Tombs masterwork "The English and their History". It has a number of themes but one of them undoubtedly is that, whether by coincidence or otherwise, the Union between England and Scotland was shortly thereafter followed by an unprecedented growth of what was to become the largest empire the world has ever seen.

The British Empire (for it never was and never will be called anything else) like any other great historical event had both its good and bad elements. When it was bad, most notoriously in its role in the transatlantic slave trade, it could be very bad indeed but equally, when it was good, most noticeably in its ultimate elimination of that trade not just within its boundaries but across the world, its power could be employed for great and good purpose.

And any suggestion that this was not an enterprise in which the Scots were fully engaged is nonsense. It was, I think, the nationalist historian Michael Fry who tellingly observed that the English conquered an Empire but the Scots actually ran it. There is some truth in that but we did our fair share of fighting too. Through the long "Second Hundred Years War" against France (as Tombs borrows the description) from the Heights of Abraham to the Scots Greys at Waterloo, Scottish troops were in the front of the action. As they were through the long imperial adventure of the 19th Century and throughout the long 20th Century departures which followed. Right up to Mad Mitch and the Argyll's in Aden, "Scotland the Brave" was never far away on any battlefield.

But, of course, the Empire is now in the past, fought over only for its reputation among historians of differing modern political persuasions. It has left a worldwide cultural legacy but most obviously a legacy here on the island from which it sprang.

But it also, and this is important, has left a continuing legacy on the modern economy of the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom is commonly understood to have four constituent parts: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. But in economic terms that's not actually true. In economic terms the country has five parts. The first three certainly, but more properly the final, largest, part should be divided into "Greater London" and "The rest of England".

I'm prompted to these thoughts not just by Professor Tombs' history but by a nagging unhappiness as to how last weeks GERS figures have been reported. It is certainly the case that Scotland's public spending is substantially subsidised by "elsewhere" and that an inevitable consequence of Independence would be a significant fall in living standards. But the economic reductionism of my own side's response has left me slightly uneasy. For there were two nationalist kickbacks to this. The first, the usual zoomer element who don't believe the figures published by their own nationalist government, can be treated with the contempt they deserve. But there was a second,more cerebral argument trying  to plant a tape worm in the gut of the Scottish polity. A worm we must be careful not to let flourish. "Alright, maybe we would be a bit worse off, but we would have the dignity of not living on handouts."

However, by that logic everywhere in the UK, not just us and the Welsh in the Northern Irish, but everywhere in England outwith London as well is "living on handouts".

For London, for all it is the Nation's capital, is in reality a thing apart from the nation. It is a world city, only truly rivalled in economic activity by New York and Hong Kong and boasting a cultural., architectural, historical and, yes, political legacy that puts even these other two contenders to shame. But this is not the only legacy that London enjoys. For although politically and militarily the British Empire is over, economically it still has a centre, a remaining imperial capital in a post imperial age. A centre that remains at the heart of commerce, trade, finance, simply influence, across a far wider reach than these small islands alone.  And it has a population to match, more than 50% born to at least one foreign born parent. It is a wonderful, vibrant, diverse place.

There are few people in the developed world who would not wish, given the opportunity, to visit it and many, many more, across the whole world, who have no higher ambition than but to actually live there.

But more importantly still, as that direct legacy of Empire, the post imperial capital generates wealth out of all proportion to even its substantial population. Much, much more than anywhere else in the country. And that wealth is then shared not just by those who live in London but across the country to which London itself belongs. For, and let this sink in, one pound in five earned in London, through the operation of taxation, is then spent elsewhere in the UK. But actually, that is as it should be. For, as I say, it is to the departed British Empire that London owes its modern pre-eminence.

Now, none of this is to say that this great wealth could not be more evenly distributed, across the UK or even within London itself. It certainly could and should be. Nor is it to say that such a concentration of wealth in one part of the country alone is a good thing. It certainly isn't, something recognised but never yet successfully overcome by government's of different political persuasions since at least the end of last war. Nor is it even, dare I say it, to say that, as GERS highlights, Scotland should continue, even within the UK, to be entitled to greater public spending than, frankly, more deprived parts of the country.

But it is to say this. It is not Londoners alone who are responsible for their great city's prosperity today. It is all of us. So the capital's great wealth being distributed across the Nation it belongs to is not on any view a subsidy. It is simply the benefit of being in a United Kingdom. And the legacy of history.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Winter is coming.

And so, I'm back. Umbria was, as always, Umbria. Great scenery, great food, great art, great time. Last Saturday I was once again in Orvieto, home of arguably Italy's greatest cathedral, Luca Signorelli's masterwork and, that aside, one of my most favourite restaurants.

But then? I flew home. That is done now.

Summer is over and the long echoes of the British Autumn are about to begin.

The Last Night of the Proms; the first night of Strictly; the September weekend; Halloween; Bonfire Night; Armistice Day. Each will come round with their usual inevitability as the leaves turn red, and then brown and then disappear altogether. And, in the west of Scotland at least, as the constant, four season, rain gets steadily colder until turning to sleet.

Until, equally inevitably, there will be Christmas and beyond that a new renewal.

And then plans for the new year.

But, in between, there will still be life.

And, in political terms, I suspect this will actually prove to be quite boring.

We have just had three years of politics unprecedented in my lifetime.

The Independence Referendum was, on any view, an event. As was not so much the General Election as the decision of the Labour Party to implode, perhaps abolish itself  entirely, in its aftermath. And then we had the Brexit vote. Let's be honest, not something anybody politically engaged, including most Brexiters, ever thought would ever actually happen.

But things can't carry on like this. A bit like Euro2016, watching two games every night, then at least one, then at least a few remaining high stakes contests......eventually there is the final. And it's over. No matter how much you might wish it could continue......it's over. Equally, mornings no longer will come with a Gold Rush from Rio but with the latest report on childhood obesity or on the problem of pension mis-selling. It's over.

And in the same way the last three years are over. Despite the obvious advantage to be gained, Mrs May seems resolved that my own Party's current travails will not be solved by her in the form of an early election. Despite all her huffing and puffing, Nicola is equally not inclined to the kamikaze mission that would be a second referendum. If Labour does split, which I still think improbable, it won't be this year. Brexit might mean Brexit but not quite yet.

So, politics are about to become boring. Normal. Tory.

Maybe, for a while, that is not a bad thing.






Sunday, 31 July 2016

Stalemate

Yesterday, up to 5000 people marched through Glasgow waving flags in support of Scottish Independence. Which is of course not about flags.

Still, no harm to them, what people get up to in their spare time is a matter for them. Personally, I had a barbecue.

And I am in no doubt that there are many other people who were more inclined to my own sort of Summer recreation who, nonetheless, asked the question again, would vote in a referendum for Independence. Very many more.

The problem is that even very many more still isn't enough.

I did actually think that the Brexit vote might shift Scottish public opinion a bit, at least for a time. At least until it became obvious what "Scotland in/England out" would mean in practice: a devalued "independent" currency and a hard border. Actually, I think that underlying opinion has moved a bit. Some europhile No voters have given Independence a second look. Equally however, some Nats motivated by hatred of the English appear (surprise, surprise) to be no more friendly to any other sort of "foreigner".  Indeed, faced with a binary choice in that regard they would apparently opt to keep the devil they know.

But despite that (wee) bit underlying moving about the baseline figure remains about the same as it has since September 2014. A significant and consistent majority for maintaining the British union.

Now, what hasn't perhaps been given enough thought is what this means for the future of Scottish politics.

It has become accepted wisdom that the SNP would not risk another referendum unless they thought they would win. What if that is never?

There is a kind of assumption that the Nats could nonetheless remain a "competent" government and continue to enjoy an electoral advantage from being both that and "Scotland's Party".

But, actually, "Scotland", at least without the prospect of Independence, is not a political philosophy.

So far the belief that that dream is not dead has managed to obscure this. It is that as much as any underlying objective that requires Nicola to flag up the possibility of another vote at every possible opportunity. But that strategy only has so much mileage. If, as it appears, the Nats hope that Brexit would be a gamechanger, or that Trident renewal would be a gamechanger, or at least that something would be a gamechanger proves to be illusory, what happens next?

Well, to paraphrase Harold McMillan, events will happen.

We were promised at the election that closing the attainment gap in education was to be the number one priority of Nicola's renewed (of sorts) mandate. The problem is that it is one thing to recognise change is needed, it is another altogether to actually decide what that change should be, let alone bring it about. At some point change requires somebody to be offended, for any status quo has its beneficiaries. And change in Education will require quite a lot of those with an interest in the status quo to suffer that offence: the teaching unions, Local Authorities, who knows possibly even some parents.

So far, since 2007, as they attempted to hold their fragile "Yes Coalition" together, the SNP have been anxious to avoid any offence to anybody. The price of that has been complete stasis in public policy making. You would genuinely struggle to think of any bold initiatives in any of the devolved areas of responsibility. And these devolved areas of responsibility are about to get much much wider.

I give but one current example, the rail strike. For the last month, members of the RMT have been engaged in industrial action over plans to remove guards from many commuter services. The travelling public are increasingly furious about the disruption to their daily lives while the unions are increasingly furious over management's unwillingness to negotiate. But this is not a nil sum game. If the unions win, fares will go up. If they lose then ultimately fewer people will work on the railways and, as they would have it at least, the travelling public will be less safe. So, what is the view of the Scottish Government? No idea. The silence from the transport minister has been deafening. For to express a view would offend somebody. Except that, slowly, that silence is actually beginning to offend everybody. Or at least everybody paying attention. As a lot more will be once the holiday season ends.

And that's the problem with current SNP strategy. It is not just nature that abhors a vacuum, so does politics. We have already seen this to a degree in the way that, in an attempt to install a proper opposition, May past, the electorate pushed Labour aside in favour of the Ruth Davidson Party.

At a certain point even those who might still wish for Independence will conclude that, if it's not, however regrettably, going to happen, Government has to be about more than just sitting about doing as little as possible in the hope that one day opinion on the National question might actually experience the hoped for gamechanger.

And yet if something, anything, is to be done by the SNP Government? Just consider the current SNP deputy leadership contest. Do the candidates agree with each other about just about anything other than independence? Yet each seems to have their own discreet group of supporters believing that the view of their candidate alone represent the "true" opinion of the SNP. It'll take more than the talents of, even, Nicola to maintain the unity of this heterogeneous group while driving it in in any particular policy direction. Don't hold your breath for the attainment gap to be closed any time soon.

And with that I'm off on holiday. Actually I am flying out from Prestwick. Currently, in an attempt to avoid another decision bound to give offence, my departure place is being subsidised by the Scottish Government to the extent of £17 million per annum. That's another area where a decision is going, one day, to be need to be made. Just so long as it's not before next Saturday. I would be offended.








Saturday, 16 July 2016

I will survive?

The weird thing about Corbyn's continued limpet like attachment to the Party leadership is that it is difficult to see where it sees itself going.

Bevan's maxim "Never underestimate the passion for unity" still has considerable traction, indeed it is effectively Owen Smith's entire campaign strategy. But, equally, we cannot expect that that passion to be shared by those Johnny come lately "conditional" members and supporters who Corbyn has undoubtedly already rallied to his tattered flag.

So Corbyn's survival is a very real possibility. But to what end?

There is no way back for the 172 resignees. They could not possibly remain collectively on the back benches and then face their local electorate come a General Election in the position of encouraging confidence in a candidate for Prime Minister despite having publicly declared no confidence in the same person's inability to be (even) Leader of the Opposition. That is of course assuming they hadn't been reselected in the meantime.

The Party would inevitably split. In a much more significant way than in 1981.

And that split would start with many more advantages than the "Gang of Four" had then. Not just in the number of Labour MPs it would take with it.

Tribal voting is much less of a factor thirty five years on. In 1979, as Labour lost, 36.9% of the electorate still voted Labour. In 2015 that figure was a mere 29%. But, just as significantly, in 2015, the Tories actually WON the election with a smaller proportion of the the electorate than that which had led Labour to defeat (by a margin) in 1979. There are a lot of unattached voters out there and Scotland shows that even life long loyalty can prove to be anything but given the right set of circumstance.

Money is also much less of an issue. Labour in 1981 retained a considerable advantage over any pretender to the title of, at least, principal opposition through the guaranteed income from the Trade Union link. Since then, not only has Trade Union money declined as Trade Unionism itself has declined but Party funding has also moved more generally on, not just in relation to the relative importance of "Short money" but also in the willingness of well to do individuals to intervene, for philanthropic motivation or otherwise, in the political process.

And there is even a "cause" in the way the SDP never really had a cause except by way of a general disgruntlement with the Labour Party. That cause is Europe and more broadly an embrace of, rather than a retreat from, the modern world. If not the EU precisely then certainly the EEA or, better still, the "special associate" status being discussed in some German quarters.

You can see such a project, embracing the Lib Dems, and dependent on the right surrounding circumstances and leadership, getting to 30%. Not enough to win but probably enough to finish off Labour.

But, oddly, that's not really my point.

For my point is, to go back to where I started, what would the prospects for RLabour (to borrow an adapted phraseology from the Scottish Independence campaign)?

We would still have assets. Firstly, and not unimportantly, the brand. The brand means quite a lot to some people, me included. It might be ridiculous, sentimental or whatever but I'd find it quite difficult but to vote anything but Labour. You can relatively easily see Tony Blair or Kezia Dugdale endorsing the new Party project I outline. As the former famously said, to his one time reassurance of the wider electorate, he wasn't born into this Party, he chose it. The latter, at best, only ever had it as a second choice. But Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown and so many, many, less prominent others now serving as Party Officers, local Councillors or even (just) humble door knockers ? They were born into our Party. They would find it very difficult to belong to any other.

And secondly, it is undeniable that to a certain constituency: public sector trade unionists; that part of the very poor who are politically engaged at all; young people legitimately motivated by generational inequality, Corbynism has a genuine appeal. A Coalition of the Angry as I have previously described it. The 18% who expressed the preference for Corbyn over May as Prime Minister in the recent poll are presumably these people. Even stripping out those faced with having to make a binary choice and those who simply don't know that much about him, there is probably still a core Labour/Corbyn vote concentrated in what remains of our heartlands, South Wales, South Yorkshire, The North East, Lancashire, the industrial Midlands, Inner London. Assuming at least that UKIP don't point the anger of the coalition of the angry in an entirely different direction, as they undoubtedly partially did on 23rd June past.

But lets again return to where I started. Suppose Labour somehow scrapes vote to "victory" over any new initiative? So what?  We might have won the battle for the minor places but Mrs May's carefully centrally positioned Tories would still be holding up the Gold medal and belting out the National Anthem.

And eventually, if not after the 2020 General Election, then after the 2025 one, or at least the 2030 one, Labour would either finally die or realise that we need to track back towards the centre in order to win. And that no number of rallies or marches was sufficient consolation for failing to do so.

So I finish with the question I started with. What, even in his own terms, is the point of Corbyn surviving?


Sunday, 26 June 2016

Salmond for the Prosecution

I wrote in my last blog on Friday about how angry I am with the result of the European Referendum.

A lot of people are. And are looking for a solution, any solution.

David Lammy MP even suggested Parliament should just ignore the referendum altogether! I'm not quite sure that would mean for our Party's prospects in the North of England.

Elsewhere, three million people have signed a petition calling for a re-vote. Except seventeen million people actually voted to leave and the only polling done since indicates that they are overwhelmingly happy with what they have achieved. I'm in no doubt that, in time, we will see buyer's remorse but that time is not yet.

Thousands of others are desperately off to try and get an Irish (EU) passport but it's not clear where they actually propose to live.

All we need now is a Euro camp in Parliament Square full of zoomers invoking the intervention of Jesus and the Queen. While blaming the whole thing on Murray Tosh.

This is all nonsense. I am in no doubt we need to work to reverse or at least mitigate the result last Thursday but this is not something that will be achieved overnight and depends on a number of other factors: the immediate response of the 27 other EU members; the result of the Tory leadership (de facto Prime Ministerial) election;  the fall out of the instant challenge to Corbyn, whichever way it goes; the result of what appears now to be almost certain 2016 General Election and, if that doesn't reverse last Thursday by itself, any negotiations that then take take place between the EU and the UK in its aftermath.

But I just want to say something about the other immediate angry response we have seen to the vote, one particular to Scotland, that in response we should declare independence (via a second independence referendum) so that Scotland could remain in the EU at the price of leaving the UK.

This is understandable, because anger is understandable, but it is nonsense. Because by the time of any such vote, the consequence of such a cutting off one's nose to spite one's face would be a lot more apparent than they are in the current febrile atmosphere.

I could list any number of reasons for this but I'll choose just one, currency. Say what you like about Alex Salmond but he is not a stupid man.

I am in no doubt that he understood that for Scotland to actually operate a different economic policy from our own much larger neighbour we would need to have a different currency which could trade at a differential value on the world's currenc exchanges.

But in 2014 he didn't offer that, instead he proposed a currency union with England. This was improbable then, something that Salmond himself has since admitted. On any view however, now it would be impossible. A currency union from within the EU with a country outwith the EU? It is inconceivable that this would be acceptable to either Brussels or London.

So, we would be left with only one option*, our own currency. An independently issued, central bank backed, convertible currency is an absolute sine qua non of EU membership as, if you consider it for a moment, you will appreciate that it is required for the stability of a single market.  That currency, the Pound Scots, might be declared on creation to be intended to be worth the same as the Pound Sterling but it wouldn't be. Because, in the absence of a reciprocal arrangement, convertible currencies are not worth what their governments declare them to be. The key is in the word convertible. Governments might produce the "goods" (The Pounds or whatever) but they don't own the shop, let alone control the customers.

And these markets would immediately place a shadow value on this Scottish currency,indicating not exactly what it was worth (because it would not yet exist) but rather what it would be worth when eventually placed on sale.

And that value would inevitably be significantly less than the Pound Sterling.

Why? Because the key element in pricing any national currency is the size of the national fiscal deficit. And, as a percentage of GDP, Scotland's deficit is significantly higher than that of England, even before the boost the latter would get from losing its obligation towards subsidising Scotland. That is based not on my opinion but on the annual GERS figures produced by the Scottish Government.

And there is no politically acceptable solution to this because to continue with that deficit (setting aside for the moment whether any wider EU entry  obligation would permit that) would mean one thing. That anybody paid from the public purse: every public sector worker; every pensioner; every benefit claimant, would know that on Independence Day they would be immediately worse off. On the other hand, if it was announced in advance, to reassure the markets, how the Scottish Government proposed to address the deficit? Then every public sector worker; every pensioner; every benefit claimant would know that on Independence Day they would be immediately worse off. Not just worse off when they went "abroad" but worse off when they tried to purchase any imported item at their corner shop.

And, crucially, that isn't something that would come as an unpleasant surprise after any second referendum vote, it would be known on polling day, because the Scottish currency's shadow value would be known on polling day.

So, maybe people will be so filled with affection for the EU, or resentment of England, that they might still vote for that. For an immediate, significant, cut in their living standards. But I very much doubt that. And my number one witness for that conclusion................? Alex Salmond.

*I haven't addressed the suggestion of immediate Euro entry because it is almost certainly technically impossible but, even if it wasn't, Euro membership requires a target deficit of less than 3%. Scotland's deficit is currently 9.4%, so for that to be possible the spending cuts I refer to would just as certainly have had to have been detailed. Anybody who thinks that might be negotiable should ask the Greeks.

I also haven't mentioned "Sterlingisation" (using Sterling without permission) not just because it was always a farcical proposition but because having one's own currency (or the Euro) is an express requirement of EU membership.




Friday, 24 June 2016

San Giovanni Battista

Excepting days involving personal family loss, today has been the worst day of my entire life.

I just can't quite believe what has happened. I concluded my previous blog by observing that I didn't want to go back to 1971. It appears that a majority of my fellow citizens thought differently.

I've lived long enough to remember the 1975 Referendum,when the political centre rallied together against the fringe on either side to deliver a very different result. When this current process started, I kind of assumed that this time would in the end be the same, except that this time the pincer movement the Leavers might attempt would be so much weaker because in the interim its left wing had lost much of its power, never mind its inclination.

Even when it became apparent during the campaign that this optimism might be misplaced I retained a belief that, even if my own admitted European enthusiasm might not be likely to be widely endorsed, economic "common sense" would still carry the day, much as it had, as a last resort, in September 2014.

So, as the results came in I was seized not just with the disappointment that accompanies any normal electoral reverse but with a real sense of grief. My whole life ambition, reflected, with the occasional reverse, in my whole life experience was being called into doubt. Ambition and experience combined as it seemed towards greater tolerance and co-operation, across domestic society but also across the wider world. In a moment,a result declared from Sunderland, that had experienced an almost certainly permanent set back. The great European project would, at best, go forward without me and, at worst, disintegrate altogether as a result of a process to which I had been an, even unwilling, party. It was as if there had been a vote to reverse the Equal Pay Act, or repeal (what was originally) the Race Relations Act. It was as if s.28 had been reinstated or that we had voted in a referendum to close the Open University because working people should know to know their place.

It was, it is, terrible.

And of course with grief initially comes anger.

Anger at the voters. Angry at them being racist, although patently by no means all of the Leavers were. Angry at them being stupid, although patently by no means all of the Leavers were. Angry at them being selfish, although.....Angry at them being old and comfortable and choosing to deny opportunity to younger generations, although......Angry, yes, at them being English, although actually they were also Welsh and indeed here in Scotland there were almost 40% of them right here among us.

And also anger at the press, except that in the North of England, ultimate Leave heartland, Labour voters mainly read a regional press and/or the Daily Mirror, all of which were relentlessly Remain. Kevin Maguire, the Mirror's chief political correspondent,  is arguably Sunderland's most famous son. Nobody could have argued the Remain case consistently or better. Yet Sunderland voted 60% Leave.

So also anger at the ineptitude of others on my own side, particularly the utterly useless Jez and Kez, engaged not meaningfully against the enemy but in a private competition for the prize of most useless Party leader of any Party, in any Country, at anytime. In the entire history of the recorded world.  But angry also that, inept though Jez was, nobody really thought that, even with Liz Kendall as leader, Barnsley (Barnsley! Residual headquarters of the NUM) would have been transformed from a 70% Leave vote to a populus skipping to the polls singing the Ode to Joy? So anger also at the Labour Party for having lost touch with its own voters,

And anger also against events. The Syrian War that has led so many desperate souls to seek refuge, refuge anywhere, but hamstrung liberal opinion here on the hook of "We're sorry, we'd have you in but our voters won't". But also anger at a European commitment to free movement that anticipated lots of moving about among mutually attractive destinations rather than reaching a common sense conclusion, in certain late accessing countries, that the movement would inevitably be overwhelmingly only one way. And anger that pointing that out would be denounced as "Racist".

And, finally,  anger against a Scottish communality that allowed Nicola to seize the agenda in the aftermath, talking up grievance, as always, without even being asked, never mind answering, the basic questions: "Will you actually have a referendum rather than just a grievance?" "What currency would this hypothetical (substitute) 28th member use?" "What do you think Northern Ireland should do?" or "So, on your argument,  38% of Scottish voters are English racist scum?"

So the public me is angry. But the private me is also sad.

Today, the 24th of June, is the feast day of St. John the Baptist. It is regarded as Midsummers Day in Italy and is a major feast day there, "San Giovanni Battista".

Wee Mo and I always planned to retire to Italy and to one day celebrate the feast day in situ. Had Mo not become ill, we undoubtedly would have . And we would, in that earlier world, have congratulated ourselves that we didn't have to queue up once a quarter, as Mo did when she lived there in the seventies, for a "Permesso di Soggiorno". Or pay, as she had to do then, albeit only in the form of English lessons for his children, to see a local doctor. For we were all EU Citizens now.

And although Mo has gone now, mentally if not physically, Andi, my new companion*, Hungarian born but here twenty years past, long before she was automatically here as an EU citizen, still talks with alarm about the days she didn't have the automatic right to be in the UK. When she worried that, if her first marriage broke up, she might have to leave the country while leaving her children behind. Until at cost and trouble she obtained UK citizenship shortly before, until yesterday, that turned out to be apparently academic. For we we were all EU Citizens now.

And yet she is still told today by her workmates that they are sorry if the vote means that she will have to go "home".

We thought these days were past. Past for good and for well.

I hate. yes that is the word, hate what has happened today as the votes were counted. But I console myself  that there are many others of even mind. Labour people certainly but also Libs and Greens and above all decent Tories. If what has happened can yet be reversed, I'm up for any alliance. Even if it involves the death of my other great love, the Labour Party itself.

*So, what do you call a woman who you love desperately and would marry in an instant, except that you are still married to another woman, who you also love but is now at late stage Alzheimer's disease.  Even German complex nouns would struggle with that. 





Sunday, 19 June 2016

Voting against Now

Introduction

I wrote this blog in almost its entirety last Wednesday night intending to give it a final once over before publishing it on Thursday evening. Then, at about 1pm on Thursday, the world changed. I then swithered about publishing it at all, not just because of, initially, what would have been the inappropriateness of its timing but later because of some of its content. On reflection however I think it bears up in light of events. Those working class voters intending to vote Leave, with a few very, very small exceptions, are not closet racists. We serve neither our short term or long term interests by suggesting that they are. It doesn't however mean that they are right. But we, the Labour Party, by our past behaviour, should accept our responsibility for their misconception that they might be.

Voting against Now

Much has been written about the similarities between the two referendums although there is one big difference in that, this time, I believe there is a real possibility my side might lose, something I never feared at any point in September 2014. And not just because of the very different polls.

But there is still merit in considering the similarities between the two events.

The coalitions assembled by both Yes and Leave each have three elements.

Two of these were anticipated to be there in advance: firstly those who just don’t like foreigners/English people very much and secondly those who, genuinely not of that first view, have nonetheless a sincere belief that “the Country” (defined as required) would greatly benefit from an alternative constitutional arrangement.

At the start of each referendum the forces of the status quo identified these groups as essentially lost causes but remained confident that their combined ranks would never approach a majority.

But in each case "we" initially, and indeed until dangerously too late, failed to appreciate the third prong of our opponent’s fork. Those who would be voting against "Now”.

If you look at those areas of “the Country” which voted Yes and are looking like voting Leave, they share one thing in common. A legitimate feeling that while “elsewhere” prospers, their own location and indeed personal circumstances do not.

And that is, for the avoidance of doubt, a legitimate feeling. The affluence of the “white working class” is at best getting no better, following a period, starting after the war and continuing until perhaps thirty years ago, when a year to year improvement in circumstance, marginal but noticeable, was expected as the natural order of things. Just as, with the benefit of hindsight, that improvement happened marginally but noticeably, it equally ceased to happen marginally. But it is certainly noticeable now. And to compound the resentment of that experience, the relative affluence of others in our society has, over that same thirty year period, visibly improved; whether catching up from behind in relation to the general circumstance of ethnic minorities and “immigrants” or pulling further away in front in relation to a distant metropolitan elite.

And overwhelmingly, those standing still, or sometimes worse, are people who used to “produce” things. All sorts of things from coal brought to the surface to iron turned into steel; from tiny buttons to ocean going ships and things of all sorts and sizes in between. Different things in different places but with a common culture. Industrial work that often depended on brawn rather than brain but which nonetheless, for the long post war boom, had more or less guaranteed availability. Work which brought with it honest reward that fuelled a local service economy: shops, cinemas, social clubs, that was visibly there not as an end in itself but rather as support to allow the primary “producing” purpose of the place to function.

In many, many places this world has gone. It hasn’t changed or modernised. It has just disappeared. The same things are (generally) stillproduced, obviously, but they are not produced here. They are produced in India or China or wherever. Produced by different producers, working in harsher conditions and crucially at a much lesser level of personal reward.

And what’s left, too often, is little more than the service economy that once enjoyed only a support role. As Shirley Williams famously described it, an economy based on people selling hamburgers to each other.

Now, of course, that’s not the whole economy of the country. We have a vast knowledge economy that has largely replaced in our GDP what the producing of real, visible things once provided. But that knowledge economy is not open to all, only to those intellectually equal to it. Often, even then, not open in the place where its participants themselves were born. Indeed not just the place where they were born but the place where their parents, and their grandparents and their great- great grandparents had been born. Where, ideally they would have liked their own children to be born.

So local communities lose their brightest and best while those left behind curse the circumstance that prevents them from doing precisely that themselves. For as local people leave, "others" arrive to fill the vacuum. In many cases of necessity, for every community needs young people to renew itself at all. But, for the avoidance of doubt, it is not necessary to buy into the patent fiction that these incomers have driven out the established population to nonetheless regret that they have replaced them at all.

And that all leads, in the minds of those "local people" left behind, to one conclusion. That there is something the matter with Now. 

With both referendums that has posed a particular problem for my Party. At general elections for almost the whole of my life Labour has had two distinctive messages to the two parts of our own electoral coalition. To "traditional" Labour voters we have been against Now. Now has been portrayed as the sole creation of the "evil Tories", who closed their factories, shut their pits and devalued the worth of honest labour.

There was no more bizarre example of this as when Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership campaign, if only briefly, suggested to a South Wales audience, that a Government led by him might re-open the coalfields! Why? A return to pneumoconiosis, industrial deafness, percussion white finger? Early death for those who survived the a lifetime of such working conditions and sudden death before that for random others? A life without daylight whose workforce had but a single ambition for their families, that they would not need to follow them down the pit? But was Jeremy decried for this suggestion? No, he was cheered to the echo. Because it was what his audience wanted to hear. For closing the pits was regarded by them as the greatest crime ever of the "evil Tories", conveniently forgetting that Tony Benn had closed more pits than Margaret Thatcher ever did. Not because he was "evil Tony" but rather because it was an industry close to the end of its natural life, not least because of the human cost it involved. It is one thing to criticise how it was done, a criticism I readily share, it is another to maintain that what was done was ultimately anything other than inevitable.

That's not (for once) a criticism by me of the Party leader but rather a caution against nostalgia clouding recollection, as much on the left as by those proudly owning up to being Conservatives.

For to the other part of the Labour coalition we condemn these self same "evil Tories", these self same Conservatives, as not being to blame for Now but rather for being not Now enough. Insufficiently modern. Unwilling to accept ethnic diversity; sexual diversity; meritocracy. Not willing to confront demographic necessity. The Tories are not, as we say to that first group of supporters, responsible for the state of the modern world but instead, we say to this second group, they are insufficiently welcoming of it!

Now, in microcosm, this costs us no more than the winning of general elections, for that part of the electorate not tribally attached to either big Party see through our contradictions. But by nonetheless keeping on board those who,for diametrically opposed reasons, would "never vote Tory" we survive these conventional contests as a substantial minority, albeit, if that's all we've got, an inevitable minority nonetheless. While the "evil Tories" work, in their evil way, to constantly reduce the numbers of those who would "never" vote for them.

But, anyway,  referendums sweep all that, "normal" election calculation away. While Labour's own internal dichotomies are inevitably exposed. As they were in Scotland and as they might be in England over the next week. Those who are against Now and those who believe we are not Now enough simply cannot possibly be corralled together in such a context. Put bluntly, with the best will in the world, the "Refugees welcome" section of our support cannot possibly be reconciled with the "Local houses for local people" element. And in attempting to do so we only end up alienating both. Particularly when, as has inevitably proved the case in both referendums, our opponents are free to portray themselves as all things to all men because, being in the field only for one single purpose, they have no track history to defend and can happily disown elements of their own side that does not suit what "they" believe "they" are voting for. Not least the barely disguised fascist element that undoubtedly exists on the fringes, at the very least, of both the Yes and Leave "movements".

So from the perspective of somebody who has been all their life a Labour tribalist, things look pretty bleak. But perhaps, just perhaps, from the point of view of somebody who believes in the cause of progress, there might nonetheless be a glimmer of light.

For I'm for Now. Now isn't just ignoring racial difference but positively embracing it. Now involves my nephew being more likely to marry a man from Berlin than a woman from Bellshill (or a woman from anywhere to be honest). Now is an improved concern for the environmental consequences of all our behaviour. Now is more kids going to university than ever before, even in Scotland. Now is life expectancy being, with every year of my own life, ever longer for those around me and Now also means far greater dignity, financial or otherwise, in old age. Now is the treatment of those with disabilities, even under the evil Tories, being better than at any time in history. Now is better food, eating out or eating in. Now is more diverse cultural experience on the stage or in the street: Now is ever cheaper and easier holidays. Mundanely, Monday to Sunday, Now is an ever greater diversity of choice on the telly. Actually, Now is an ever greater diversity of choice in just about every aspect of life.

So......

"Joy was it in that morn to be alive but to be young was very heaven!"

Certainly, let us concede that there is much wrong with the availability to everyone of Now but let's stop pretending that there will ever be a majority for going back to Then. Let's instead work to spread the benefits of Now more comprehensively. As socialists, to strive for that by the traditional means, in opposition, of organisation and, in power, of legislation. To work to ensure that Now leaves nobody drowning in its wake, not by throwing some existing passengers overboard but instead by ensuring through dignity, security and due reward of labour, of whatever sort, that there is room on board for every willing passenger. Even if that does mean smaller first class cabins to provide more comfortable accommodation in steerage.

The great socialist writer, R.H. Tawney famously wrote that for the left, if there is to be a golden age, it will always lie not in the past but in the future. Let us embrace that sentiment.

I don't want next Thursday to go back to 1971, even if that was possible. Any more than, eighteen months back, I wanted to go back to 1707.

And, in the end you know, excepting a very very few, nobody else really does either. So let's work for that to be reflected in the result on 23rd June 2016 as decisively as it ultimately was on 18th September 2014.