The History Trap
How has it come to this? How can it possibly be that Scotland’s voters are so impervious to reason? Have they all just gone mental, as Iain Martin suggests? Are they just being emotional as the Insights Director at the polling organisation TNS would have it? What has gotten into them? Why was Labour’s participation in Better Together, which from their point of view was a pragmatic and principled defence of the structures of compromise and compensation Labour had historically negotiated on our behalf, so toxic? Are the Scottish electorate falling victim to some sinister mind control? Has Alec Salmond got a machine underneath Edinburgh castle that sends out idiot waves to the gullible, kilted inhabitants via the aerial implanted in the Sturgeonator robot?
The answer to these questions, as I see it, lies in the fact that these are the wrong questions. This is because they are questions about Scotland. What is happening in this election, just like what happened during the referendum campaign, is a question about Britishness. What was it? What is it? What went wrong with it? Can anyone fix it?
1. Scottishness hasn’t really happened yet.
Scottish identity, despite what everyone in the British Establishment North and South seems to think, is not an issue in this election any more than it really was in the referendum campaign, except on the very fringes of the Yes movement. Questions about what we want Scotland to be remain vague and unanswered and unasked by the electorate not because the electorate is mental, stupid or misled, but because the electorate are asking other questions. They are interrogating the idea of Britain as represented by the Labour party as the nice face and the Tories as the nasty face. And they are saying to themselves…hey…it’s the same face…This is possibly, even definitely unfair. But hey, history is like that. It’s an unforgiving old bastard at the best of times. And, for Britain, these are not the best of times.
In sum, though, it is the idea of Britain that is being found to be vacuous and it is the SNP who, in Scotland, are filling the gap. And you can call them liars and opportunists and mountebanks, and you may be right. But the essential fact is the vacuum. You ask any physicist.
There is something fundamentally wrong with Britain then that the Scottish electorate have noticed. And they don’t believe anymore that a unitary Labour government of the whole UK can fix it. All the rest is incidental. Jim Murphy and Nicola Sturgeon are accidents of personality. The history is what essential. History has made the Trap that is likely, if the polls are right, to squeeze the Scottish Labour party to death next week.
2. The Great Money River
It’s not that voters in the rest of the UK haven’t noticed what has been happening since 1945. It’s not that no one in South Wales or Newcastle or Bolton or Tower Hamlets and Southwark and Newham can’t see exactly how things work. To borrow a metaphor, as is my wont, from the late and great Kurt Vonnegut, everyone in these islands knows that somewhere through the centre of the ruins runs the Great Money River. Now this river is not exactly geographically located and is directly accessible only if you know the code to the room where they keep the buckets. But we all know where in the building the bucket room is. We all know who keeps the keys.
There is no blame to be attached to anyone for the architecture. It’s quite an old building, even if some of the most ancient and venerable institutional offices turn out to be mock gothic. Over the years, in order to keep everything the same, everything has had to change. Empires have come and gone, markets have been opened and shut and sovereignties renegotiated from time to time. Always adapting reluctantly to changes in the weather, but muddling through in the end, the river has been kept flowing. The necessary arrangements for its flow that were carved bloodily out of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and then the world, have become so natural, so obvious, so elemental as to unquestionable. To think that nature might be different is deranged.
Power is where power is. Things are what they are. The centre is the centre. To extend the “river” metaphor, complicated systems of pulleys, canals, locks and viaducts have been constructed to spread the water around. But to question the location of the river itself is unthinkable. In constitutional terms , no matter how ramshackle, illogical and jerry built, the structures that feed allocations of money and power to the British periphery must be maintained, but to divert the river itself? To permit the digging of a new, potentially rival river system ELSEWHERE? Are you insane?
3. The Project and The Trap
So, to focus again on the leading character in our wee drama, the Labour Party, in order to defend the National structures they have attempted to put in place, the civic structures, the redistributive structures, have had to become defenders not just of those things that compensate for “the way things are” but of “the way things are” in themselves.
When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown pragmatically embraced the structures of power in the 1990s, becoming relaxed about commercial borrowing for public projects, for example, and relying on the tax receipts from an unregulated financial market in the City of London they were only being pragmatic. The rich were flattered into allowing Labour to carry their very own buckets down to the river, and they poured away happily, and relegated questions about the actual sources of wealth and the ownership rights of the river and the bucket room to their juvenile past.
Their problems really started because they couldn’t quite tell anyone what they were up to. They were slightly shame faced about it. But as long as the river kept on flowing and they kept being handed buckets, everything was fine. It didn’t matter that they had accepted the de-industrialisation of the Thatcher era. It didn’t matter that they had accepted that the only part of the economy that mattered was located in one super-heated corner of it whose interests must be served if anywhere else was going to get a chance at the table scraps. It didn’t matter that Trade Unions remained underfoot, that generations of under-employment were allowed to regulate the labour market, that the welfare state and the health service teetered on the edge of privatisation or collapse. Just as long as the rich didn’t take their borrowed buckets back. Devolution and regional po,icy would keep things going provided only the taps didn’t get turned off.
Which is exactly what happened in 2008. And the ramshackle public structures of compensation for the “way things are” became unsustainable. Or at least that’s what the Tories argued. And not only did the Tories win (sort of) the election in 2010 on that basis, but the Labour party accepted the narrative, accepted the blame, accepted the logic, as a precondition for contesting the election that is happening right now.
And no doubt, in this election campaign, Hereford and Hampshire, and possibly even Hartlepool, they are doing the right thing. Not in Hamilton they’re not.
4. The British National Moment/ The Scottish National Moment
In the democratic era, the way that God or nature have arranged matters for the benefit of the river guardians has had to renegotiate itself in a democratic fashion. That is, “nationalistically” in the appalling, modern, French sense of the word. 1945 was the popular democratic British national moment, to this way of thinking, and it remains the foundation of everything the Labour party defines itself as standing for. Labour people in Hereford and Hamilton will bridle at the idea that their party of the unions and the cooperatives was in any way a nationalist phenomenon, but I beg them to think outside of their accustomed box for a moment.
Modern Britishness is a contested territory. But Britain has been the question in every election. As Billy Bragg once put it : “Theirs is a land of Hope and Glory; Mine is the green field and the factory floor” In this interpretation, which is inevitable, I think, through the prism of a pre-existing and conscious “national” identity as British and Scottish, every UK election has been about the National question. And the National question has always been : What kind of Britain should it be?
The Tories and Labour have always been and remain then, British National Parties. This is not to say they are the same. They contest the territory. But they believe in the same “Britain” and it is Britain that is in crisis. The question is whether britain will recognise the crisis in time to offer a British solution. And whether this election will provide the shock that will force Britain to do that.
If voters in Scotland are voting for anything in this UK election (as well as against an idea of Britain that has run out of steam, conviction and invention) they are voting for the shock that most of us now agree the system needs. There is no reason to be coherent yet about what the future of either a properly federal Britain or a fully independent Scotland look like (these being the only even medium term alternatives). The issue for today is to kick Britain awake. To say : a No vote hasn’t made all this go away, you silly sods.
Oh and by the way, you guys in the political parties and the papers and the BBC all getting together to agree with each other that we were a bit crap hasn’t gone down all that well.
You have to say the precedents aren’t promising. It is astonishing both how swiftly we became politically invisible again the moment we ceased to be a “problem” last year, and how irritated and petty the response has been to our perversely not having followed through on our “generation long promise” to shut up and go away.
I would contend now that what this election means is that the referendum was not an endorsement of the Union so much as it was a narrow decision to give it one last chance. And that when David Cameron came out on the morning of September 19th to say it was England’s turn now that all that unpleasantness was over with, and when Ed Miliband said, in effect, the other night that he rather preferred to idea of letting Cameron back into Downing Street than talk to Scottish people who haven’t been hand picked by the Labour Party, you can’t really blame us for not feeling the love.
But we did vote to give “Britain” one last chance to reinvent itself. Sending all those SNP MPs does not contradict that decision as the Daily Mail inter alia indignantly alleges. It is a condition of remaining in the UK that we represent ourselves within it differently. Britain has been reinvented by wars, an Empire and a Welfare State. What is happening in Scotland means that it needs to do it again. It’s just that we insist on taking part in that reinvention this time, as ourselves, rather than as mendicants with a nationalist begging bowl.
What happened last year is that the Better Together campaign succeeded in making the identity of “Britain”, “the Establishment” and “the Labour Party” unequivocal in Scotland. Even with a No vote, however, paradoxically, against expectation, it equally unequivocally established that the sovereign power of decision as to what happens in Scotland was now and forever to be a matter for decision in Scotland.
We voted No. But we voted. That turned out to be more important than the result. Because we had been told by the united chorus of the United Kingdom that if we had darted to vote Yes, all these for now benevolent creatures would turn on us like wolverines in a sack. We got the message. That’s why we’re sending the SNP to Westminster. For self-defense.
Still, one thing at a time. Next week, when the votes are counted, will come another defining and possibly final British National Moment. Whether and how it is followed, five or ten years from now, by a Scottish National Moment, is a question for all of us. Voting SNP is just our way of letting our brothers and sisters know that.