The Three Tasks
You may not like the result. You might be scared of what may come next. But on the other hand, can’t you feel a bit of the ‘thrill of possibility’? Can you imagine where we’d be if Remain had won, Cameron and Osborne were endorsed, Scottish independence was back in the filing cabinet and our collective agency was back to collecting signatures for anti-TTIP petitions.
And isn’t there something energising about having real, achievable tasks to hand? Yes, I’m as worried as many of you about where things go next. But then, at least we’re not dealing with a slap in the face for the angry dispossessed, an act which really could have sown the seeds of future conflict and fear.
I was really not going to write anything today until Mike asked me. It’s all questions, no answers right now. I’d have liked to see things settle down a bit. But there are three big tasks ahead and I suppose now’s the time to start thinking about them.
The three tasks are to get ready for an independence referendum, to explore what this all means for the domestic agenda and to fight the fight along with fellow travellers across the UK to do what we can to make Britain a better place – for as long as we are part of it and beyond that as a good, positive neighbour.
So first to independence. I’m a little unsettled by the speed with which we’re committing ourselves to a timescale here. Today is a mad day. Senior figures from the British establishment and arch unionists may be talking about reevaluating their opposition to Scottish independence. But don’t kid yourself on that that’s the new normal. Things will settle back down and the fight against Scottish independence will become as focussed as before – if not more so.
We’ve not even seen a single opinion poll post-Brexit vote and have no idea exactly what impact it will have on short-term attitudes. It’s never clear what will settle down to be the long term ‘settled will’. There is a real chance of hard times ahead with financial markets punishing Britain and there could be a recession. That can play different ways for Scottish independence.
I don’t for a second believe that Boris et al will willingly give us a second referendum. If Britain’s economic position gets shaky, making it worse by letting Scotland escape will become increasingly unattractive to the City of London. The EU may be scunnered with Britain. I’ve already spoken to people who thinks this means they’ll allow Scotland to join to undermine the UK as a kind of revenge. But the Catalan/Basque position hasn’t changed. I’m pretty sure Spain will still not countenance a situation where Scotland is allowed to gain EU membership without joining the queue. I’m not sure how keen they would be even to hint that membership is possible after reapplying from outside. I suspect the chances of getting a firm position on this are slim.
By next week we’ll have started to hear the anti-independence lines as they are prepared by our opponents. As this settles down, I expect a backlash of some sort. We should not kid ourselves on that this is going to be easy.
And another thing we should absolutely not kid ourselves on about is that we’re ready. We’re not. Again, I’ve had contact with people today who think that last night’s events mean that we no longer have to worry about all the things we were worrying about before – fiscal deficit, currency doubt and so on. Getting that idea in our head would be suicidal. This has opened up a host of weaknesses on the ‘Better Together’ side (indeed, today their fortress looks pretty much like a ruin). But that does not mean that our weaknesses have disappeared.
Let me outline one question – what currency now? It seems economically inconceivable that we could use Sterling if Scotland is to be in the EU and England is to be out. Our economies would inevitably be moving in different directions. It’s not even clear to me that we’d be allowed to use a currency which was controlled from outside the EU. Are we ready to jump for the Euro? Do we have even a fraction of the work done to set up a Scottish currency? ‘Britain will allow us a Sterling Union’ isn’t very persuasive today. That the EU would accept that as a basis for EU entry looks even more doubtful. There is much to do.
And if there is a recession, anything that makes Scotland’s finances look risky becomes an enhanced risk. Diving into another referendum without resolving these issues might work OK. We might get away with it. We might not.
I don’t want to pour cold water on this moment – now is the time to get us to a second referendum. But today’s flush of excitement must be followed by a much more sober assessment not only of how to get a referendum but how to win one convincingly. As you probably know, I’ve got a book out on the subject. I still think the key is hard work and not good luck.
All that said – I now really do believe we’ll be independent in the next five years. I have a couple of good friends in their 90s who want this fast because they want to see a Yes vote in their lifetimes. I love them very much and wish it for them too – but for the rest of us, we need to be a little patient. Just a year or two of better preparation might make all the difference. There’s no third chance.
So I think I can reveal (without breaking any confidences) that there is a renewed push on today to get a cross-party forum to discuss these issues together. The SNP has bounced this issue forward substantially today. I’d urge them to start bringing everyone else along with them. Now is not the time for closing in and shutting out. None of us – none of us – will win this alone.
I was standing in Lidl buying someone a bouquet of flowers when someone phoned me and told me about Nicola’s announcement. My immediate reaction was ‘OK, deep breath – that’s another two years without sleep ahead…’. It’s exciting. Of course it is. Let’s get this won. But let’s not get carried away. There are many obstacles ahead and we can’t wish ourselves over them. Always fight like you’re behind. And remind yourself that, until we see some new polls, some new data that suggests otherwise, we still are behind.
Then task two. The Common Weal Board met at the beginning of June. We picked as one of of three policy and campaigning priorities developing and winning the case for a Scottish National Investment Bank. We think this more than anything else could transform Scotland in the immediate future. So Ben Wray (our head of policy) and I immediately arranged a meeting with the New Economics Foundation who are our partners in this work. We talked over all the issues of which there are many. We had solutions to all of them except one – would the EU try to prevent it on the basis of state aid rules?
To explain, the EU position on banking is (don’t laugh) that nation states should absolutely not be allowed to do anything which might challenge the market position of the big, private banks. You can bail out those banks with as much public money as you want, but you can’t necessarily put the same public money into setting up a public bank. That would interfere with private profit. We had a long chat about how to get round this – and if it was possible.
Well, today this isn’t a problem. Again, I know many of you didn’t want to be out of the EU. I have very big concerns myself (my partner lives in Britain on an EU passport and she’s definitely a bit scared). But by compensation, just say the following to yourself a few times – ‘no more compulsory competitive tendering’. Want to run a wholly public ferry service to the Scottish islands? No problem. Want to nationalise the rail network? Nothing stopping you. Want to get public procurement rules in place so that small businesses get a fair crack of the whip? Well Scottish public procurement professionals, no EU rules to hide behind now as gargantuan contracts are handed straight to powerful multinationals.
What was possible yesterday and what is possible today are substantially different. Yes, there may be some serious fights ahead on issues such as human rights and immigration – but don’t miss the opportunities as well. If Scotland wants to be bold, it has just been given a whole set of new tools.
And as well as that, we should be thinking immediately about which powers we want repatriated from Europe to Holyrood and not to Westminster. Certainly we should be making a stance on aspects of immigration, probably some of the economic regulation, certainly agriculture and fishing. I’ll admit that I’ve not really spent any time yet thinking all of this through – but we really should get on with that task immediately.
And finally, Britain. I have been pretty explicit about my mixed feelings on almost every aspect of this campaign. There is a liberal-left elite south of the border who are really, genuinely scared. There are a lot of Brexit voters in the north of England who are in no way the ‘little England’ racists and xenophobes they’re painted to be. The Tories are splintered (though thanks to Blairites, so is the Labour Party). This is as propitious a moment as there has been to see a real realignment of politics across the UK.
Now some of you might think ‘who cares – we’re on our way out’. Well, I care – and care quite deeply. I don’t want this to be a false dawn for the English working classes. In a few weeks time I’m going down to London for a big weekend meeting of some of the leading figures across the British left. The aim is to try and come up with some kind of plan, a strategy for reclaiming Britain for its citizens and not for its banks. There is not a jot of contradiction in both supporting Scottish independence and also wanting to do anything we can to help make a better Britain (or indeed England).
Crowing or sneering is not the way forward. England – working class, dispossessed, angry England – needs help and support to find its way forward from here. Mostly it is going to have to answer its many questions on its own. But we can still play a positive part from Scotland, helping from our experience to show how change can become a positive experience, not a negative one. I remain committed to dedicating any of my time I can to help make English and UK politics as positive as possible in this moment of utter confusion – for everyone.
Things will look different tomorrow. They will look different again next week. Indeed, things are going to keep looking different for quite a while to come. Scotland needs to be clever, prepared, patient and decisive. And, as per my book title, determined.
We’ve been handed an incredible opportunity here (along with many risks). Let’s get it right this time.