Too late…too late

Some interesting stuff emerging from Unionist friends now we’re in the final year. Henry McLeish in the Scotsman provides a similar but more elegant critique than my own of Labour and how they should take control of the entire Union agenda and run it as a Scottish-made vision for a new country. He thinks there’s still time. I disagree. They are committed to working with the most right-wing British government in memory in Better Together and are now suffering from the lack of ability and ambition in the once-talented party whose leader Johann Lamont simply doesn’t possess the aspiration gene.

Henry is demanding more than Labour being buried inside a Tory-led Don’t Change movement. He says: Labour still has a unique opportunity to embrace change, transform the debate on Scotland’s future within the Union, and serve up a more positive vision. This window of opportunity has to be seized now. The No campaign must learn lessons from the Scottish Government’s white paper.

First, a consensus has to be built around a positive case for Scotland’s role within a modern and transformed Union: there was a consensus in 1997 when Scotland voted for a parliament, but today the nation is divided, with both campaigns making this worse. We need a cohesive, nation-building campaign.

And that last point contains a hidden truth. There is a disturbingly high proportion of SNP voters who don’t want independence and if a credible and truly aspirational model of change within a reformed Union could be devised, some of them could be peeled away to vote against Yes. I maintain there are significant constituencies in both Yes and No who are closer to agreement than might appear. A workable compromise based on additional powers and removing Westminster’s crushing grip from so many areas of our life would satisfy many in the short to medium term.

Or rather, it would have. Because the time for that approach was before the referendum was cast not after. As Henry himself argues, a vague, half-hearted offer is no used at this stage but that’s all that is likely to be forthcoming as the campaign convinces itself the polls spell doom for Salmond.

Labour needs to articulate an alternative to independence and be serious about our commitment to building up our parliament in the context of a different Union, which is modern, looser, flexible, federal and recognises the wish of Scots for the best of all worlds, stopping well short of independence.

But how likely is that given Labour’s reluctant, establishment, mediocre mindset? Who in the Labour leadership thinks that way? Johann? Paul Martin? James Kelly? Henry is searching for a Labour that no longer exists, that is denuded of insight and vision, lacking the self confidence to engage with opponents openly and seems incapable of coming up with ideas. The focus is on resistance, not engagement.

In 2008 when the SNP had invited Henry to lead a commission for them – into prisons, I think – I was approached in the BBC canteen by an adviser…a spin doctor…for a very senior Scottish politician then in the British Cabinet. “McLeish is mad, you know. Quite bonkers”, I was told. My reply was: “Well, he’s better than anything else you’ve got in Scotland and he’s showing how politics can be done.”

I think that today. McLeish would head my list of advisers on constitutional affairs, were I Labour leader, because he has cross-party appeal and a political intelligence the current party can’t buy. He could reach across the perimeter fence erected by a hateful and aggressive Labour and would produce the kind of plans to appeal to a wider Scotland. But he would definitely not appeal to the people who detest him most – Labour MPs. And it’s because of those same MPs that Johann can’t come up with anything too radical to give Edinburgh more powers or because they are too important to the party machine and are deeply resentful of Holyrood, MSPs and the so-called Scottish leader. All this makes March doubly important. If Labour can produce something monumental to transform Holyrood and get a cast iron guarantee from Miliband to implement, they are on to something…it’s what Henry is saying. If they fail, the game is up for all those hopeful reformers who’ve had it with Westminster politics. In that event, I will look for Henry and others to declare for Yes before September. After all, there is nothing anti-Labour about voting for independence. On the contrary, it might be the only way a principled Labour can survive and serve the Scots.

One of my other favourite politicos is Ming Campbell who said it was his “patriotism that drives my opposition to independence”. I don’t think there’s another country in the world where that statement would make sense – if you think it does.

He goes on: “With independence, we will diminish ourselves and Scotland.” Here, I just can’t grasp the meaning. By taking control of our own affair like every other country, we will be smaller in some way, less significant…I think he means that without the embracing presence of the UK we will be alone and inadequate, or at least less adequate, even if we rewrite the rules and forge a better relationship with England.

I know what he means and he’s entirely typical of Unionist Scotland. “I’m proud of being a Brit,” he says and right there he (inadvertently) joins me in Generation X by declaring in effect that while he remains as Scottish as he chooses, he is fundamentally a British nationalist. He supports Scotland at Murrayfield, England at the Oval and Europe in the Ryder Cup. Me too. But I don’t think that makes me British or my country the UK. Those are sporting choices of allegiance not statements of national identity…that involves the essential impulse of desiring self-government as a form of national expression. I could be Slovakian and support the English cricket team because my country doesn’t have one. That doesn’t make me British. But if I wanted Slovakia to become a region of Germany as a larger neighbouring country and giving it control over all my national affairs, I would remain Slovakian but I would be surrendering my citizenship and becoming German, adopting the identity of the dominant nation state to which I belonged. Surely, that is the route by which I diminish my native country, be it Slovakia or Scotland.

Anyway, Ming goes on to make a compelling case for British federalism for which I have much sympathy but, again, like Henry, he is surely too late. Such options should have been put to the people in the ballot, it is the democratic way, instead of warning the voters: Give me what I want first and then I’ll try and deliver something for you.

And, to be honest, if the British parties had been steadily moving in this direction of giving real powers to the nations and regions of the UK while loosening the hand of Westminster and devising fair voting and a fully elected parliament, some of the Scottish case for change now would have been ameliorated. But it wasn’t. They failed to read the signs and may yet pay the cost.

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