Winning the argument for continuing Union

14055 ~ 7504 ~ John Curtice ~ John Curtice John Curtice, 13855 ~ 7501 ~ Guy Lodge ~ Guy Lodge Guy Lodge, ~ 7525 ~ Winning the argument for continuing Union ~ Margaret Curran Margaret Curran, ~ 7526 ~ Winning the argument for continuing Union ~ Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander
Published Mon 15 Oct 2012
>At the recent Labour party conference, Juncture
Juncture: Online only

Douglas Alexander: I am not in the least bit complacent about the coming referendum,but if you take the broader sweep of polling support for independence has been running somewhere close to 30-35 per cent for many decades in Scotland, and I would argue that it has never been the mainstream choice of Scotland.

Notwithstanding the undoubted electoral success of Alex Salmond in May 2011, the numbers in favour of independence have not significantly shifted. And now we've established the 'better together' campaign, the striking feature is the continuity not the discontinuity of the numbers. Many people in Scotland made up their minds on this issue long ago because constitutional politics has been a defining issue of Scottish politics for 40 years.

In this context, Alex Salmond realised that there has been a broad consensus against independence for many years in Scotland, and therefore advocated for a second question. Was that a generous, pluralist instinct, saying 'notwithstanding my support for independence, I think it's for the Scottish people to decide'? I have my suspicions. I think it is more credible to say he wanted a get-out-of-jail-free card. He wanted to be able to still claim that while somehow the Scottish people were suffering from a kind of false consciousness (in not voting for independence), the onward march to independence continued and his legitimacy as first minister was in no way imperilled. And in that sense, one of the stories that's not yet been fully written of the Scottish parliament, is the extent to which Alex Salmond has failed to build a consensus in favour of a second question - both in civil society and more broadly across Scottish politicians.

Ironically, if Alex Salmond had been doing better on the issue of independence, it would have been a more credible for him to say 'actually, notwithstanding the fact that I think we would win a one-question referendum, I think it is right to give Scotland a two-question referendum'. His advocacy, up until relatively recently, of a two-question referendum, has I think been judged by many Scots to be a sign of his desperation and his weakness, not a sign of his generosity and his strength.

What then is the right position for Scottish Labour contesting elections? I would argue that Labour has always been at its strongest over the decades in Scotland when we have offered a credible story of social, economic, and political renewal. Alex Salmond gets up every day trying to convince the Scottish people that if you're a Scottish patriot you have to be a Scottish nationalist. One of the reasons we were able to rebut that very effectively for decades was because we told an alternative story about Scotland's future, and said, 'as well as offering socioeconomic renewal, we offer democratic renewal of the Scottish parliament'.

Looking ahead to the referendum, I do believe that we can, and will, prevail in an argument which combines emotion and evidence. I believe that there are strong, rational reasons why Scotland's interest is best served within the United Kingdom, but this is not going to be simply an evidence-based exchange. It's a question that's about who we are and what we believe, and it demands a different quality of debate. Part of that debate for Scottish Labour has to be a story about possibility for Scotland's future. One of the reasons that Alex Salmond was successful against us in 2007 and 2011 was that he sought to co-opt the sense of possibility about the future, after the decade of growth, and channel that optimism into support for a separate state. Now, I don't think he will succeed, but I hope and believe that the referendum campaign can anticipate a different conversation about Scotland's future.

The SNP has prevailed against Labour in recent years in Scotland partly because it worked very hard to establish an electoral dynamic in Scotland, in which Scotland was defined against the rest of the United Kingdom. My hopes for devolution when I marched on Calton Hill, stood with wet feet in the meadows, stood in George Square urging and demanding a Scottish parliament, was that we could liberate ourselves from that sense of grievance politics, and accept the responsibility for charting a better and different course for Scotland.

It suits the SNP to stay on a grievance dynamic between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. They know they have a much more difficult furrow to plough if we see a return to a left-right politics in which they have to accept responsibility for the distributional consequences of their policies. Fifteen months since a historic defeat for Scottish Labour, I feel a sense of optimism in terms of the fundamental constitutional choice, but I also feel a sense of optimism and possibility about the separate but related renewal of Scottish Labour's offer to tell that better story to the Scottish people.

Margaret Curran: Everybody seems to think that our motives in Labour are driven by the fact that we're terrified about how we form the next government at the British level. But it's much more profound, because how we define ourselves in relation to each other goes to the core of our values. For those of us who do actually want to be part of Britain, it's not just so as to form a Labour government at Westminster, important though that is - it is because we think it's vital to the future of Scotland. It helps take forward Labour values and a positive agenda for Scotland as well as Britain.

What this acknowledges is that Scotland has changed significantly in the past 20 years, and although Scottish Labour is a wee bit ahead of the game in recognising this, we need to talk to friends down south, because I think that people like Douglas and myself came to terms with being patriots much earlier than perhaps some other people. This new kind of patriotism has been around in Scotland for a long time, and I think the Olympics showed this summer that actually new patriotism is alive and well across Britain. It's something we can see as a force for good, and not something that the left should back away from - as we have traditionally. It is that sense of 'how do we weave in identity politics into the kind of progressive politics that we want to develop as well?' that we've been working hard in Scotland to develop.

If you asked me what my nationality is I'll say Scottish. Yes I'm British too, but I'm definitely Scottish first. And I suspect Douglas might say that as well. We're very comfortable with our position - it's not something that we feel at all defensive about. But the prize for progressive politics - and it's waiting there to be seized - is to capture that strong sense of identity. Labour needs to show that we'll stand up for Scots, that we'll fight for Scottish interests, but also we also have an agenda for a progressive Britain.

Alex Salmond wants us Scots to think that the people we're separating away from are David Cameron and George Osborne; but actually, we'll separate from the people in Liverpool, and the people in Cardiff, and the people in Newcastle too - and I don't think Scots are comfortable with that. I think they actually have a strong identity with people from those cities. I think there is a real agenda for us to develop there.

My final point would be that we also need to have a debate about how Britain itself is changing. And it should not just be a debate about what extra powers should come to Scotland. We should also be debating about how power is spread across Britain and how we change England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well. And I think maybe for once, we could just relax about some of this debate, and say 'this is exciting' - we don't need to be defensive, we don't need to be nervous about this'

John Curtice: I want to touch on four things.

The first thing is to affirm what Douglas has said: very little has happened either in the long- or short-term. If you take all of the opinion polls which were asked between May and December of 2011 you basically find that you've got a 59 per cent 'no' vote and a 41 per cent 'yes' vote. And if you take the polls that have been done since the summer, you get a 62 per cent 'no' vote and a 38 per cent 'yes' vote. So opinion has, if anything, moved very slightly against the nationalists. But we have to realise that although 3:2 is a healthy majority, it's not such a large majority that those who are pro-union don't need to fight an effective campaign, even if many people have made their minds up.

Second, what's the campaign going to be about? Well, I agree with Douglas that this is as much about emotion as about rationality - but it's also clear to me that it isn't just about emotion. The truth is that those people who support independence are for the most part those people who feel intensely Scottish and deny that they are British. But even among that group actually only 50 per cent are in favour of independence. So while a very strong sense of identity may be a necessary condition for being in favour of independence, it's not a sufficient condition. What also is required is a conviction about the economic merits of independence. If you start doing a statistical analysis, the thing that you immediately discover is most strongly related to whether people are for or against independence is not national identity, but whether you think Scotland would be better or worse off. At the moment the debate here has not been won or lost by either side. Essentially, if you ask people 'what do you think would happen to the Scottish economy if Scotland did become independent?', about a third think it would be better off, a third think it would be worse off, and there's a third left in the middle. So if those numbers could move - and they are capable of being moved, in a way that is not true of the identity issue - then opinion might switch. So to that extent at least, the pro-union side will need to win the intellectual as well as emotional argument, or at least convey to the public that they have the stronger economic argument.

That said, the other thing that is undoubtedly true is that given that the average person in Scotland feels more Scottish than British, it is no good fighting a referendum campaign on the basis that this is better for Britain as a whole. The argument does have to be framed in terms of 'this is what is going to be better for Scotland', including 'these are the ways in which, within the Union, Scotland's distinct sense of identity will be promoted and maintained.'

Devo-max is about more powers. Whatever Alex Salmond's motives, I think there is no doubt from all the polling evidence that the national conversation did spot something. And what the SNP got out of it is that although most people in Scotland don't want independence, if you ask people about any aspect of domestic policy in Scotland, whether it's taxation and welfare, which are reserved, or even health and education, which aren't, you get majority support for decisions being made in Holyrood, and to that extent the default reaction of the Scottish public is for home rule that is much more extensive it is currently. That's the reason Alex Salmond is able to play with this question, because it's a relatively popular tune.

Unionists will have to come up with an argument and a clear statement of what is going to be the pathway by which a decision will be made on whether or not there should be more devolution. One problem is the fact that the Conservatives are not in the same camp as either Labour or the Liberal Democrats. It would be much better if there was an agreed position about the path forward rather than three separate answers.

Finally what about England? Is the reaction in England, at the end of the day, something that is potentially a greater threat to the Union than reaction in Scotland? There is evidence that England is gradually cottoning on to the fact that Scotland does quite well out of the financial settlement. It's taken them a while to get there, but we are now getting more than 40 per cent of people in England saying that Scotland gets more than its fair share. Insofar as we do indeed move in the direction where the Scottish parliament becomes increasingly responsible for the revenues that it self-spends, then at least English concern about Scotland being over-funded (allegedly) would automatically diminish.

Guy Lodge: I think an important and very obvious thing is that those who want Scotland to stay in the Union have got to focus on the positive case for Union, and not get bogged down in the negatives, which has been the tendency in the past. Those of us who support the Union have to accept the point that Scotland could be independent if it wanted to be, but argue that it would be better for all of us if we stick together.

There are two things I would add to the positive case. First of all is the basic historical point, to remind people that the idea of the Union was a Scottish idea first of all. The case for unionism is as 'Scottish' as nationalism, and I think reclaiming some of that territory is important.

The second thing is that where the SNP have been very shrewd is that they've stolen the language of the social union. They talk about how, in an independent Scotland, the four nation would still have very strong social ties. That needs to be challenged quite hard, because there's a much more powerful and attractive argument for the social union existing within the Union itself, that the SNP's account of social union cannot sustain. It shows that we are stronger as a political community where we pool resources and risks, and look after one another in tough times. And we have to get away from this idea that it's all about England subsidising Scotland, or arguments about who are net contributors to the UK - the idea of a social union should be that affluent people in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland redistribute to the less fortunate wherever they happen to be in the Union.

The creation by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont of the devolution commission is a very positive move because the key to the campaign is that the unionist parties have to have a clearly defined alternative to independence. And it's very important that the push for more powers is not just seen as a response to the SNP. The unionist parties should champion and support greater devolution because that's what the Scottish people want - it's not a way of placating the SNP.

But the other important thing about the devolution of powers is that, too often when we look at strengthening the powers of the Scottish parliament, we're only looking at what powers should be devolved to Scotland, and we never stop to think about, in a context where Scotland gets more powers, what the UK government is for and what the Union is for. We need much clearer articulation of the role of the Union in a devolved context.

Another important point is that in thinking about more powers we have to think about England. I would go a little bit further than John and say that I think the English are beginning to stir. For a long time they were very indifferent about what happened in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but I think they're waking up to what's happened there and there's quite a palpable sense that the English are losing out. And I think that demands some reform - the Barnet formula and the block grant that's used to fund the devolved nations needs to be looked at properly and probably reformed. Something needs to happen with the role of England and Westminster: perhaps that's coming up with an answer to the West Lothian question, which no one has been able to figure out since Gladstone's time. And of course there needs to be much greater decentralisation within England itself. In a situation in which the Scottish government has much stronger tax powers and borrowing powers, if you're in Newcastle or Manchester this is going to represent a real threat, and we need to think hard about what the agenda for decentralisation in England looks like. That has been something of a car crash in recent years, but it has to be got right.

The last point is to think about the role of the Union in a devolved context. It seems to me that if we're going down the road of more powers to Scotland, then Wales is probably going to acquire more powers as we go forward, and England is, as I said, beginning to wake up and think about these things. In this context, the biggest threat to the Union is not its break-up or the secession of Scotland, but just continual drift. Currently, the four nations live in a very compartmentalised world where they increasingly don't talk to each other, and it's that sense of disconnect which I think is probably the real threat to the Union. Trying to figure out what the Union is for in that context is the big challenge.

This is an edited transcript of a debate which took place at an IPPR/Juncture fringe event at the Labour party conference in Manchester on 2 October 2012.

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