Sofa government has ended in Scotland. This needs to happen in the rest of the UK

by Jonathan Todd

“When this is over, I am not going back to my sofa,” said a working class grandmother, who’d never previously been politically active, of the Scottish referendum. She made this remark to Robin McAlpine of Common Weal – “a vision of what Scotland can be if it rejects the failed Me-First politics that left us all in second place and instead builds a politics that puts All Of Us First” – and he reported it to BBC Radio 4 last week. The legacy of the referendum campaign, irrespective of its outcome, observed McAlpine, is the widespread popular desire for “a politics that involves us and which we get involved in”.

The latest polling gives Better Together a 13 percent lead. While the pro-independence grandmother got active because the referendum was “too important to the future of her grandchildren”, it seems to be moving toward the outcome that she opposes. Nonetheless, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are now all committed to additional powers for the Scottish Executive and Parliament. Scotland seems likely to say “no thanks” but the consensus between the political parties means that such an outcome will lead to some form of “devo-max“.

As grandmothers refuse to return to their sofas, more power will be brought closer to them within a new devolution settlement. Which is why Neal Ascherson seems justified in concluding in the current edition of Prospect that “whichever way the referendum vote goes on that Thursday in September, Scotland on the Friday morning will already be living in some form of independence”.

I have worried that post-referendum Scotland will be a fractious place, with festering grievances and bridges to be built. This might be part of the picture. But the whole picture may well contain positives: a highly engaged electorate with new powers to shape their future.

Soon after the 2010 general election, Paul Richards published Labour’s Revival: The Modernisers’ Manifesto. It begins with a quote from G. D. H. Cole. “To my mind, there have always been two fundamental cleavages in socialist thought – the cleavage between the revolutionaries and reformists, and the cleavage between centralisers and federalists.” I have a memory of Liam Byrne referring to this quote at a Labour Party conference fringe that year. He said that the first battle had been won by the reformists, while the second is ongoing and must be won by the federalists.

If we want the federalists to win, we must welcome the more engaged and empowered Scotland that reform is shaping. Jim Murphy – who at the 2010 conference was reflecting on the defeat of David Miliband, whose campaign he’d run and Byrne had supported – sees enough to be excited about in Scotland to reportedly be considering standing down as an MP to seek a seat in the Scottish Parliament.

As much as Scotland must please federalists, the rest of the UK must perplex. Does it really make sense for Scotland to remain part of the UK with a highly devolved settlement as the rest of the UK remains one of the most centralised states in the democratic world? We Brits are famously crazy and at ease with absurdity and paradox. But this feels much too much to make sense even to British minds.

Yet this hotchpotch appears to be what David Cameron is leading us toward. He supposedly now sees his legacy in terms of keeping the UK together this year, winning the general election next year, and keeping the UK in the EU two years after that. In one sense, he seems to be aware of the dearth of full-stops in politics, realising that to keep the UK in the EU in 2017 he’ll need to run against much of his own party, meaning that it would be untenable for him to continue as leader beyond this.

Cameron seems, though, to see more a full-stop in the Scottish referendum than there really is. While he accepts that it isn’t a full stop for Scotland, as it moves to devo-max, the implications of such Scottish status for the rest of the UK are absent from Cameron’s legacy planning. Nor have they been debated as actively as they would be if England had the kind of sofa avoiding grandmothers that now characterise Scotland.

England needs these grandmothers. In the early days of his government, Cameron was fond of proclaiming “the end of sofa government”. This was intended to imply that there had been something rum, which he’d put a stop to, about the way the previous government conducted itself. But grandmothers, like other English voters, have moved closer to their sofas and further from civic engagement under prime minister Cameron.

If we want a more just and equal country than the one that Cameron is creating, this needs to change. This means that while the victory for the federalists hoped for by Cole et al may be imminent in Scotland, it needs to brought south. We need institutions that keep us away from our sofas and allow us to together build a better tomorrow. This isn’t part of Cameron’s plan but it should be part of Labour’s.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut    

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One Response to “Sofa government has ended in Scotland. This needs to happen in the rest of the UK”

  1. Ex labour says:

    The Fat Economist wins either way. If its a vote to stay together he will get more powers, if we seperate he will get more powers.

    Two questions:

    1. If we seperate will this be the death of the Labour party ? The reliance on Scottish MP’s in Westminster will be over and the Conservatives will gain in England.

    2. Either way, who pays for Scotland? They currently get more out than they put in, so are we (England) going to end up paying more (whether in or out) ?

    Err….thats 3 questions actually.

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