by David Butler
“If we fight 100 times and beat him 99 he will be King still, but if he beats us but once, or the last time, we shall be hanged, we shall lose our estates, and our posterities be undone” – Edward Montagu, 2nd Earl of Manchester
The future of the Union hangs by a thread. A partnership that has lasted three hundred and seven years, and achieved many wonderful things, could be extinguished. Better Together can still win on Thursday and I’m hoping it will. If No does indeed win, there can be no let up in the struggle. The nineteenth of September 2014 must be the first day of the next battle for the future of our country.
The words of the 2nd Earl of Manchester were spoken at the height of the First English Civil War in November 1644. The fate facing opponents of Scottish independence is not death and penury, but the point stands: the SNP must win only once, by a single vote, to separate Scotland from England forever. We must win every time.
Alex Massie, in a recent Spectator piece, charted the increasing acceptability of independence as an idea. As Massie correctly observed, the idea of Scottish nationalism cannot be killed, not now, not after all this time. If 47% of the electorate vote for separation, that is a sizeable bloc who wish to tear apart the existing polity; only a minor swing would be required to make that a majority opinion.
Perhaps the SNP, like Quebec separatists Bloc Quebecois, would eventually collapse and be consigned to a future behind Labour in Scotland. This seems unlikely given their current poll ratings. Even if they were weaker in the polls, it would not be something we could just wait and hope for. Nationalism must be fought and driven back with ideas, policy and organisation. It is worth remembering the remarks of Neil Kinnock that “the victory of political ideals must be organised”.
The SNP would not be a majority party in the Scottish Parliament (and hence able to call a referendum) were it not for the collapse of Labour and the Lib Dems in the 2011 elections and the Tories long-term decline. Patrick Wintour in The Guardian tracked the decline of Scottish Toryism during the Thatcher era and their subsequent failure to reassert themselves during New Labour (unlike in England and Wales). Labour’s decline was, on paper, more sudden and stark. However, it was rooted in the talent exodus to Westminster and SNP positioning themselves as moderate social democrats appealing to a conservatism about the institutions people valued (such as the NHS or universities).
Rebuilding is therefore a three part process. The capacity of the Scottish Labour Party to be a viable party of Government in Scotland (or at least to ensure there is an anti-independence majority at Holyrood) must be enhanced. The news that Gordon Brown may stand for the Scottish Parliament is an important step. For the Scottish Labour Parliamentary party to gain a figure of such experience and stature will surely be a boon, particularly given his relative youth (for a former PM). More talented Scottish Labour figures must return from Westminster, as Jim Murphy is said to be considering, or choose to stay in the first place. High quality leadership is not a sufficient condition for winning elections, but it does help.
Scottish Labour, like the UK-wide Party, must develop a political program that addresses the economic, social, culture and political issues that underpin the support for independence and the SNP (and, in England, UKIP). Those “left behind” by the forces of economic globalisation, whose lives and communities have fragmented and who feel disconnected from sources of political power. Allaying and solving these anxieties must be central to any anti-Nationalist strategy.
However, this is not enough to protect the Union. The policies needed to reduce economic and social anxieties are at best for the medium term. In addition, it could so happen that the SNP somehow manage to achieve a majority again. The divisive rhetoric of nationalism, the false dichotomy of “Team Scotland” versus “Team Westminster”, must be challenged.
This campaign has shown we cannot rely on dry, technical arguments. Given that politicians are believed (wrongly) to be lying liars (and every major politician associated with No has a negative trust rating in opinion polls in Scotland) makes the technical arguments harder and rebutting SNP half-truths and falsehoods difficult. A long-term strategy needs to have emotional and cultural strands as well as economic and political ones.
Citizens must be part of the battle, not just the elites. Tom Holland’s Let’s Stay Together is one such example. Holland has asked celebrities and ordinary people to sign a simple letter asking the people of Scotland to keep Britain united and reminding them “how very much we value our bonds of citizenship with you”. Making the emotional case, not in a fevered manner but with a moderate appeal to a shared history, culture, values and life.
A new pro-union version of Scottish identity, linked to an inclusive British identity, must be developed and articulated. An identity that emphasises Britain as an open, liberal, ambitious, tolerant and diverse nation and Scotland as a vital part of this. This liberal Britishness must be defended just as vociferously against the little-Scotlanders north of the border as against Farage and his little-Englanders in the south.
On 19th September 2014, with No winning by the skin of their teeth many will breath a sigh of relief. I will be amongst them. But this must not be the end. Nationalism must be driven back. Otherwise, the Union will remain imperilled for a long time to come.
David Butler is a Labour activist