Letter to the editor of the Guardian newspaper after recent articles on this theme:
Last weekend’s articles in the Guardian and the Observer on the possible impact of Scottish independence on English politics (‘Scottish yes vote would drive change in England’ and ‘The Scots have a chance to drive change in politics. Why don’t the rest of us?’) echoed our Boxing Day family discussions on the referendum. Of our four children, two attended University in England, two in Scotland, while three have lived and worked in England (two remain in London, one recently returned to Glasgow). With the various partners from Quebec, Zimbabwe and Scotland, and Joan and I tending in different directions, we explored the issues well into the ‘wee sma’ hours’ and this theme dominated the discussion: right now, the best way for a Scottish voter to break up the obsolete carbuncles of Westminster politics is to vote for Scottish independence. But why should it be necessary for those who long for a better politics to take the drastic step of divorce (even as improbably amicable a divorce as Alex Salmond promises)?
In the 1980s and early 1990s, a groundswell of political opinion across Scotland led to the Scottish ‘Claim of Right’. The Labour Party, the natural leaders of such a debate, played their full part, with their most natural allies, the Liberal Democrats, in bringing this forward into a consensus-seeking constitutional convention, whose deliberations, and investigations of constitutional arrangements in other democracies, led to the devolution settlement promised in the 1997 manifesto. It seems that the Labour Party has now fled from constitutional issues, whether in Scotland or in the UK. Labour’s best Scottish politicians sit comfortably in Westminster, seemingly unaware of how much Scotland needs them now. Meantime, their Scottish counterparts are trapped into inevitably negative campaigning (what else can a ‘no’ vote be?), based on fear of the unknown rather than a positive vision of a better UK. The Liberal Democrats are neutralised by their dance of death ‘damage limitation’ coalition, which prevents them collaborating with their natural allies on the changes which they believe in. The SNP meanwhile ignore their responsibilities to represent the social democratic vision of their constituents by playing a positive role in UK politics and argue that that vision can only be achieved in a separate Scotland. When we need a self-publicising narcissist like Russell Brand to give voice to civic alienation and put constitutional change on the front pages, we surely know that our politicians are failing us.
Last summer, I put these arguments to Douglas Alexander. I argued that the ‘no’ arguments in Scotland lack any vision about how politics in the UK can be made more representative, less adversarial and more engaging; that we need a constitutional vision for the UK which is about seeking the good collectively rather than scoring points to gain marginal electoral advantage; that a UK constitutional commission, echoing the process we followed in Scotland in the early 1990s, could rally the civic community around such a vision. He has argued in later correspondence that, “following the referendum there should be a National Convention – “Scotland 2025″ – to chart a new vision for our nation”. Why only Scotland? After the disappointments and disillusions of the years since 1997, who can believe that the present rickety constitutional arrangements of Westminster, West Lothian question and all, will chart a worthwhile vision of the UK’s future? Meantime the mean-spirited politics of fear inspired by UKIP’s success, cuts a swathe across England. Much as I dislike the chauvinism which lurks beneath the urbane Europeanism of Salmond’s SNP, and much as I dislike the idea of casting adrift from the cultural wealth that the Union brings, the complacency of UK politicians, trapped in their Westminster bubble with no vision of how the UK can avoid endless cycles of Tory dominance, might well lead me to vote ‘yes’. It is time for progressive Westminster politicians who believe in social justice to wake up and smell the coffee. The issues in the Scottish referendum are of vital importance to the UK. This time, and there’s not much time left, it’s not the economy, “it’s the constitution, stupid!”