Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, left-wing parties in Europe typically had left-wing policies, such as being in favour of universal benefits, free education (incl. university tuition), generous unemployment benefits and free healthcare.
However, the collapse of communism seems to have made many formerly left-wing politicians believe that neoliberalism was the only game in town, and they gradually started enacting almost exactly the same policies as their right-wing opponents, just presented in a slightly left-wing fashion.
Most of the politicians from both formerly left-wing and right-wing political parties have studied politics, economics and/or law at university and have learnt to treat neoliberal textbooks as gospel.
To a large extent, one cannot tell these former opponents apart. I’ve suggested in the past that the Tories, Labour and the LibDems should merge into one Better Together party in Scotland, but in an international context, I’d suggest the merger should be called the Party of Necessity, because its politicians always claim their unpopular policies are “necessary” according to their textbooks.
So when the banks started collapsing in 2008, the reaction of the Party of Necessity governments was the same in all countries, namely to bail out the banks and introduce a version of austerity protecting the ultra-rich and sending the bill to the poorest citizens.
However, the beautiful thing about democracy is that if all the existing parties get something completely and utterly wrong, new parties will emerge from nowhere and replace them, or existing small parties will suddenly become huge. This is what we saw in Greece yesterday, and very similar things are happening all over Europe and beyond. (The Scottish Yes campaign, which nearly achieved Scottish independence last year, was of course also part of this international trend.)
Here are a few examples of the decline of the Party of Necessity:
It’s clear that different countries aren’t at the same stage — as a rule of thumb it seems to be linked to how well they have coped with the recession. However, it seems likely that many European countries soon won’t be governed by the Party of Necessity. It’s already the case in Scotland and Greece, but the figures above makes me think it’s simply a question of time before a majority of European governments are anti-Necessity.
I’ve said it before, but we truly do live in interesting times.
Addendum (27/01/14): Aditya Chakrabortty has written a very interesting article about how Labour risks ending up like PASOK. His name for what I have called the Party of Necessity above is TINA (“there is no alternative”), which is a very accurate description, too.
At the moment the front-runner to take over the leadership of Labour’s Scottish Branch Office appears to be Jim Murphy.
Mr Murphy is my local MP, so I’ve taken a certain interest in his career in the past, and he’s as New Labour as they come. If he becomes leader, it means that Scottish Labour is finally accepting its natural home is to the right of the SNP. Socialism will be dead as a dodo inside the Scottish Labour Party.
This means that Scotland will have three right-of-centre Unionist parties: Labour, the Tories and the LibDems. It’s possible English voters can tell them apart, but in Scotland they’ll be virtually indistinguishable.
The logical step will therefore be for the Unionist parties to merge. The most obvious name would be the Better Together Party, and I’ve designed a logo for them above that they’re welcome to use free of charge.
Obviously this merger will be impossible without cutting the ties to the Westminster parties, so it’ll probably not happen any time soon, but it would be the logical way forward for three parties that clearly enjoyed working together in their No Thanks coalition.
Although I’ve written hundreds of blog posts over the past couple of years, I’ve never described my personal journey to Yes. With just a few days to go before the referendum, here it is.
Getting to know Scotland
When I moved to Scotland from Denmark in 2002, I hadn’t thought much about Scottish independence, but I was broadly in favour of it. It would be hard not to when you come from a successful independent country the same size as Scotland.
However, at first I wasn’t really aware of the differences between Scotland and the other UK nations. I think I thought the differences were mainly cultural and linguistic, but I gradually started to notice the differences were much more fundamental than that, that Scotland really isn’t just another region of Britain (something which most English people never seem to have realised).
Indeed, surprisingly to foreigners, most Scots seem to consider Scotland to be a country within a political union called the UK. Sometimes believed to be too wee, too poor and too stupid to be independent, perhaps, but a country nonetheless. This is very different from how the UK is seen abroad. In most languages, ‘Britain’, ‘the UK’ and ‘England’ are used with exactly the same meaning. For instance, I have often received letters from Denmark addressed to ‘…, Glasgow, Scotland, England’.
The reason that it took me a long time to work out that Scotland wasn’t just a region wasn’t helped by the media. At first I watched BBC News, Channel 4 News and all that, and it took me some time to realise that half the news stories they were reporting weren’t relevant to Scotland. (Thank goodness I picked The Scotsman as my daily newspaper — I could just as easily have gone for The Independent!) The lack of devolution of the media is bizarre — it should have been a very easy thing to devolve.
However, once you start to realise that Scotland is indeed a country, a lot of things fall into place. You also start noticing how the native culture of Scotland is considered inferior by many people. For instance, although I had learnt some Gaelic before moving to Scotland, I only really started learning Scots after I moved here. It was very difficult, however, because most people will look at you like you’ve got three heads when you speak Scots with a foreign accent. It’s such a strange situation — a language that is spoken by almost half of the population but that people treat as an embarrassing dialect. The language of Dunbar and Burns, for crying out loud! It should be celebrated and be an obligatory subject in all schools as far as I’m concerned!
A political journey
During my first few years in Scotland, very little seemed to happen on the independence front. The SNP wasn’t getting close to power, and I started to think there would never be a majority in favour of independence in the Scottish Parliament (those were the days before Salmond returned to Holyrood), and so I gradually started thinking that perhaps a more realistic solution would be a reformed UK — a written constitution, proportional representation in Westminster, proper federalism, an elected House of Lords. I even joined the Liberal Democrats, thinking they had the determination to reform the broken union.
However, I rapidly grew disillusioned with the LibDems. I think it started when they refused even to sit down with the SNP in 2007 to explore whether a coalition could be formed. It started dawning on me that their commitment to federalism was just skin-deep, and that their real instincts were pro-Union and pro-Empire.
When the LibDems entered government with the Tories, I was initially hopeful that they would manage to get some meaningful reforms out of it. However, they repeatedly got outsmarted by the Conservatives. The introduction of tuition fees was of course a huge betrayal, but from a Scottish perspective it was even worse that they failed to introduce the AV system and to reform the House of Lords. Clearly the voting system referendum should have been about proportional representation (and not AV) if the Tories were going to be campaigning against it — AV should only have been accepted if the Tories committed themselves to campaigning in its favour.
More importantly, if the UK political system couldn’t even implement such a minor reform, what hope was there of ever enacting the far bolder reforms that I considered necessary?
These political events (on top of the Iraq war and the numerous other scandals that New Labour presided over) convinced me that the UK was a failed state that couldn’t be reformed. Many political parties seem quite idealistic when they’re far from power, but as soon as they get involved with the civil servants, they become part of the establishment machine and become carbon clones of the previous government.
In the meantime, the SNP had demonstrated that they could do things differently at Holyrood, and as a result they gained an absolute majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, which then made an independence referendum an inevitability. I finally realised that I was a member of the wrong party, and I joined the SNP.
A different journey
At the same time I had been pursuing a career at a large publishing house in Bishopbriggs. Every other year, a redundancy round would move more of the best-paid jobs down to London, and I realised that you can only progress so far in your career in Scotland — at some point, you need to spend some years — or even the rest of your career — in London.
This might seem obvious to Scots, but to a Dane like me it was hugely shocking. Unless you want to be CEO of a multinational company, Danes expect they can have fulfilling and rewarding careers without leaving Denmark. If people do move abroad for work reasons, there’s not a single destination that dominates — Brussels, London, Berlin, New York, Oslo and Zürich are all equally likely.
I also fell in love with one of my colleagues, and one thing led to another. With five children in the house, I now see the educational aspect of devolution, too. Because they’re at Scottish schools, you can’t easily move to England for a couple of years, and you worry whether they can have a good career here. You also notice that the school holidays here aren’t in sync with the BBC’s school holiday programming and with the back-to-school products in supermarkets. The separate school system is making it hard to move to England and back, but you need to do that for your career. In this regard, the current system gives us the worst of both worlds.
Reforming the UK
If it was likely that the UK would be fundamentally reformed soon, my natural instinct would be to give it a chance. However, given that very few meaningful reforms have happened after more than a decade of Labour governments followed by a coalition government that includes the Liberal Democrats, I cannot see where the willingness to reform the UK will come from.
The main political parties in Westminster don’t seriously want to overhaul the system (because it’s working exceptionally well for the Westminster and City of London elites), and there’s not even a party that can carry the beacon of hope (in the way the LibDems did before 2010). The only untested party that has a chance of gaining power within the next decade is UKIP, and that will most certainly be a change for the worse!
If we have a choice between being part of a failed state or a new, potentially very successful one, the choice is easy.
Some people have suggested that the main diving line between people voting Yes and No is whether they feel Scottish or British. This national identity question is not what makes me a Yes. I don’t feel British in the slightest — I would probably describe myself as a Danish-Swabian-Scottish European, but I’m not against unions per se.
If somebody suggested creating a single country out Denmark, Norway and Sweden, I would look carefully at the proposal. If the new Scandinavian Union could achieve things that the existing countries couldn’t do themselves, and if all three countries were going to get a fair share of political power, I might be in favour. If, on the other hand, the Union simply meant putting Stockholm in charge of Denmark and Norway too, making Swedish the official language in all three countries, and the main benefit of the Union was to give the Swedish generals a bigger army to wage wars with, I would most definitely be against it.
The same applies to the UK. I haven’t found any area where we’re better together inside the UK. Externally, the UK might be stronger than its constituent parts when the country tries to punch above its weight in the UN and on the world stage generally, but unfortunately the result is not anything that furthers peace, democracy and the rule of law elsewhere on the planet, and what’s the point then?
Scotland can lead the way
It’s also very clear that Scotland and the majority of the rUK have very different visions for the future. An independent Scotland would want to retain and improve the welfare state (the Common Weal), whereas the rUK (led by London) is on its way to becoming a terribly unequal global city state. I believe Scotland could even inspire the other Nordic countries, where a certain degree of welfare state apathy has set in, but where Scotland’s experiences with living under Thatcher and Cameron will galvanise the resolve to do better.
What I want
I want to live in a rich, egalitarian country. Where my children can have a decent career without moving away. Where a welfare state provides healthcare and education for everybody. Where people get a hand when they’re down instead of being kicked further down. Where important rights are guaranteed by a constitution. Where immigrants are welcomed because most families consist of immigrants and emigrants. Where people are focusing on building the best small country in the world, not feeling disempowered and disenfranchised. Where nobility has been abolished, and ideally where the monarchy has been voted out too. A country that is growing at a normal speed, rather than seeing all other countries overtake it. A country that is a happy EU member state, not suffering from the Little Englander syndrome. A politically normal country, where people discuss the economy and foreign policy, not independence all the time.
The choice is simple. It has to be Yes.
(I haven’t mentioned the currency of Scotland, the transition costs or anything like this, because those aren’t reasons to vote Yes or No to independence — they’re purely practical problems to be resolved.)
The one thing I would be a bit wary of is that it’s not realistic to expect the nationalist camp to come up with just one vision of independence. They can’t. The nationalist movement is by its nature going to be full of people with a diversity of views. Should Scotland choose separation, there would be little point in the SNP as a party. There would be nothing to hold it together after the first effort to build the new nation. There are liberals, socialists, greens, republicans, right wingers within it. They would most likely join other parties or start new ones.
It’s good to see that at least some people in the Unionist parties are starting to realise that an independent Scotland won’t be an SNP dictatorship and that independence offers a huge opportunity to other political parties.
Too often I’ve talked to people who say they’re voting No because they don’t like Alex Salmond and/or specific SNP policies. In reality, the SNP is a very broad church that is held together by the quest for independence, so there will have to be a realignment of the Scottish political spectrum after a Yes vote.
The SNP are often asked to provide detailed plans for what to do after independence — which currency would Scotland use, would there be passport controls, would Scotland be a member of NATO, etc.
To a certain extent that is right and proper – the SNP is the main proponent of independence, so it reasonable to expect that this party will also be able to suggest some answers to these questions.
However, there’s a limit to it.
The day after Scotland votes Yes to independence, the unionist parties will have to stop working to prevent independence and start working to fight Scotland’s corner in the independence talks with the rUK.
Furthermore, the next elections to the Scottish Parliament are due in May 2016, roughly 18 months after the independence referendum. It is entirely possible that the SNP won’t win these elections, and it could therefore quite feasibly be a Labour politician who would be the first prime minister of an independent Scotland, and in this case it would be Labour and not the SNP that would be making many of the crucial decisions about NATO, the currency and the other crucial questions.
In short, I’d like the Unionists to acknowledge that they too need to have a vision about what an independent Scotland should look like, because they might be the ones who’ll have to implement it.
As far as I can see, there are theoretically four options for Shetland and Orkney if Scotland becomes independent:
They can remain part of Scotland.
They can become part of Norway (or Denmark) instead.
They can become part of England.
They can become independent.
Option (1) is of course the most straightforward option. Although option (2) would perhaps tempt some of the islanders temporarily, I’m not sure they’d really want to learn Norwegian as their first foreign language, introduce Norwegian law, go to university in Norway, and so on. Option (3) would possibly appeal to some of the islanders, especially those of them who have moved there from England; however, would the majority of the population really want to be flown to England for complex hospital treatments, or by default go to university in England? Also, the islands have never in their history belonged to England, so it’d be a somewhat strange outcome. Option (4) is of course a possibility, but they have a very small population and don’t even have experience with devolution.
I think it’s a good idea for Shetland and Orkney to get some degree of autonomy within Scotland. Perhaps this would over time develop into full independence, although I’m doubtful. However, to leap from being a full and integrated part of Scotland to becoming an independent nation overnight would be a complete shock to the system, and I’d be very surprised if the islanders themselves would go for it, especially as there is no established independence movement on the islands as far as I know.
I can therefore only conclude that Tavish Scott is just trying to spread uncertainty and fear about the prospects of Scottish independence – he’s not really advocating separating the islands from mainland Scotland. I would have hoped the unionists had some positive arguments in favour of the Union, but that might have been too much to hope for.
I think there’s a tendency to ask the SNP to come up with solutions for all questions about how to split up England and Scotland.
However, if we think about the time after the Yes vote, I don’t expect all Scottish Unionists to commit collective harakiri.
What I do expect is that the vast majority of Unionist politicians will pick themselves up and start working to secure an independent Scotland the best possible deal.
To be concrete, I would expect all Scottish members of the UK government – Michael Moore, Danny Alexander, David Mundell etc. – to resign the next day. It’s possible that all Scottish MPs would resign, too, but I find it more likely they’d stay in place in order to help keep a tab on the UK government’s activities.
The next step will be the formation of an independence negotiation team. Of course the negotiations could in theory be handled by the SNP, but it would make better sense to make a united negotiation team with representatives from all the mainstream parties in Scotland, and consisting of not just MSPs but also MPs.
As part of the process of assembling the negotiation team, I expect a lively discussion on the way forward for Scotland. For instance, the other parties might challenge the SNP’s plan to leave NATO. This is what makes the current situation so annoying. Labour, the Tories and the LibDems keep criticising the SNP’s concrete post-independence policies, but they don’t have to tell us what they’d do instead; they just tell us they want to preserve the Union (which is fair enough, of course), but they don’t want to answer what it is they want to do if independence happens anyway.
Anyway, once the independence negotiation team has been formed and the negotiation mandate agreed on, things should proceed quickly. Certain questions need to be resolved before independence, but many other questions can probably be ironed out afterwards, so long as the interim position is clear.