Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Remaking British politics

Many of my Scottish nationalist friends attack the so-called "Unionist" opposition to separatism because it seems so negative. "Overcome your fears" they say "and embrace a positive and constructive agenda for a separate Scotland". Yet for me, it is separatism that is negative and narrow. The SNP thesis is that the Union has failed and can not be repaired. In my view there is very much a positive message in the idea of preserving the common state.


The political union that was created in 1707 was a platform that not only created the worlds most successful global economy for a period of two centuries, it also created a political and cultural powerhouse that spread the our ideas of a liberal parliamentary system across the planet and disseminated our language even in places that did not come under the influence of the Crown. 


It was an expansive and dynamic time, and the Scots took full measure in it. Indeed part of the problems of the common state, as some in the SNP would see it, is that with the Empire now long gone, the common state is too small to give Scots the global opportunities that they crave. Taking that logic, the break up of the United Kingdom should be seen as the logical consequence of the break up of the Empire- "lost an Empire, never found a role, and ultimately broke up".


Yet I believe that Britain can rediscover a sense of national mission, and that the opportunities on offer to Scots are all the greater as part of this wider national project. 


What Alex Salmond and his cohorts have been doing has been to recreate all the faults of Whitehall- a centralized bureaucracy, inflexible thinking and old fashioned ways of government. The purpose of centralising all power in Edinburgh is to provide a critical mass of power to oppose London. Yet this centralization also opposes alternative power centres- both geographical, by taking powers away from local centres and political, by ignoring citizens initiatives that Holyrood can not control.  While proclaiming the virtues of diversity, the SNP is actually undermining it. To my mind a new political agenda can be set more freely when cities like Aberdeen share ideas with cities like Plymouth, which have similar problems of over reliance on a single employer, relatively poor transport links and larger geographical distances.    The SNP bitterly rejects this kind of collaboration, since it undermines their case that Scotland is unique and should be separate. Despite this, however, in the private sector, such links are routine, even universal. Only in the SNP dominated state sector is such work dismissed.


The decline of the Tories in Scotland led the SNP to discover the virtues of business ethics, however as Labour too sinks into decline in its former Scottish heartland as it has in the rest of the UK, the SNP is tacking back to the left- yet the state dominated thinking of the left is failing Labour electorally because it is intellectually bankrupt. The cost of the banking crisis has been to severely limit the ability of the state to deliver the unsustainable finances that the left demands. The SNP have fallen into a left wing managerialism that is only interesting because it demands a new stage for the same old play.


I believe that the Common state can create a new agenda- not precisely the "big society" of David Cameron, but certainly a more individual based community- an new format and at odds with the old fashioned leftism of the SNP. Radical Liberalism remains a powerful intellectual force and I believe that it can deliver- provided the politicians have the couragee to stop pretending that they can deliver to every interest group.


I am not one who contends that separation would be an economic disaster for Scotland- although it is fair to say that the outlook of a highly indebted, largely state sector economic would be problematic even with every penny of oil revenue- and no penny of bank debt- allocated to Edinburgh. It would be a gamble- of the kind that appeals to Alex Salmond who is well known as a betting man. I think it is irresponsible to place such a bet- especially since it is a one way ticket to a highly uncertain destination.


So before Scotland embarks on its gamble, I think we should work towards a new politics within the United Kingdom- I think it possible and I think it right: and it does not involve kidding on the Scottish people that they do not have to sign any checks for the RBS or the Bank of Scotland disasters- when they clearly do. 

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