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After the referendum, now the backlash

scotish flag at half mastThe panic is over. The neck and neck opinion polls that led the Westminster party leaders to make uncosted promises of greater devolution to Scotland and guarantees of bigger grant funding from the centre have unravelled within hours of the result. The “vow” to which party leaders committed, offering extensive new powers to the Scottish parliament suddenly seems to be without a timetable – and locked in to a Cameron commitment to guarantee English votes on English-only issues.

And with the result come not sighs of relief from the rattled No campaigners but demands that never again should such a poll be held. And a certain vindictiveness: this, for example from Euan McColm in the London Evening Standard, before the news of Alex Salmond’s resignation as SNP leader:

The myth of Alex Salmond as a great statesman is shattered…he had to accept a thwacking great defeat…Mr Salmond’s brand of civic nationalism had mulched down to an unpalatable Scotch broth of blood, soil and paranoia…”

McColm claims Salmond resorted to “the basest scaremongering in the last weeks of the campaign”. But this was small beer compared to the fear machine of the No campaign – over the economy, the currency and an endless procession of companies threatening the withdrawal of operations and the loss of jobs from Scotland, most recently from EDF. The company’s head, two days before the poll, sent a letter to the firm’s 15,000 staff warning them that independence would bring “uncertainty for the energy sector.”

Given the overwhelming support of the print media for a No vote and the fact that the independence campaign had so little backing just months ago, the real question is not why the Yes campaign lost, but why they came so close. And the answer lies less with the skill of Salmond or the bungling of Cameron, for example in keeping the “devo max” option off the ballot paper – than the way hundreds of thousands of working class voters invested their hopes and aspirations into a campaign for self-government, democracy and modernity that was quite separate from the flag of Scottish nationalism.

Paul Mason got this when he blogged:

The yes camp was really two camps: nationalists and radicals, and of the two the latter had the better campaign.”

On polling day, Nicola Sturgeon, deputy leader of the SNP, had “more anarchists and eco-warriors slapping her on the back than there were the traditional SNP-types with tartan ties.”

Diane Abbott didn’t quite get it when she wrote on Left Futures:

But it would be a mistake if activity about constitutional matters crowded out the issues about poverty and social justice raised by so many of the working classes in Glasgow and across Scotland.”

The fact is that in Scotland the struggle for social justice has become precisely a constitutional question. Where was the “justice”, social or otherwise, when Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced the poll tax a year earlier in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK?

But elsewhere too the struggle for social justice has become constitutional – or to put it plainly, is calling into question the institutions of government. The late Tony Benn for many years talked of a “crisis of representation”: how was it possible for millions to elect a Labour government with a record majority in 1997 only to see a continuation of the same free market policies introduced by its predecessors? How was it possible in 2010 for a party committed to the abolition of tuition fees during the election campaign to enter a coalition government and vote to treble them? This is it the “old politics”, the Westminster way. It’s discredited. People want a different model of democracy.

As the ruling elite regroups, we’re not going to get it just yet. Even if Britain manages to elect a Labour government next year – and it’s a big if, with a small poll lead and the campaign of vilification against the Party and its leader barely underway in the Mail and Sun – but even if we do, the cosy stitch-up at the summer Policy Forum means the front bench is committed to honouring the austerity spending plans of the outgoing Coalition. That’s not going to get 85% of the voters turning out.

So it’s back to politics as usual and those on the left who supported a No vote and failed to see the potential for change in what the Yes campaign represented should reflect on that a bit. Politics as usual means the Government is already rowing back from its wild promises to Scotland of just a few days ago – instead Cameron says these will be contingent on sorting out the West Lothian question, the anomaly whereby Scottish MPs get to vote on issues that affect only England. But what about the anomaly where the entire House of Lords gets to vote on things which they weren’t elected to decide on, because they weren’t elected? What about the veto given to the Queen over any parliamentary bill that affects her landed interests? What about the anomaly where corporate lobbyists can sit down with the prime minister for a fee? Where far-reaching investment and trade treaties are negotiated in secret behind the backs of voters? Don’t expect too much movement on these.

The Labour front bench worry about how much it might not be able to do in office if it had to have a majority of English Labour MPs supporting its health and education policies. It’s a legitimate concern. But the left should also remember how under previous New Labour governments, Scottish MPs could be relied on to support tuition fees and foundation hospitals in England and Wales in the happy knowledge that the Scottish Parliament wasn’t going to have them.

So after the biggest piece of citizen engagement in these isles in living memory, the stage is set for an arcane debate about the West Lothian question. Or we can recognise that the flame that has been kindled in Scotland is about bringing power out of the hands of an unaccountable elite and closer to the people. Independence for everybody everywhere!

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