On the Campaign Trail

On Saturday, with only days to go before the independence referendum, thousands of Yes supporters gathered on Buchanan Street in Glasgow, waving Saltires and singing ‘Flower of Scotland’. At around the same time, more than ten thousand Orangemen staged a pro-union march in Edinburgh. The standards at the head of the flute bands hailed from Portadown and Coatbridge, London and Liverpool, Leeds and Stockport.

Elements of the Yes campaign – including the egg-throwing and name-calling – are disquieting. The Panglossian vision of a post-independent Scotland has been accused of silencing dissenting voices. But on the other side of the fence, Better Together has run one of the most vacuous, cynical campaigns in British political history. Beyond the tawdry threats to erect border posts at Coldstream or the ludicrous suggestion that the pandas in Edinburgh zoo would be deported if Scotland votes Yes tomorrow, the No campaign has failed to make a case for the union that wouldn’t fit in the ledger of a Fife accountant. The ‘Let’s Stay Together’ rally in Trafalgar Square on Monday was treated with contempt by everyone I met in Glasgow. ‘If they love us so much why don’t they come up here?’

On Sunday, I visited a stall festooned with blue Yes balloons on a street corner a mile from my flat. Passing cars beeped their horns. The organiser was a local SNP councillor, helped by a middle-aged woman who worked in a bio-tech firm. She said she’d never been involved in a political campaign before but had spent months knocking on doors, delivering leaflets and standing in the cold talking to people. Thousands of political neophytes with little or no party allegiances have mobilised in the largest grassroots campaign the country has ever seen. Activists at my local train station have been handing out flyers, balloons and stickers. I recently spent an afternoon in Easterhouse, one of Glasgow’s most deprived housing schemes, with an eloquent 17-year-old socialist. He has spent months canvassing and organising voter registration drives in an area where fewer than 35 per cent voted in the 2011 Holyrood election.

On Monday, the former home secretary John Reid and the Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont held a press conference with shipyard workers and union leaders across the Clyde from BAE Systems’ Govan yard. On a dreich morning, Lamont and Reid descended from ‘the indyref express’ to be met by banks of photographers and party hacks in matching blue Better Together rainwear trying to pass as concerned citizens. Reid did most of the talking to the press. Afterwards I grabbed a word with a ‘continuous improvement coach’ at BAE. He was voting No, but not because he thought he would lose his job: ‘I’m saying no to division. I don’t like the concept of nationalism.’

But what are the seemingly unending stream of ‘emotional pleas’ that David Cameron et al have inflicted on Scots in recent weeks if not nationalism? On Monday night, Tom Nairn made a rare public appearance, in a haar-enveloped Edinburgh. ‘The moment is right for Scotland to have, in a relatively short time, the chance to contribute to nationality politics and not nationalism in the old, traditional sense,’ he said. There was lots of passion from the floor, but a feeling, too, that most people there were preparing themselves for disappointment.

The choice tomorrow didn’t have to be binary, but the third option – more powers for Holyrood without full independence – was left off the ballot paper. Then on Tuesday, just two days before the vote, Scotland woke to news that ‘devo max’ was back on if they voted No. The specifics of the additional powers seem both vague and unworkable, but the medium was more important than the message. The pledge, which could effectively usher in federalism across the UK, was delivered not after months of discussion, or even in person by the prime minister. Instead, ‘the vow’ was splashed across the Daily Record. If Westminster thinks that the front page of a tabloid is the best way to talk to Scotland in 2014 then it really has learned nothing from the referendum.

This piece originally appeared in the London Review of Books.

Will the promise of a new approach bring the same old, same old?

Having voted LibDem in the recent UK election, this comment piece for the excellent Holyrood magazine betrays an anger with Clegg and his ‘new politics’ that I think plenty of left-of-centre voters felt in the immediate aftermath of the coalition agreement, and many still feel today.

“This is the start of the new politics I have always believed in.” Speaking just hours after the announcement of his appointment as Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg was at pains to reiterate the ‘new politics’ mantra he employed to such devastating effect in the live debates. But just as Clegg’s televisual charm failed to translate into ballot box success, critics are already suggesting that behind this soidisant new dispensation it’s business as usual in Westminster.

It was an unexpectedly exacting election for the Lib Dems. On the back of the telegenic Clegg’s success in the first prime ministerial debate hopes were high among the party faithful that 2010 would be the year that they finally managed to disrupt the Labour- Conservative duopoly. On the day, however, the Liberals failed in their bid to take more than 100 seats, actually losing a number, and were unable to push an unpopular Labour into an embarrassing third place in the popular vote.

Nevertheless, surveying the wreckage on May 7, Clegg, and other Lib Dems, would not have gone hungry for want of crumbs of comfort: over the course of the campaign the party’s media profile increased dramatically, and their vote rose, albeit fractionally from a low base. And, of course, the Liberals woke on Friday morning to find themselves kingmakers in a hung parliament.

The decision to go into coalition with the Tories, driven from the top by Clegg and rubberstamped by the party’s Federal Executive less than a week after the election, might look like great business to party mandarins but it has left many Lib Dem voters bewildered and angry. A sizable proportion of the Lib Dem vote – and the vast majority of the new voters it gained at the recent election – identify themselves on the left of New Labour, were disillusioned by Brown and Blair and attracted by Clegg’s Obama-like promises of change.

Having voted Clegg and got Cameron – and not Brown, as the right-wing press threatened – many will be reluctant to vote Lib Dem in the future, particularly if the new coalition, as expected, pushes through austerity measures not seen since the IMF were invited onto mainland Britain in 1976.

But has Clegg really sold his voters short, or might the Lib Dems in government be able to push through central tenets of their manifesto?

The party’s medium-term electoral survival depends on the latter, and, while it is certainly too early to tell whether the unholy Con-Lib pact will hold, the Liberals have managed to drive an impressively hard bargain (aided, in part, by their salacious overtures to Labour during the negotiations).

The Conservatives will adopt the Lib Dem plan to increase the tax-free allowance on income tax to £10,000, a key pledge for many low earning Liberal voters. Although this is a long-term policy, an initial rise in the allowance is expected, quickly followed by a timetable for the full £10,000. That the Tories have given their backing to a measure that will cost the Exchequer somewhere in the region of £17bn is remarkable given both their commitment to reducing the deficit and the party’s historic neglect of those on low incomes.

Electoral reform was a major plank of the Lib Dems’ general election campaign and dominated much of the horse-trading that followed. Labour tried to tempt Clegg with a pledge to adopt the Alternative Vote method and a referendum on proportional representation, but senior figures in both centre-left parties appear to have had extreme misgiving about the so-called progressive alliance. The deal with David Cameron’s Tories has not brought the radical voting reform that many Liberals had hoped for but the Conservatives are committed to a referendum on the, rather disproportional, Alternative Vote during the course of the next parliament – although the party has already said it will campaign vigorously for a ‘no’ vote in that plebiscite.

Many Lib Dem voters, and members of the parliamentary party, will be hoping that their party can curb the excesses of a Tory government, so feared by many, particularly outside England. Certainly the Conservatives have softened a number of their positions to facilitate the coalition: the Tory manifesto pledge to increase the threshold for inheritance tax has been kicked into touch, and a commission is to be set up to investigate the viability of splitting up the big banks, a proposal that has Vince Cable written all over it.

The sickly sweet love-in between Cameron and Clegg outside No 10 that followed the coalition announcement played well in the gallery but such bonhomie masks deep fissures between the new government partners on a range of key policy issues. The Lib Dems have been forced to abandon their opposition to renewing Trident and building nuclear power stations, and their commitment to joining the euro and an amnesty for illegal migrants. Not all vote winners, granted, but many policies popular with left-of-centre supporters.

Senior Lib Dem officials defended Clegg’s decision to do a deal with Cameron by saying that their party would be punished by voters if it allowed a Conservative minority government to collapse. While this might be true in the south of England, north of the border and in the English regions, the opposite is almost certainly the case. As well as alienating its core vote, the Lib Dems would do well to heed the salutary lessons from Ireland, where the Green Party faces electoral meltdown having entered coalition with the centre-right Fianna Fáil at a time of economic crisis.

The Lib Dems have been locked out of power for 70 years but the party could be counting the cost of its shiny, new cabinet seats for decades to come. The Liberals risk becoming handmaidens to a Tory government that has pledged to make the most savage cuts to public spending in living memory, while, on the opposition benches, Labour has an opportunity to regroup and reclaim its mantle as the undisputed party of the centre-left. We have entered a ‘new politics’, but not quite as Nick Clegg would have envisaged it four weeks ago.