Saturday 4 October 2014

Failing to move on after historical turning points leaves you on the wrong side of history

My earliest contribution to politics was destructive. Sometime in the 70s a friend and I went to the house of the local Tory MP and threw mud at the poster attached to one of his trees. Nearly everyone in my class at school thought the SNP were just wonderful. Of course it was Scotland’s oil. The boys supported the nationalists in the same way they supported Scotland at football, the girls thought they were the political equivalent of the Bay City Rollers. We all had tartan trimming on our clothes.

I remember rural Aberdeenshire before the oil came. My parents had good jobs, but we were much poorer than now. For holidays we generally visited friends and relations in Scotland or other parts of the UK and Ireland. There were four flavours of crisps, no such thing as diet coke and pasta was either spaghetti or macaroni. I’m not even sure if we had reached the word “pasta” yet. My mum knitted my jumpers and made my dresses. We had enough of everything and more, but the country was struggling. 

I was a bit older when we had a mock election at school. It must have been in 1979. I campaigned for Labour with a schoolgirl’s idealism and a crash course in socialism. The SNP won our mock election overwhelmingly. People grow up at different rates.  The Tories won our seat.

There are some key turning points in modern political history. Everything is different before 1979 after that everything is changed, changed utterly. But in Scotland we are intent on continuing to fight old battles whether they are in 1314, 1745 or 2014.  It’s like we’ve been transplanted from William Faulkner’s American south

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863.

We think of Thatcher as if she were Sherman marching through Georgia. I am not in the business of fighting old battles. There were difficult times in Scotland and all throughout the UK in the 1980s. But Thatcher transformed the economic and political consensus in the UK. By the time I voted for Tony Blair in 1997, we had a brand new world where everyone who was remotely serious accepted that socialism in the traditional sense was not the answer. We’d all seen the Wall come down. I’d been there when the Soviet Union collapsed and my friends and loved ones had cured me of any lingering romanticism about the far left. None of them wore Che Guevara badges and so neither did I anymore.

The Alliance that grew up in the 80s joining social democrats (SDP) and Liberals had been on the right side of history. New Labour was the Alliance in the 1990s and had stolen the Lib Dems clothes while they were off swimming somewhere. Sensible people in the SNP also realised that you had to get the economics right. Politics thus largely became a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Getting the economics right, basically means you have to follow the advice of central bankers who will all tell you fundamentally the same thing with variants. The only game in town is free market capitalism. You can tweak it a bit, but you’re then only really arguing about spending or saving plus or minus 5% of GDP. Should the state spend 40% of GDP (Conservatives) or 45% (Labour)? If we really had the guts, of course, we’d work towards the state spending 20% of GDP. That would really make the poor wealthier and everyone else too.  There is thus a left-wing argument for shrinking the state.

People who think we can go in the other direction are frankly dinosaurs. They want to go back to the time before 1979. The idea that the UK government could spend 55% of GDP or 60%, the idea that Scotland could do this while the other parts of the UK went in the other direction shows a profound lack of understanding of even basic economics.

Blair is not going to be remembered well by history. It is not so much that he fought a war in Iraq which was founded on an untruth; it’s that he fought that war so badly. If Iraq was a peaceful, prosperous democracy today, we would all have forgotten how it started. Wars have been fought for far worse reasons than toppling dictators. But our armed forces are not allowed to fight wars in the only way that ever made sense. The purpose of war is to defeat the enemy as quickly and with as little cost to your own side as possible. If we had fought the Germans as we fight modern wars we would probably have lost and if by some chance we had won we would have ended up with a chaotic Germany rather than a peaceful prosperous liberal democracy. Until we learn this lesson we really have no business fighting anywhere as we will only make bad situations worse.

Political choice now is largely meaningless. What matters is economic competence. Each and every party want in some way to redistribute whatever growth our economy achieves. It wasn’t Labour’s fault that we had an economic crisis in 2008. The crisis hit the whole world. But they contributed to the fact that it was worse in the UK than it needed to have been because of mismanagement to the economy. The other parties however are equally guilty because they acquiesced in the increases in public spending during the Blair/Brown years and would probably have spent similar amounts as Labour. Almost no-one said we are living beyond our means, until it was too late. Alistair Darling did a great service to our country by taking the necessary action to prevent collapse. Like everyone else he made mistakes, but rectified them and had a largely sound plan thereafter. If a Labour government had been elected in 2010 and had followed Darling’s plan, things would have turned out much the same as they have.

The Conservatives and Liberals have done many things well. The economy is recovering and that is a major achievement. The Liberals in my view made one of the most principled contributions to government in this country for decades. They put country before party and undeservedly have suffered ignominy and loss of support for enabling the economic policies necessary for recovery to occur.

All I’m interested in is whether a political party has a sound economic plan. I hope they all will have one. In that case we can discuss what to with the money our economy earns so that everyone’s life gradually improves, most of all the poorest. But parties or political movements planning spending sprees with public money when we are 1.5 trillion in debt simply don’t get what happened in 2008 and that it too was a turning point.

Independence movements in Scotland and the UK are missing the point. If the UK could have a similar relationship to the EU as Scotland does to the UK, we would have the best of both worlds. We must fight for devolution for Scotland and the UK. I very much doubt that Scottish independence from the UK is even possible without doing massive damage to the UK/Scottish economy. I similarly doubt that UK independence from the EU is possible. The EU has faults and I am concerned about trying to deal with them. We must not end up in a nation state that is ruled by unelected bureaucrats and if that is what is on offer I will vote to leave. But this would, of course, be going in the wrong direction and putting ourselves on the wrong side of history. I hope there is a referendum on this matter, but it is a distraction just as our referendum in Scotland was a distraction. Sometimes however it is necessary to decide these matters once and for all.

For the moment we are dealing in Scotland with people who don’t understand the economics and who don’t understand the politics. Some of them are trying to take us back to 1979, some to 1745, still others to 1314. There is something dreadfully ant-intellectual about this movement, something profoundly undemocratic too. We had a free, fair, decisive referendum, but huge numbers of people think we should vote and vote again until they like the result. The pity is that they can’t even understand why this is undemocratic. Be careful Scotland. This is where nationalism leads.  

Each of the main UK parties is capable of governing in the national interest, the differences in their policies is often little more than froth and bubble when you come down to it, but that does not matter so long as they are competent. It is vital that we who believe that the UK is better together put aside party differences in Scotland to continue to fight forces that threaten our country’s unity and even our status as a full democracy rather than a flawed one. If you live where Labour has the best chance of defeating the SNP it is your duty to vote for Labour. The same goes for if you live where the Liberals or Conservatives have the best chance of defeating the SNP. Above all we must get over our obsession with Thatcher and the 80s. Life is much better now, we are all, including the poorest, much better off in 2014 than the 1970s. This is in part because of the transformation that occurred in the 1980s. This isn’t a party political point in favour of the Conservatives. It is an historical point looking back on a time that is now quite distant. We cannot continue to fight old battles. We must move on. 

If you like my writing, please follow the link to my book Scarlet on the Horizon. The first five chapters can be read as a preview.