Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Compass - No Turning Back

I was in London last weekend to take part in the Compass 'No Turning back' conference. It came about through Mark Perryman – the driving force behind the 'Breaking Up Britain' book to which I contributed a chapter recently. Although not eligible to be a member of Compass thanks to my SNP affiliations, I nonetheless was invited along to take part in a fringe event to discuss some of the themes of the book.

I've been guilty in the past of harbouring something of an ambivalent attitude towards the 'metro-left' as I've termed it previously. Partly, that's down to my viewing politics from a primarily Scottish rather than a Westminster perspective. Partly, its down to the lazy assumptions made by some about the 'reactionary' nature of the SNP. It's also partly down to the assumption that 2 party politics is the norm, and that all the faults of the country are down to the other lot – a contention which in my view becomes hard to sustain if you happen to live in a place where Labour has been the effective establishment for half a century.

Although most of the delegates were either Labour, ex-Labour or unaffiliated 'progressives', there was an impressive array of 'dissidents' there, including Adam Price MP from Plaid Cymru, Caroline Lucas from the English Green Party, along with representatives from Sinn Fein and Respect. Coming right after Labour's drubbing at the Euro elections, it was a commendable display of political ecumenicism, matched only by what can be best described as a determination to seize a new agenda for the broad left in what might be the final 11 months of this Labour government.

With some early preconceptions confounded and complimentary copies of the Guardian and New Statesman in hand, off I went to the first session. The speeches from Billy Hayes, Harriet Harman, John Hilary, Caroline Lucas and Neal Lawson were enjoyably passionate, although it was a bit odd from the perspective of a relative outsider to hear the contention advanced that you could in fact fit a Rizla between the future spending plans of the Labour and Conservative parties.

Our Fringe session, 'No Turning Back on Devolution', attracted in the region of about 40 of the 1,000 delegates. In addition to Mark and myself, there was Professor Arthur Aughey from the University of Ulster; John Osmond of the Institute of Welsh Affairs; Sean Oliver, Sinn Fein's Director of European Affairs; and an impressive one-time Labour PPC, Rupa Huq, whom it must be recorded indulged in some quite shameless buttering up of Pat Kane, who himself took part in proceedings from the floor.

My own contribution was based on the theme of how the SNP had approached government, and how this fed into moves towards independence. With the theme of performance in the Euro elections a popular one for discussion, perhaps unsurprisingly, I began with some thoughts on how the SNP had managed to hold and arguably increase its base of support since May 2007 – something which can be put down to a few factors:

  • The SNP Government is perceived as being a competent manager of Scottish affairs. Ministers are seen as accessible and have likable public persona's. This has won a fair amount of goodwill and support in business, the civil service, the professions and the third sector – much of which was sceptical before not only about independence, but arguably about devolution itself.

  • Voters like the policies being put in place. Proper funding of free personal care, the ending of back-end tuition fees, the lack of marketisation in the NHS, the promotion of not for profit alternatives to PFI, opposition to ID cards, Trident and Nuclear Power, alongside freezing council tax and business rates, have been instrumental in garnering support from across the political spectrum.
  • People like the 'breath of fresh air' factor of a party other than Labour running Scotland's affairs, and actually quite like the fact that the government lacks the majority to always get its own way.

  • Much of it can also be put down to a 'normalisation' of politics in Scotland. Previously, the SNP had been viewed as somehow illegitimate in many quarters. However, the party's very presence in Government had done much to exorcise this. There are budgets which self-evidently do balance and ministers who quite obviously manage to work happily with Whitehall – the sky has emphatically not fallen in, which leaves a lot of people's previous rhetoric looking rather foolish.

When it comes to a referendum, the SNP continues to make the democratic argument for a vote liberated from party politics. While this had been accepted by Wendy Alexander, Labour had now retreated. However, who was to know what the attitude would be in 12 months time. Although there was no referendum majority in Holyrood, a majority outside Holyrood supported a referendum regardless as to how they'd vote given the chance. Support was also finely balanced between those intending to vote 'yes' and those intending to vote 'no'. Again, regardless as to preference, a majority expected Scotland to become independent in their lifetime. This wouldn't deliver independence in itself, but was perhaps an indication as to the overall direction of travel.

While Calman was likely to recommend more powers, it would need Westminster to deliver. With such a short time left to run in the present Parliament, this would likely rumble up to the Holyrood elections in 2011 and through a referendum vote in Holyrood. This meant that everything was building to further devolution and a crunch decision on whether or not the voters should have their say on full independence.

However, even if Calman's recommendations were implemented before the Westminster election, it still couldn't prevent the election of a Conservative government if that were to be the way the polls went south of the border. In that event, the choice at a 2010 referendum or a 2011 Holyrood election would be between a Cameron government and all that might entail, or the chance to build a progressive, nuclear free and self-governing Scotland. For a lot of left-inclined voters, the prospect of independence could become quite a tempting choice.

And so expired my 5 minutes. Although it's familiar territory to anyone in Scotland, these aren't issues which get aired very often south of the border, and it was fantastic to get the chance to air them and to be open to question and challenge. A disproportionate number of those who argue for England to be governed differently define themselves by opposition to the EU, to immigration or the welfare state. If we are to achieve a new but importantly amicable constitutional settlement between Scotland and the rest of the UK, these are discussions which need to take place, and involve a lot more people.

Big thanks to Mark Perryman for making it all happen, and I look forward to getting the chance to do it all again with him at the SNP's London Branch meeting in August!

P.S. Soundbite of the day has to go to Caroline Lucas: “Tony Blair's big tent is well and truly over. Now we need a campsite of smaller tents."

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