Scotland’s vote in a year’s time is too important to be decided by who looks likely to win the UK General Election the year after. This isn’t about party politics, it’s about the broad sweep of history, and it’s about the institutions we vote for and which then rule over us.
Anarchists are fond of the phrase “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the Government always get in”, which is what makes the referendum such a rare and fascinating thing. For the first and probably last time in my life I’ll have a vote on whether I want the Westminster government as a whole in my life or not. So let’s put party to one side, or rather, let’s take a look at Westminster’s record as if it were a single political party, the good and bad.
The Westminster Party, for want of a better name, has been in power all my life. In fact they have (for the purposes of this argument) ruled without a break since the mid-19th century. So let’s go back a bit, rather than just looking at the last five or ten years: perhaps the last 40-50 years? What have they delivered over that period? I’ll do my best to be fair and pick a few areas to consider.
Democratic reform: Progress here has been limited at best, with the highlights being the Scottish Parliament itself and the other devolved assemblies. On the minus side the Westminster Party has defended its own interests over the decades by retaining an electoral system that’s non-proportional, outdated, and frankly favours the party’s own self-interest. The only time they’ve offered us a choice on replacing it, the alternative on offer was the smallest tweak possible, still non-proportional, and not something any of the party’s factions has ever even supported. Despite the cautious removal of some of the hereditaries from the House of Lords, we are still ruled in broadly the same way we were back in the 1860s. Oh, and the Westminster Party looks unlikely ever to offer us the option of an elected head of state. Compare to the Holyrood Party – the only level of democracy they could reform under the Scotland Act was local government, so they acted, and we now have a properly fair electoral system for our Councillors. The flaws in the Westminster Party’s record this area shouldn’t be regarded as something just of interest to wonks, either – it’s the foundation for all the policy issues below.
The economy: There’s no nice way to say this. Boom and bust, plus inequality: those are the Westminster Party’s trademarks. The booms have been unsustainable and delivered most of the benefits to the already better-off, to the city, and to London and the south-east, while the busts have been at the expense of the poorest, of manufacturing, and of the North of England in particular. It’s almost as if the Westminster Party’s policies over the last forty years have been designed to deliver instability and ever-widening inequality. Key public services have been handed over to the City, too, and so public money goes to support the lifestyles those who own the companies, rather than the services we use.
Health: If you go back a bit further than 50 years, you’d see perhaps the Westminster Party’s most shining achievement in this or any other area: the NHS. However, over the last 20 years, despite the massive popularity of a publicly-owned and publicly-run health service, the Westminster Party has chipped away at it, brought in private competition, charged for built new hospitals through dire PFI contracts, and weakened it perhaps permanently. They still charge for prescriptions and eye tests, for goodness sake. Fortunately, Scotland has missed the worst of this: the Holyrood Party, in power here since the start of devolution, has protected the NHS in Scotland from the worst excesses of this marketisation.
Education: You could almost say the primary policy of the Westminster Party here has been change for its own sake (another feature of their NHS policy): endless reorganisations, often without a clear purpose in mind. Having said that, the 1990s saw a period of significant investment at the primary and secondary level, which is to be commended. Unfortunately, at the same time the principle that higher education should be based on ability rather than bank balances was first threatened. Now the English university sector is effectively unaffordable for those who aren’t from wealthy backgrounds or prepared to get deep in debt, a principle which the Holyrood Party also ended in 2007.
Defence: This should really be billed as Interference. Or perhaps Profligacy. Defence is the only part of public spending that never gets challenged by the Westminster Party, who have also been committed to nuclear weapons for as long as nuclear weapons have existed. They never saw a military boondoggle they didn’t want to waste money on, and there’s hardly an American-led war (notable exception: Vietnam) they didn’t support or even actively take part in. Some of those interventions (e.g. Sierra Leone) have gone better than others (two recent disasters hardly need to be named), but the record here is pretty brutal, to say the least.
The environment: Despite an unexpectedly early expression of interest in the late 1980s, it’s been all coal and new motorways and business as usual. The Westminster Party leadership knows it needs to talk as if it cares about the environment, and set some meaningless targets to miss (a flaw it shares with the Holyrood Party, to be fair), but they have achieved literally nothing substantial that might protect the environment either here in the UK or internationally.
Overall, the Westminster Party’s failures of policy and governance could hardly be more clear. This what we’ve had to put up with over the last 150 years, but if Scotland votes No, it’s also what we’ll face for the next 150 years. I regret the fact that the rest of the UK isn’t being offered an opportunity to vote the whole lot of them out out, especially my friends in England who (outside London) don’t have the benefit of devolution.
But that can’t be helped. We have a chance in Scotland to push a domino over next year. Perhaps others will fall after it.