After the referendum: why it can't be business as usual: the incorporation of the Scottish campaign for self-government into a broader federalist agenda could enable a democratic revival in the UK, to the benefit of the left.

Author:Fusco, Adam

Since the SNP government's announcement that it would hold a referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014, the prevailing view amongst political commentators has been that Scotland is likely to remain within the United Kingdom. Whilst this is not necessarily controversial for those analysing these events from a non-partisan perspective, outside of Scotland this view has often been coupled with an attitude that assumes the post-referendum situation will be 'business as usual'. This attitude suggests that as far as the UK constitution is concerned, the issues raised by Scotland's prospective independence will be concerns of the past. It is this 'business as usual' attitude with which I want to take issue in this essay. I will argue that by rejecting it, the British left can seize upon this unique moment as an opportunity to rejuvenate UK politics.

The 'business as usual' attitude towards a post-referendum settlement is a dangerous one to take, because not only is it patronising to the Scottish electorate, skewing the independence debate into a visceral contest between two types of nationalism, Scottish and British and/or Scottish and English, it also crucially misses the appeal to many of a richer notion of regional governance within the United Kingdom. As such, the 'business as usual' attitude is dangerous for the British left as it fails to diagnose why the Scottish National Party has been so electorally popular with what is essentially a left-leaning electorate in Scotland. From devolution in 1999 to the present, Scottish politics has been able to offer the institutional basis for a renewed social democracy, previously unseen in the UK's political system. Although yet to be fully exploited, the idea behind this type of politics is that through the use of regional democratic powers, policy outcomes can be authored in a manner that are less constrained than the outcomes accepted as feasible by central government. With left-leaning electorates in regions such as Scotland, these outcomes can be social democratic in a way that are not possible on a constrained, UK-wide basis.

Indeed, in recent times the potential to pursue this type of centre-left politics has been capitalised upon by the SNP, exposing a reinvigorated and self-confident Scottish electorate to the idea that through the exercise of regional democracy understood as a form of self-determination--the neo-liberal politics that has been at the centre of the Westminster settlement since the 1980s can be rejected in Scotland. By moving the focus of democratic life to Scotland, the story has been that Scottish voters no longer have to feel bound to accept the neo-liberal economic and social policies created at Westminster, nor do they have to feel that they have to settle either for the watered-down social democracy typified by New Labour.

Independence has now come onto the agenda as the surest way to secure this type of politics. It now seems to many that only such radical measures can secure a centre-left politics. There is now an attitude amongst those on the left who are sympathetic to independence that even if a post-Blairite Labour Party could command a majority at Westminster, the centre-ground of politics in such a situation would still differ, most likely by a good few degrees to the right, from that which could be possible in Scotland. This is because aspects of the English electorate, particularly in the South-East--once typified by suburban England's 'Mondeo-Man'--have also developed their own political consciousness, to the right of that of the rest of Britain. These are the upwardly mobile aspirant voters whose political culture is still broadly framed by the values of the Thatcherite project.

With the electoral arithmetic of UK elections in hoc to this, and with the political agenda on the left and right being tailored to win these votes, there is a feeling in Scotland that some form of looser association with the English electorate is desirable. But if the problem is with the South-East of England, and the distorting power it has on democracy in the rest of the country, then is a type of looser association not possible for other regions in England rather than just the historic nations that comprise the UK? I will therefore contend that Scotland can provide an example to the left in the rest of the United Kingdom by showing how regional democratic politics can help lay the institutional pre-conditions for a new left-wing politics that is neither centralist social democracy nor indeed contemporary neo-liberalism.

The Scottish experiment with regional democracy

The genesis of devolution's existing institutions began in the 1980s during Margaret Thatcher's time as Prime Minister (Mitchell, 20ii). Whilst there...

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