John McFall on why the best future for Scotland remains within the UK
“Aye, it’s squeaky bum time”. Such an indelicate yet effective phrase was often used by Sir Alex when his Manchester United team were up against it with little time left on the clock. With the volatilty of recent polls in the Scottish referendum, this state of affairs isn't surprising.
Last October, I predicted this trajectory after studying the 1995 Quebec referendum. There, twelve months before the vote the ‘No’ side commanded a comfortable 60/40 lead. But with a fortnight to go it dissolved and ‘Yes’ gained the momentum, going on to secure an even bigger lead before the vote. Yet when the result was finally declared, ‘No’ won – albeit narrowly by 1.6%. In Scotland, we are undoubtedly in for a similar roller coaster finish.
The Irish journalist Fintan O'Toole was spot-on when he recently wrote that nationalism is a form of myth-making, whereas independence demands a lot of myth-breaking. It has to replace the distorting mirror of fantasy with the sharp reflection of a real self.
Fantasy is very much alive with the nationalist campaign. In Alex Salmond's world, no room for doubt exists – whether over the pound, the removal of Trident, Oil revenues, EU entry or the hitherto impossible feat of reducing taxes whilst simultaneously increasing expenditure on health, education and welfare.
In the pursuit of calm, measured and reflective conversations with people in Scotland, I readily welcome the arrival of Labour MPs and Peers from elsewhere to Scotland today. Engaging in shared experiences and discussing the problems and opportunities existing in other parts of the UK will assist in an honest understanding of the reality of modern life in our country. Hopefully, common sense will dictate that what binds us together is far more important than what drives us apart.
As one whose former constituency was once dominated by shipbuilding and heavy engineering I am painfully aware that a by-product of globalisation is the transformation of Scotland from one of the workshops of the world to a service economy. But it is a scenario shared by many proud areas throughout the UK. So we have to be honest that these difficult and complex matters can't be addressed by the nation-state alone. The building block of society for over 300 years is increasingly ill-equipped for many of today’s problems. Regulating international finance, combating climate change or ensuring multinational companies pay their fair share in taxation cannot be tackled by domestic politicians alone. What is certain is that in such a globalised world size matters. Being part of a 60 odd million UK family ensures that the challenges can be faced more confidently and robustly.
In political exchanges on the campaign trail, I’ve found that the simplest questions are the most revealing, and invariably result in serious and lively conversations.
Why tear asunder a 307 year partnership that has worked in the best collective interests of the four Home nations? Will our economic, cultural and social relationships be enhanced by separation? What advantage does a small nation possess in an increasingly globalised world? Will separation lead to us being more respectful and tolerant of others, both within and outwit our borders?
“Westminster” and “London Labour” have been used by the nationalists as terms of abuse to denigrate our politics, despite the consistently excellent representation of constituent’s interests by Scottish MPs. Nevertheless, whatever happens next week, Westminster must undergo fundamental change. We fool ourselves if Lords reform is seen as the big answer, when it must be part of an all-embracing UK-wide constitutional change agenda. This shouldn't be a closed-shop exercise but involve extensive engagement with civic society. Real devolution and decision-making powers to all parts of our country in as near a federated structure as feasible is the only course.
In the next seven days, we have an opportunity to reinforce the message that this historic union is one that we have fashioned down the years of struggle and achievement through a shared history and shared vision.
In a recent parliamentary debate, my colleague Lord Parekh – born and raised in India and who has spent his working life in both Scotland and England – expressed it eloquently when describing our liberal democracy as a beautiful synthesis of English liberalism and a Scottish sense of community and solidarity, each regulating the other and which neither could have made alone. A multicultural and multi-ethnic society created in a way no other country has achieved.
We cannot afford to stand back and witness this union of over three centuries sacrificed on the altar of nationalism, where the certain consequence will be division, discord and despair. We must reinforce to our fellow citizens the dangers of separation. Otherwise 18 September 2014 could be the most painful and disruptive day in our long and fruitful shared history.
Lord John McFall of Alcluith is a Labour Peer and the former MP for West Dunbartonshire
Published 11th September 2014