So the UK will remain together as one proud nation. Alex Salmond has not had his way – and Britain is has not been torn apart.
The road to polling day has been long and painful. Division and discontent has been sown at every turn. In a campaign designed to split and divide those wanting the status quo have often been vilified, with their patriotism called into question. In the context of the independence campaign, the words ‘London’ and ‘Westminster’ have been turned almost into ones of abuse. The Yes campaign was spectacularly successful at splitting the nation straight down the middle.
Indeed, in a clear sign of just how bad things have become, the Church of Scotland is staging a service of national reconciliation in St Giles’ Cathedral on Sunday, 21 September, in a first step to try and bind up the wounds.
But how have we reached this point, and how do we move forward and learn to live together once agai?. This is not a question or a challenge for the Scots alone. The truth is that on these islands the Welsh, Northern Irish, Scots and English are so intermingled and inter-dependent that going our separate ways is not a realistic option.
Political leadership ought to be about how to bring our communities and our society closer together. How do we bring healing when there is hurt; generate trust and confidence in each other and our shared institutions; above all how do we all share the benefits of togetherness and not allow division and bitterness to grow and thrive?
This is not an ‘airy-fairy’ wish or a naive hope. It is the essence of successful political leadership.
Scotland’s independence referendum has been long in the making. The retreat of a confident, appealing Conservative Party during the last 20 years allowed Labour to become the dominant political force and denied the Scottish people a meaningful choice at general elections. It also denied the Conservatives what had always been a powerful and distinctive stream of thought and perspective.
The prospect of what was in effect a one party state north of the border unsurprisingly had limited appeal to the Scots – so they looked elsewhere. This gave the SNP their chance. Salmond, as canny a political operator as it is possible to find in British politics, spotted his chance and has taken full advantage of his moment.
Somehow he has managed to present it as illegitimate for David Cameron and Ed Milliband to have a view and participate in Scottish politics – with them being characterised as ‘coming up from London to say something before they hop on a plane to go back down south.’ Even Gordon Brown, who has shown he is much more comfortable talking to and about Scotland in a way that he never demonstrated to the whole of the UK when he was Prime Minister, lapsed into this narrative in an interview with David Dimbleby when he said: “Sorry, Mr Dimbleby, you don’t understand…you have come up for the day… .”
Salmond’s failure to secure decisive and popularly based support for independence is the clearest possible demonstration that the Scottish people remain essentially unconvinced that separation is the answer to their concerns. But the No vote opens up a golden and unique political opportunity for UK leaders to reclaim their part in Scotland’s political debate, draw Scotland back more comfortably and confidently into the British family of nations, and heal the wounds of division that have been sown.
Elsewhere in the UK we see similar symptoms of discontent and alienation from ‘Westminster’ and ‘London’. This needs to be understood and responded to. UKIP is a manifestation of a similar mood south of the border.
So far in response, we have had mechanistic and process driven responses – devolution and changing the voting system. Cries from the heart cannot be answered by administrative tinkering. Constitutional change is an arid and thoughtless way to respond. We need a politics and politicians who can respond emotionally as well as practically to the people’s challenge.
A No vote in Scotland will give the national Conservative Party a unique chance to re-establish itself, and become a proper positive political force in Scottish politics once again. This will actually help the Labour Party, since it will have a proper opposition to compete with. We must reverse the collapse of effective competitive party politics in Scotland.
This means politicians listening and responding to the needs and concerns of the different parts of the UK and fashioning their responses into a coherent whole. Too often, policies are dreamed up in a think-tank by people of little or no experience – and then people’s loyalty to a Party is tested when asked for their vote. That approach no longer works. Voters have to be attracted to policy platforms and politicians, not taken for granted.
UK institutions should properly be called by UK names. It is perfectly obvious the Bank of England should be the Bank of the United Kingdom. The UK Supreme Court could well meet in Edinburgh and Cardiff, as well as London. The UK Cabinet should meet regularly in Edinburgh, Cardiff – and for that matter in major cities across the UK, not just London.
It should be thought unexceptional for the Prime Minister – and his team – to spend days at a time living and working in the capital cities of the countries that comprise the United Kingdom. Where he goes the administration of the state will follow – journalists and the hangers-on too. It would be a thoroughly healthy thing for all concerned. After all, the Australian Prime Minister is currently running his country from a tent in a remote part of the outback with his team using little more than a laptop and a mobile telephone.
There’s no doubt of the success of the London Mayoralty, and there is no reason this model would not work across the UK. The coalition’s failure to deliver in this policy area is regrettable and needs readdressing – with passion and commitment.
The high level of voter registration in Scotland for the referendum vote is a hugely encouraging and exciting legacy of the campaign. It shows that people – young and old – are interested in politics. They do get involved when their interest in engaged. The received and complacent wisdom that says people aren’t interested in politics and/or ‘don’t join things anymore’ needs to be nailed as the tosh that it is. It is the professional political operator’s excuse for complacency, and for staying inside the safety zone of their clique.
The service at St. Giles’ on Sunday is a good start. I hope all the leaders will be there – David Cameron and Ed Milliband, as well as Alex Salmond, Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown. But then Scotland’s No vote gives politicians and all of us a wonderful opportunity to come together once again as one people to value our inter-dependence, embrace our shared lives, heal the divisions, and build a stronger country.