Some quick thoughts on ‘Super Thursday’

Britain voted, I hapzardly analyse.

THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS NEED TO REALISE WE ARE STILL AT RISK OF EXTINCTION

Yesterday was a novelty for Liberal Democrats. The public voted and we came away in a better position than we were before. We not only gained councillors (and a council) but our absolute gains were more than anyone else’s. And there were some impressive wins in the constituency section of the Scottish Parliament. The sense of near elation at not being battered by the electorate again is palpable.

However, these results do demonstrate that the end of the coalition will not end the damage it did to the Party. We have gone from being Britain’s 3rd party to one of a number of minor parties. We are now only the fifth largest party in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and GLA.

It would be tempting to think we’ve turned a corner. And we may well have done but yesterday could also simply be a stay of execution. While the good outweighed the bad, there were some depressing results too: notably big losses in the Welsh Assembly. And things could quite easily start getting worse again. We faced Labour and Conservative Parties that were both unpopular and divided. If they get their acts together we could be in trouble.

I’m also concerned that renewed successes for our old approach of burrowing in and building at a local level may lead us to neglect building a brand that resonates nationally.

SADIQ KHAN IS NO OBAMA BUT HIS WIN IS STILL INSPIRING

With so much of European politics currently revolving around Islamophobia, the fact that the continent’s largest city now has a Muslim mayor is encouraging. That London’s voters chose him despite a Conservative campaign that sought to remind everyone that Khan was a Muslim and that Muslim’s are all scary extremists, makes it more heartening still.

After 16 years of big egos using the Mayoralty as a platform for their clowning, it’s actually rather refreshing that London now has a rather average machine politician as it’s Mayor.

WE MAY HAVE BEEN LEARNING THE WRONG LESSONS FROM THE SCOTTISH REFERENDUM

A trope of discussions about the ‘Remain’ campaign’s tactics is that ‘No’ to independence was too negative and calculating. The argument is that frightening people about the consequences of breaking up the Union stopped people voting ‘yes’ but energised no one. That set the stage for the freshly fired up nationalists to sweep all before them in the subsequent General Election. Their new political dominance will eventually lead to independence. The moral apparently is that ‘Remain’ can’t just warn about the consequences of Brexit, it needs to make people feel good about the EU.

Yesterday was a blow to that theory. The SNP is not unstoppable. It lost its majority at Holyrood. Independence may not be inevitable after all. Of course, Brexit will be inevitable if ‘Leave’ wins the referendum as polls suggest it very well might. Stopping that should be our priority and if raising valid concerns about its results is the way to do it, then let’s do that.

THE RISE OF THE SCOTTISH CONSERVATIVES IS AMBIGIOUS FOR THE INDEPENDENCE DEBATE

On the one hand, the fact that the main unionist voice in Scotland is now the Conservatives makes it easier for the nationalists to equate opposition to independence with support for Conservatism. But the fact that the Conservative Party is winning elections in Scotland makes it harder for the SNP to present it as an alien force imposed from London. Expect them to try anyway.

JEREMY CORBYN’S LABOUR PARTY IS THE KIND OF LABOUR PARTY THAT LOSES SEATS TO THE CONSERVATIVES IN GLASGOW!!!

During an episode of Have I Got News For You from week of the first elections to the Scottish Parliament, Angus Deayton turned to the camera and reminded viewers that ‘this program is being recorded before the announcement of the results. So we cannot tell you how Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Greens or Scottish Socialists are doing. However, we can tell you the Conservatives have done extremely badly.’

How times have changed.

Scotland was supposed to be the proving ground for Corbynism. The voters who’d rejected Blairism for Nationalism would supposedly be won back with red blooded socialism. To say the least, that’s not really worked.

More generally, I find the notion that because these elections were not quite a total disaster for Labour they were therefore a vindication of Corbyn’s leadership rather mystifying.

Opposition parties with new leaders basically never lose seats in the first round of local elections of a parliament. Given that the Government has a) split over the EU referendum and b) inflicted the junior doctors strike, academisation and an unpopular budget on itself, Labour slipping backwards is even more damning for Labour.

THE CONSERVATIVES MAY NOT QUITE BE BULLETPROOF

An understandable inference for a Conservative to draw from these events is that as long as Corbyn is Labour leader, they can do whatever they want without electoral repurcusions. That’s probably true up to a point. If their splits on Europe develop into schisms or they elect a leader even less qualified to be PM than Corbyn (*cough* Boris *cough*) then trouble could lie ahead.

UKIP ARE NOT DOING AS WELL AS THEY THINK

UKIP IS FULL OF IT

You know how UKIP loves to go on about corruption in the EU? Do you think this reflects an honest disdain for corruption or knee jerk Europhobia?

Well if they actually wanted clean politics, then they’d want nothing to do with Neil Hamilton. He is after all the personification of the sleaze that engulfed John Major’s government; the man who took money for asking parliamentary questions. But he’s now in the Welsh Assembly under UKIP colours. Which is all a bit yucky.

THE GREENS ARE CAUGHT IN A WEIRD FLUX STATE

My reading is that the fate of the Greens is in Labour’s hands. If Corbyn survives or is replaced by somebody like himself they’ll struggle. If the Labour moderates reassert control of their party, then there will be a lot of seriously pissed off lefties ripe for the taking.

Until Labour choses what direction to go in, the fate of the Greens is likely to be ambigious.

Odd one out: Lib Dems and a progressive alliance

Labour can ever have an alliance of the centre-left alliance with the Lib Dems or an alliance of the hard left with the Greens and Nationalists. It can’t have both.

A couple of weeks back I wrote a post highlighting why I thought an alliance between the Lib Dems and Labour was unlikely. James King, a fellow Lib Dem and occasional guest poster here at Matter of Facts, has written a post tackling a similar subject: the notion of combining all anti-conservative forces in the UK together into ‘a progressive alliance’. Where I mostly relied on intuition, he’s found empirical evidence to show quite how hard this might be. This bit particularly caught my attention:

This post by Tim Bale, Paul Webb, and Monica Poletti is based on survey data which asked strong supporters of each major party to plot their own ideological position, along with that of their favoured party and the other parties, on a score from 0 to 10, with 0 being the most left-wing and 10 being the most right-wing. In principle, the closer the dots are, the greater potential for an agreement there should be between the parties.  Of course, this approach is far from perfect – the left-right spectrum, while widely used, is unsubtle and frequently misleading, and these values are the averages of a potentially very wide spread.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting starting point, and if anything underestimates any potential problems with the coherence of the ‘progressive alliance’.

With the help of MS Paint, I have visualised the outlook of each party’s supporters as a linear scale.  First up, Labour.

Labour political axis

A quick explainer: the pink dot is where Labour’s strong supporters put themselves, and the red dot is where they put their party.  Green is Green, Yellow SNP, Orange Lib Dem, and so on.  The thing that stands out here is how Labour voters see themselves as being in more-or-less the same space as the SNP and the Greens, with UKIP far out to the right.  The Lib Dems, on the other hand, are perceived as slightly right-of-centre, roughly equidistant between Labour and the Tories.  Any association of Labour with the Lib Dems will alienate these supporters; while you can see a pattern of a possible progressive coalition on the left there, the Lib Dems are the clear odd-one-out.  (It should be said that this data was collected immediately after the General Election, so there may have been a shift of the views of Labour Party supporters since then.)

I don’t think Labour voters are mistaken to perceive a gap between the Lib Dems and ‘the left’.

The different components of the Labour Party may have staggeringly disparate ideas about what it means to be on the left but in my experience what tends to hold them together is a visceral opposition to the right. This is referred to as ‘negative partisanship‘. This is also a potent force for the Greens who tend to oppose Labour out of a sense it’s made too many compromises with the right-wing forces in British society. And an association of England with Toryism provides nationalism with much of its fuel.

‘Negative partisanship’ is a much less powerful force for Liberal Democrats. This can be seen in its willingness to contemplate coalitions with parties of both left and right.

Underlying this is a fairly weak identification of Liberal Democrats with the left. Which is not to say we don’t incline left. Vastly more British Liberals understand themselves as being on the left than the right. A factor that becomes pretty obvious whenever self-consciously right-wing liberals try to exert influences within the party. But there are plenty of Lib Dems who prefer to define themselves as centrists or reject the whole notion that the left/right split is meaningful. A fair number – and this includes me – are an incoherent mixture of all three. The figures James presents do indeed show that Lib Dem voters tend to see themselves as closer to Labour than the Conservatives. But only a minority of that is because they place themselves to the left – they barely do. It’s mainly because they see the Conservatives as further from the centre. Or maybe that should be ‘saw’ rather than ‘see’ – Jeremy Corbyn may have changed this.

Essentially, it will be difficult to fit the Lib Dems into an alliance built on ‘negative partisanship’. Our anti-conservative leanings are not definitive enough to convince adamant left-wingers of our reliability. And we probably need some kind of positive alignment to really buy into the alliance.

Therefore, I think Labour probably has to decide between creating ‘a progressive alliance’ with the Greens, other far left groups and perhaps the nationalists that is based solely on the notion of beating the Tories, or alternatively doing what it did in the early stages of Tony Blair’s leadership and creating a sense that Labour and the Lib Dems are engaged in a shared ‘project’ with concrete policy objectives that go beyond anti-Toryism.

It’s the SNP’s country and Scots are just living in it

The SNP rather than the Lib Dems or UKIP may be the third largest party in the next parliament

This presumably assumes a Uniform National Swing which is unlikely: there will be incumbency advantages and tactical voting. I also can’t vouch that whoever did the maths here got it right. Still if it’s remotely accurate then wow!!!!

4 warnings for Scotland from Irish History

The experience of the last country to leave the UK contradicts many of the optimistic claims the Yes Campaign is making about the prospects of an independent Scotland.

When Michael Collins signed an agreement with the British government in 1921 to create the Irish Free State, a quarter of the world was ruled from London. Since then that massive empire has almost wholly disintegrated: India, Nigeria, Malaya etc. have all become independent. Yet none of them are quite the same as Ireland. It was not just part of the British Empire but Britain itself. Dublin is closer to London than Newcastle. Ireland even sent MPs to sit in the Westminster Parliament. It is, therefore, in many ways the only historical event comparable to the prospect of Scottish independence. It is not one that is flattering for Yes Scotland.

Here are some lessons Scottish voters would do well to bear in mind:

1. This is not a freedom struggle

Firstly, a point of contrast. When it looked like Ireland would leave the Union, the British government sent in soldiers. Traumatised WWI veterans committed atrocities and paramilitary death squads roamed Dublin’s streets.

Today there is no question that if Scotland votes for independence, London will deliver it – though not necessarily on the terms that Alex Salmond suggests.

The people of Ireland were shackled to a state and society that was institutionally racist against them. By contrast, Scots have the same civil liberties and democratic freedoms as the citizens of the rest of the UK. Whatever else it is, Independence is not a battle for Scot’s freedom.

2. Independence does not mean leaving the UK’s shadow

Just about the only time I’ve come across Ireland being mentioned in the Independence debate is to note the fact that until 1978 the Irish Pound were backed by Sterling. This is a point in favour of the Yes argument that Scotland could continue to use the Pound after independence but also illustrates a broader point they would be less happy with: even after having notionally obtained independence the Irish economy was so closely intertwined with that of the rest of the UK that it opted to continue using its currency.

And this interconnection applies to politics as well as economics. To this day the schism between Ireland’s two main political parties can be traced back to their differing attitudes to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. And of course, the conflict in the British controlled North was to reverberate South of the border.

We could expect that even after a Yes vote, Scotland would continue having to debate its relationship with the UK as it would have to continue to decide whether to pool its currency, armed forces and national broadcaster. And if it does the decisions about those institutions will continue to be made in London but by a government which Scottish voters would have no role in electing.

3. Don’t believe guff about nations having an inherently collectivist ethos

What we assume to be the fixed elements of national characters are generally just lazy and fickle stereotypes. For example, in the early nineteenth century, it would have been generally thought that the French were ruthlessly efficient (witness Napolean’s armies), while Germans were unwordly romantics who sat around listening to Beethoven. For this reason we should be very sceptical about the notion that Scots are more caring than the English. As I’ve already blogged about this week the empirical basis for this notion is weak. And the experience of Ireland should make us more dubious still.

The Irish have as a good a claim as any nation to be inherently collectivist as any. The central role of the Catholic Church and its social teaching should have provided the institutional and ideological basis for a society that looked after its members. It was even written into Ireland’s constitution that “justice and charity” must “inform all the institutions of the national life” and that the “state must protect the vulnerable, such as orphans and the aged.”

However, none of this stopped Ireland from becoming the site for a radical experiment in free market economics which turned the country into a corporate tax haven and created a massive property bubble. When the Credit Crunch burst it wrecked first Ireland’s banking system and then its public finances. That plunged the country into a deep recession and austerity.

4. Currency unions are horrible

Pretty much all Ireland’s warning for Scotland can be brought together in a single incident. In November 2011, the Irish government had to be bailed out not just by the IMF and its Eurozone partners but also by the UK.

As well as arising from a distinct lack of collectivist feeling on the part of the Irish and illustrating how tied to the UK it remains, it also showed the problems with currency unions.

That the UK was in a position to be bailing out Ireland rather than being bailed out itself was rather remarkable. It too had suffered a banking crisis and its government’s debt and deficit were almost as bad as Ireland’s.

What saved it was having its own currency. When the crisis hit the Bank of England slashed interest rates and began printing money to drive down borrowing costs. The value of the Pound also dropped making British exports cheaper and reducing the value of debts.

Ireland did not have this advantage. The Euro was also the currency of larger and more robust economies like France and Germany. Therefore, its value did not fall as far and the European Central Bank felt unable to take the kind of aggressive action the Bank of England did lest that stoke up inflation in the rest of the Eurozone. That left both its economy in worse shape and there being less money for the government to borrow.

However, what’s really damning for the Yes camp is not that a currency union didn’t work for Ireland after the crash but also failed it during the boom that went before. Ireland’s financial deregulation and corporation tax cuts initially worked. It drew in large amounts of foreign investment and grew at an impressive pace. That and high levels of inflation should have been a cue for a central bank to raise interest rates in order to prevent the Irish economy overheating. But the ECB had responsibility for the whole Eurozone and it was not growing anywhere near as fast as Ireland. Therefore, interest rates stayed low and there was nothing to stop Ireland going on a borrowing binge.

The cruel reality of currency unions is that they turn even success into a problem. If Yes Scotland delivered on its aspiration to “unleash Scotland’s great economic potential” then presumably Scotland’s economy would grow faster than the rest of the UK and it would likely find interest rates set too low. So even if independence does lead to a boom, a Scotland without an independent central bank would be liable to an Irish style bubble.

That a currency union with all its inherent flaws is Salmond’s “Plan A” – even with the Eurozone crisis still ongoing – does rather illustrate the bleakness of the options available to an independent Scotland.

Conclusion

Ireland’s history can seem like a litany of sectarian violence and economic misery but it is actually a prosperous and peaceful country. And Scotland starts with advantages Ireland didn’t. It would not be born in a civil war nor would it have to contend with an overmighty Catholic Church. So we should not expect Ireland’s history to track Ireland’s. But it does illustrate many of the structural problems that Scotland would face in the wake of a Yes vote.