September 18 marked the nine-year anniversary of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The people who campaigned and voted for an independent Scotland had looked at the economic stagnation and social inequality that a lifetime of Westminster government had inflicted upon them and, looking to their neighbours across the North Sea, dared to dream of something different – a sovereign government close to home, with the powers to build a society that would welcome strangers to its hearth, protect the poorest and most vulnerable, and invest in the prosperity and well-being of all its citizens.
The 2014 independence campaign recognised that, for too long, political and economic power has been hoarded within a few square miles in the southeast corner of this island and that, for too long, the people who wield this power have failed to govern in Scotland’s best interests. Today, the independence campaign remains a movement which looks at the United Kingdom and recognises we are poorer and less happy than we could and should be. It is a movement that, above all, says that the status quo is simply not acceptable.
They say that all great historic events occur twice: first as tragedy, and then as farce. And so it was that this week, nine years after the independence campaign’s defeat on September 18, 2014, Liz Truss took to her lectern to call for an end to the status quo. In a wide-ranging speech that extended her seemingly endless repertoire of porcine metaphors, she called for an end to the “economic establishment” that had for too long throttled growth. She decried the existence of the “anti-growth coalition” that held back economic progress. And she called for a sea change in the way that the government approaches economic and fiscal policy.
In a pale imitation of the grassroots movement that swept across Scotland almost a decade earlier, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom stood at her lectern in a Georgian manor and echoed those calls for an end to the status quo. The trouble, of course, was that her quack cures were worse than the disease.
Even after she was swiftly deposed, however, the same problems remain: for decades, HM Treasury’s hostility towards deficit spending – the sine qua non of social democracy – has allowed the public realm in the United Kingdom to crumble into disrepair and decay, with people and infrastructure alike now bearing witness to the damage that comes from living in the country with the lowest investment rates in the G7. The anti-growth coalition also remains alive and well. Known in common parlance as the Conservative and Unionist Party, this ragtag bunch of ideologues and zealots continue to do more damage to this country’s economic and social well-being with every passing day.
Don’t just take my word for it: Jurgen Maier, former chief executive of Siemens UK, said this week that the Conservative government’s bungled wind auction, plans to axe the expansion of HS2, and U-turns on climate pledges represented an exemplary three-step process for “destroying business confidence in a month”.
Lisa Brankin, the UK chair of Ford, echoed those comments as Rishi Sunak announced his intention to water down the UK’s climate promises. This U-turn, Brankin said, represents a signal to the business community that the UK Government lacks ambition, commitment and, most importantly of all, consistency. A statement from EON went further, calling the U-turn “a misstep on many levels. From a business perspective, companies wanting to invest in the UK need long-term certainty to create the jobs and economic prosperity the country needs.”
In the face of this opposition from the private sector and citizens across Scotland, it seems that Sunak is watering down measures to tackle the climate crisis and encourage the transition to net zero to appeal to a fictional constituency created in the image of 495 voters from Uxbridge and South Ryslip, whose opposition to clean air zones allowed the Conservative party to cling onto the seat by their fingertips. Sunak, a management consultant until the bitter end, seems to have simply extrapolated that anti-green sentiment into his strategy for a future general election – with no regard for the wider social and economic context or the ambition on the climate crisis that our planet needs. Instead, the Prime Minister intends to plunge us into a merry dance of climate culture wars, totally at odds with our environmental, social and economic interests.
As the British Social Attitudes Survey found this week, public support for an active and interventionist state is at an all-time high. Such are the global, economic and social insecurities of our age that even Conservative voters have called time on the era of small and hands-off government. Those seeking only to tweak our economy and society for fear of spooking the horses – seemingly the hallmark of the Starmer agenda – are behind the curve of public opinion, who know the times call for greater strategic thought and ambition.
Speaking in a 1936 Commons debate, perhaps the most famous Conservative of them all sounded an alarm which sounds eerily resonant today. “Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have now entered upon a period of danger,” said Winston Churchill. “The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences. We cannot avoid this period. We are in it now.”
While the first Scottish independence referendum may not have provided the result that so many of us hoped for, and Liz Truss’s crackpot cure for the nation’s ills did more harm than good, it remains an inescapable fact that the same truth fuelled both campaigns: something is deeply broken in the United Kingdom. The period where that truth can be avoided is over.
Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South