16 September 2014

Gramsci's dictum

This morning, the Herald come out against independence, arguing that a federated Britain, with greater Scottish autonomy, is the precondition for its endorsement of continuing Union. They conclude:
"Substantive autonomy for Scotland's parliament and government could unify Scotland. Such autonomy is not merely an aspiration: it is a demand."
In its critique of the Yes campaign, the paper notes that:
"Antonio Gramsci, the Italian philosopher and politician, famously advocated pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. The Yes campaign, understandably, has emphasised the latter but effectively ignored the former."
The newspaper's case is characteristically lucid, reflecting some of the ambivalences I was blogging about yesterday. But given the state of the Westminster debate on "more powers", and the precariousness of the editorial's own reasoning on this question, you've got to wonder whose intellect is insufficiently pessimistic. Cutting to the heart of it all, the paper today endorses a No vote on the basis that Scotland must secure a form of devolution which nobody is offering, and which nobody in UK politics has ever shown any willingness to part with. Now that's what I call optimism of the will.

Let's survey the evidence. Nobody, not a single political party in this country, is offering, has offered, or shows any coherent willingness to embrace the kind of reform the Herald say is the precondition of their backing for the Union. Labour, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats - every one has been given umpteen opportunities to realise a more extensive devolution. Between 2009 and 2012, the great grey federalist hope, Gordon Brown, and his Downing Street successor, knocked back almost every Scottish Government proposal to elaborate Holyrood's economic powers and authority over social security and welfare.

No crown estate revenues, no allocation of oil revenues, no corporation tax, limited income tax powers, no pensions, no minimum wage, no housing benefit, no jobseekers allowance, no disability benefits. Some borrowing powers and the ability to ban airguns is all very well, but it was hardly a radical endorsement of Scottish autonomy. These gentlemen were in high office. They had the parliamentary draftsmen at their beck and call, to deliver a bolder autonomy to Scotland. They were invited to do so. They declined. So what's changed in a couple of years? All three Westminster parties had their chance, had multiple chances, and at every turn, all three have chosen to cut minimalist deals, preserving Westminster's prerogatives, leaving the centre of British politics unreformed.  

Perhaps they've had a change of heart? If so, they've kept the news gey quiet. In the course of this campaign, all three parties scurried off to their libraries and redoubts and came back with platforms for greater devolution. But all produced platforms which are still more readily described by what they refuse to devolve to Holyrood than the powers Westminster is willing to part with.

Still bugger all in the way of welfare autonomy, and a still undisclosed, unagreed degree of flexibility in the collection of income tax. And that's more or less your lot. The Institute for Government produced this vividly illustrative chart, comparing the balance between devolved spending and devolved revenue control in all of the scenarios currently under discussion. The discrepancy between the parties' offers and maximalist devolution should be particularly noted.

And then there are the practical considerations. Even the family magazine of the Conservative establishment report that Cameron's unruly band of backbenchers aren't happy with the idea that their status quo has been "swept away" without so much as a by your leave, and can be expected to cut up rough.

The Labour Party's case for the union has, if anything, amplified their "one nation"  rhetoric, placing critical emphasis on the idea of British uniformity in social provision. Their instrumental case for a No vote is, in essence, having the same benefit entitlements in Carlisle as you do in Cumnock. Against that background, without junking a half decade of rhetoric and thinking, it is difficult to see how Labour could ever coherently endorse the "much greater fiscal devolution and powers of decision-making in areas such as welfare" which, in the Herald view, is the precondition for folk considering a No vote. 

Without a radical transformation of attitude for which there is no evidence, and with no detailed or categorical commitment in these panicked last weeks of the campaign, all the evidence suggests that both key parties in Westminster remain inveterately opposed to shelling out anything approaching the kind of autonomy the Herald demands. Minimum bribe level: one turnip. Vote No.

And it is apparently the Yes campaign which has failed to observe Gramsci's dictum? Fetch Sancho Panza and a mule: the naive federalists of the Herald, Guardian and the Scotsman have a few remaining windmills to tilt at. I can understand the frustration, the sense that a better Britain ought to be possible, capable of accommodating Scottish aspirations for greater autonomy.

But but for the nervous gestures, the manipulative and hollow trick of rechristening bloodless Calman-plus plans "devo-max", and hastily drawing up a timetable to realise these very, very limited new autonomies, none of this has any credibility. A federated United Kingdom is a plan without a constituency, without a committed political proponent, without any depth of support across much of Britain, running contrary to the declared instincts of politicians from both big London parties, faced with a dizzying array of rhubarbing and powerful dissenters on both the Labour and the Tory benches.

 Whur's yer pessimism of the intellect noo? 


  1. The present Westminster parties will never condone, the granting of more meaningful powers to the Scottish people. The Herald know it's a lie and therefore are participating in this deception, while at the same time giving themselves some wriggle room with the Scottish electorate by espousing nonsense about some mythical new devolved powers. Obviously their own Labour party hacks have been at work. I for one seen through their deception months ago and therefore no longer support the paper in any financial form. In the unlikely event of a No vote I would predict the Sunday part of the business will suffer by association - I would suggest Mr Bell and Mr MacWhirter follow Mr Bateman's and set up their own media broadcast or join and help to develop an existing online news provider - Like the Labour party in Scotland the majority of the Scottish news papers have contributed to and hasten their eventual demise by colluding with the corrupt Westminster system. It's not just Scotland they undermine it's democracy.

  2. It's the YES campaign that will be sleeping well tonight,If vote is NO,our notebooks are filled with vows,promises that dare not be broken.

    LPW,hope your blog continues after campaign