Much has been made of the Tories unexpected victory in the May 2015 election. But the real story was Labour’s defeat, with its failure to capitalise on the widespread hostility to the coalition government and austerity.
The consequent SNP victory in Scotland accelerated the devolutionary dynamic of last year’s strong Yes vote in the independence referendum, part of a longer term process of fragmentation in British politics, with the decline of two-party domination and the growth in Scottish and Welsh nationalism.
Underlying this process has been the privatisation and break up of national and publically accountable health, welfare and education services and the marginalisation of a range of institutions binding together and supporting communities – from trade unions to local government – driven by the neo-liberal turn of capitalism. Growing inequality, industrial decline and the increased weight of finance capitalism has also accelerated the political and economic centralisation of the British state in London and the South East.
But this has thrown up tensions. Social polarisation and centrifugal forces have only been kept in check by the continuous ramping up of repressive powers and authoritarian state ideology under the cloak of combatting “extremism”, crime and immigration.
The election outcome has shone a spotlight on the democratic deficit and the alienation of working people from the political establishment. A consequence has been the rise of the SNP and UKIP.
These unresolved tensions have accordingly brought structural questions to the forefront: in particular the national question, devolution within England and proportional representation.
This is a dangerous dynamic for capitalism. In the context of a long term economic crisis and savage austerity, it needs a stable state with a populist ideological underpinning. With a pared-down welfare system and Labour’s declining ability to play this ideological role, a vacuum has opened up.
It was therefore logical for Cameron to focus his first post-election speech on the claim that he would lead a “one-nation” Conservative government. This was a bid for hegemony. Against the backdrop of fragmentation and Labour’s apparently bleak future as a “national” party with across the board support, the Tories are hoping to become overnight champions of devolution and popular local democracy.
But scratch the surface and what lies underneath is even more of the authoritarian centralism characterising the past three decades – propped up by a hefty turn to English nationalism. The previous government, although essentially Tory, was able to present itself as a “coalition” based on the false illusion of a national consensus founded on hard fought compromises. It was epitomised by ritual lying claim that, “we’re all in it together”. That illusion is no longer available.
The Queen’s Speech set out the perspective. Scottish and Welsh devolution and a “Cities and Devolution Bill” were accompanied by a swathe of repressive measures – the Investigatory Powers Bill, the Extremism Bill, a major new attack on the rights of trade unions and swingeing benefits cuts – all underpinned by the nationalist ideology of the proposed referendum on EU membership and rule changes to entrench “English Votes for English Laws” (EVEL) in parliament.
It was hardly a coincidence that Osborne – architect of the Tories austerity strategy – led the call for devolution. Far from increasing local accountability and democracy the proposed initiatives are aimed at shoring up the structures of the state on a regional basis so as to deliver the shock doctrine in store. To help achieve this he has appointed former Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O’Neill to become commercial secretary to the Treasury, tasked with delivering a supposed devolution of power to English cities.
We should not forget where all this is coming from. A party thoroughly wedded to unionism and the City of London: with a long history of relentlessly opposing Irish, Scottish and Welsh self-determination.
Under Thatcher, the Tories spent the 1980s attacking local government through restricting its finances and powers. Threatened by left Labour strongholds in the major cities, in 1986 they abolished a whole tier of local government (that it now claims to be resurrecting in a different form), the Metropolitan Authorities.
It was the Tories that laid waste to the industrial heartlands of the economy outside of the South East – leaving a permanent legacy of the unemployment, poverty and consequently deep-rooted social problems that are now the subject of such belated concern.
The centrepiece of Osborne’s plan is the handing over of the control of billions of pounds of expenditure to a “Greater Manchester Combined Authority” – a model that will then be rolled out to other major cities. As well as the existing £5 billion expenditure of ten existing councils, there is a promise of an additional £2 billion thrown in. The idea is being sold on the promise of creating a “Northern Powerhouse”.
Accompanying it is a proposed change to parliamentary standing orders to ensure Scottish MPs can’t vote on matters only affecting England and Wales. This is a piece of trumped-up unionism purporting to address a problem that is non-existent – particularly now that Labour no longer has Scottish MPs that might be whipped on controversial English issues.
But there is a catch to Osbourne’s proposals, it’s only available to cities that elect their own mayor. In the case of “Devo Manc” the plan has been stitched up between the ten council leaderships and the Tories, despite Manchester voting against having a mayor in 2012 (alongside eight other major cities: Birmingham, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, Wakefield, Coventry, Leeds and Bradford).
The idea is that this time around metropolitan authorities will be immunised from the leftist popular democracy of 3 decades ago through highly centralised control by power brokers on bloated pay packets, readily pressurised by media, bosses and Downing Street. This is attractive to greedy would-be town hall bosses. The Tories also view it as a way to rebuild their own base in areas that have for long been dominated by Labour. Just consider London and Boris Johnson.
This faux-devolution, phony “blue collar Toryism”, a Queen’s speech farcically labled “for working people” and big set-piece infrastructural investment plans (like HS2) are together conceived as strategic acts of socio-economic and political engineering behind which the remnants of the welfare state will be dismantled and a centralised neo-liberal capitalist state strengthened through a prolonged scorched earth austerity offensive.
Behind the talk of “distributing resources from richer to poorer areas” will lie a grim reality of massive cuts to already battered local services run, top-down, by moguls in hock to city investors. Local communities will be expected to stand shivering, homeless and hungry on the sidelines.
The contradictory dynamics also led to the sudden dropping of the proposed replacement of the Human Rights Act by a “British Bill of Rights” (another English nationalist ploy) from the Queen’s speech. Ostensibly still to be “brought forward”, the delay caused by a need for consultation – in fact this flagship Euro-phobic policy has come up against a tangle of structural problems.
It has become obvious that scrapping the HRA would threaten the very constitutional mechanisms by which all the main parties hope to shore up the Union against nationalist threats from Scotland and Ireland.
It’s enshrined into the Good Friday Agreement through which militant Irish nationalism was drawn into the Union 17 years ago. And it would require backing from the Scottish parliament, Holyrood as well as the Welsh Assembly, under existing devolution conventions. These are likely to be hardened into statute law under the cross-party Smith Commission proprosals on which the Tories own Scotland Bill is said to be based. SNP leader Sturgeon has already promised to veto any bid to scrap the act while in Wales, Plaid and Welsh Labour, including First Minister Carwyn Jones, have taken the same position.
The Tories were in any event divided on this issue and, smelling blood, senior Tory opponents of the policy (MPs who range from David Davis and cop-basher Andrew Mitchell on the right to Ken Clarke and former Attorney General Dominic Grieve) have wasted no time in denouncing the measure as “offensive” and demanding it is withdrawn.
They point out not only that a Conservative government fought for and drafted the European Convention on which the HRA is based, but that renouncing it would be an own-goal at a time the Tories are trying to throw their weight around in Europe and globally.
Of course the HRA is deeply flawed. The Blair government lost no time, after passing the act, in engaging in a decade-long assault on human rights – with criminal wars, internment, complicity with torture, shoot-to-kill and extraordinary rendition, an explosion in prison numbers and deaths in custody – little of which the courts did anything to stop.
It is abstract and ambiguous; and it simply transfers powers to an unaccountable judiciary with no commitment to defending the marginalised and vulnerable. But it enshrines at least the principles that the state should respect certain minimum standards and that ordinary citizens should be able to hold state bodies to account for abusing these. However tepid and useless the HRA may be, its abolition would be a retrograde step.
The social, political and economic tensions that underlie the Tory’s turn towards constitutional restructuring (after a long history as the party of the “status quo”) can be exploited.
A slew of new mayoral referendums is to be expected. “No” campaigns should be focussed on defending public services, opposing cuts and a defence of local democratic structures rooted in the community. Proportional representation should be put back on the agenda with a major initiative led by the anti-austerity SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru and Left Unity. HRA abolition must be kept in the long grass where it has been kicked. And a campaign built to maximise self-determination in Scotland and Wales.