Are Labour arguments in favour of the UK better than Conservative ones?

Philip Webster‘s early morning Times briefing, Red Box, tells us that Ed Miliband is heading to Scotland tomorrow. Once there he will try to convince voters that Labour will win the general election next year. Labour strategists, in their modest way, believe this is the best way to stop Alex Salmond and the separatists.

This fits in well with the Labour conceit that the Tories, braying and condescending, are the source of Scottish anger with the Union. If only the hated Tories would disappear, everything would be all right, the thought goes. It is rarely, if ever, stated clearly, but the insinuation is that the Conservatives hate the Scottish, in much the same way they hate the Welsh, the Irish, foreigners generally, Muslims, gays, lesbians, ethnic minorities, poor people, single mothers, northerners and any other identity group certain Labour and left-wing campaigners feel belong to them.

You can see Ed Miliband making his points: the source of Scottish (and British, as it happens) suffering is Toryism; their policies stink; they persecute the Scottish, just look at the guinea pigs they made of them over the Poll Tax; they rig the economy to suit their hedge-fund mates in London. That might not be the exact wording, but the sentiment is about right.

He might also talk about the Tories privatising the NHS, and how the only way to stop them is to have a Labour government in Britain and Scotland. But this falls down because under the terms of devolution Scotland runs health already. And yet, if the Scottish people can just see their way to voting against separation, next year they will have the benefits of both a Labour government and a Labour governed Union. Win! Win!

But Alex Massie, the Spectator’s Cricket blogger, took a contrary view. Writing about the recent Darling Salmond debate, he suggested that ‘Darling had many problems last night but among the greatest was the fact he’s not a Tory.’


If Scotland doesn’t need to go its own way because there will not be a Tory government next year, how is not being a Tory a problem for Darling? One would have thought Darling’s biggest strength was being a thoroughly decent Labour man. He, after all, and unlike the Tories, cannot possibly want Scotland to remain in the Union as some sort of English vassal state – he’s Scottish, for goodness sake!

Though perhaps Darling, being a Scottish politician down in Westminster, is not quite as impeccably Scottish as other more independent minded Scots? A sort of traitor, even? You may think this is too strong, a bit hyperbolic. But perhaps you should ask Jim Murphy, the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire. He recently had to suspend his Scotland-wide tour because of the abuse he was receiving: the eggs, the intimidation, the name-calling, such as paedophile, terrorist and a Quisling – oh, and the charge of being a traitor.

East Renfrewshire, by the way, is a Scottish constituency, and Jim is Scottish too, born in Glasgow and schooled in Glasgow. His wikipedia page does, however, say he lived in South Africa between the ages of 12 and 18. Why? Because his parents moved there. He returned to study at the University of Strathclyde, but perhaps this absence degrades his Scottishness, I don’t know.

Massie, however, was making an interesting point that contradicts the view that Scotland’s place in the Union can best be defended by Labour people. This may or may not be the case, but Massie seemed to be arguing that Salmond’s reasons for leaving the Union are, in fact, better defeated by conservative arguments.

Darling could not, for instance, argue against Salmond’s notion that his new government – any government, in fact – will create lots of new jobs come independence. Neither could he argue against Salmond’s criticisms of Coalition welfare reforms. And nor could he argue ‘that however uncomfortable life might be for the poorest sections of society it might be even less comfortable after independence.’

Darling’s weakness in arguing against these points was that he and his left wing political tradition largely agrees with them – that governments not markets create jobs; that welfare reform is punitive, and that there is a ‘cost of living crisis’. If this is all true (debatable) then who would not want to get away from such a government, especially if it’s a hated English Tory government?

But then this takes us back to Ed Miliband’s plan to go to Scotand and tell the Scots they need not vote ‘Yes’ to escape these vicious policies; the Labour party is going to win the next election and return not just Scotland but the entire United Kingdom to the sanity of Brownian economics. There’s a certain logic to it, I suppose, even if you think it a rather alarming prospect.


What about the Juncker vote then?

As ever in politics, there are several ways to look at a single event, depending on your point of view, and cynicism. Mr Cameron, First Lord of the Treasury, recently lost his battle to prevent Mr Juncker, the former Luxembourg Prime Minister, becoming President of the European Commission. Lost. Defeated. Humiliated.

But this need not be the case. If one squints, or looks at things with the aid of a mirror, one can see triumph. Mr Cameron sees triumph – or at the very least a victory for principle, integrity and determination. ‘My colleagues on the European Council know that I am deadly serious about EU reform,’ he said, ‘but I keep my word that, if I say I am not going to back down, I won’t.’

Since Mr Juncker is an arch-federalist (he is, isn’t he; that’s what we are told?), and the recent EU parliamentary elections have delivered a blow to the federalists, he deduces that what the Commission needs right now, like a hole in the head, is a federalist to prove the sceptics right: that the EU is not going to change course for anyone, least of all for the electorates of Europe.

Listen to the Labour Party leader and you will hear how Mr Cameron lost the vote 26 to 2 (which he did), how he and Britain are isolated in Europe and how this has been an ‘utter humiliation’, how he is pandering to the right-wing of his party, and how he is, by extension, the wrong person to be Prime Minister right now. The person most suited to the office of PM is, we must presume, Mr Miliband himself, despite the polls casting one or two doubts. According to a recent YouGov poll, 19 percent think he would make the best PM while 37 percent favour Cameron. But what sort of politician would he be without a certain degree of masochistic optimism?

I suppose this comes down to the key activity of politics – presentation. To Cameron this is, if not an outright success, a successful demonstration of his will to lead the EU in a direction more acceptable to its peoples; and to Miliband this is, of course, a failure. What is so utterly infuriating about the whole affair, and politics in general, is that there is an element of truth in both claims. Wouldn’t it be great if one could switch off one’s nuance receptors and see things only in black and white?

One Nation Politics or Division Politics?

While most prejudices are now forbidden, either in law or in the court of political opinion, one prejudice remains very much alive. Not only is it acceptable, but from some quarters it is actively encouraged. That prejudice is the one regarding so-called toffs.

It’s the prejudice certain comedians on the present circuit play to in much the same way discredited comedians of the 1970s used to play to sexism, homophobia and racism. And by the look on their faces as they deliver their lines, it’s quite clear they accept it as entirely normal and unremarkable, much like the 1970s comedians… etc.

Criticising comedians and politicians for this blind spot is easy enough, but it is less satisfying to criticise writers who are trying to answer more nuanced questions and only stumble in their attempt.

Howard Jacobson, of Independent Voices, illustrates this problem. A celebrated writer, winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question, he writes the sort of articles you’d read no matter the topic. But he gets himself into a bind over Ed Miliband’s conference speech.

He mentions that Ed Miliband, in declaring his Jewishness and assuming the public will not penalise his electoral chances for doing so, is going some way to prove that maybe we really are living in One Nation. And he has a point. Britain is a tolerant country, and this is something that should make us proud. But why is it necessary to then pitch Miliband’s Jewishness as in some sort of competition with toffishness?

Political polemic is perfectly acceptable, expected even, but when it both refers to and uses language and methods that are hypocritical, it is frustrating for the reader who does not share those prejudices. If we are to accept (quite rightly) that someone’s Jewishness (or any other -ess, for that matter) should not be used as an excuse for arbitrary discrimination, then surely we should extend the same curtesy to those with a ‘posh’ background.

Some might scoff at the very notion. Being a toff is not about being posh or rich, they might suppose; its about being superior, above others and discriminatory; its an attitude that can be changed rather than an ethnicity or sexual orientation that cannot be changed. And anyway, toffs are in a position of privilege and so cannot be victims of prejudice or discrimination or anything else like that; and even if they are they probably deserve it and we call that positive discrimination which is fine.

But differentiating between toffs (bad) and posh (begrudgingly acceptable) is not the aim of this sort of argument. By suggesting and insinuating, and by associating the pejorative word toff with Tories and wealth and poshness, the rhetoric is trying to achieve something quite specific: the tarnishing of the Tory party. They do that pretty well themselves, you might argue. Well, perhaps that’s right, but it doesn’t make this sort of hypocritical political practice right.

Jacobson also dwells on Andrew Mitchell’s reported insult to the Downing Street police. Why? It happened, sort of, and is much disputed, but why is it relevant? And why does he subtly take the supposed insult, ‘____ plebs,’ out of its policing context? Is he by any chance prompting us to believe that Mitchell, and by extension all Tories, think every non-Tory in the country is a ‘pleb’ who needs to be kept in their place?

It is strange to think that ‘the Bullingdon Club’ or ‘David Cameron’s toffishness’ are of any relevance in a party leader’s conference speech – the one great occasion he has a captured audience and can concentrate on policy according to merits. Come on, lift your sights. And it is especially strange when the central theme is ‘One Nation’ politics. Is this some ‘unity in division’ mantra I’ve not heard about?

But this is all about massaging opinion, and, while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, there is something wrong when it distorts and generalises and resorts to stereotype – just the things Miliband and his supporters denounce in others. It’s hypocritical.

And the juxtaposition Jacobson chooses to dwell on is with Ed Miliband’s Jewishness. The reader is invited to compare the Jew and the toff, the Bullingdon club and the synagogue, and to make a choice – one of them good, the other bad. And if you choose unwisely, not only are you arrogant and superior but a racist as well.

I try not to make baseless assumptions, negative or otherwise, about anyone (though I surely fail, as we all do sometimes), and certainly not about Jews; Jacobson says, quite legitimately, through the prism of Miliband’s ‘radical Jewish family,’ that the Jews ‘have had trouble finding anywhere to sit peaceably for the past 500 years’ – and I won’t disagree with that, for some.

But what do these two things have to do with one another? Nothing. And inviting us to see them, even though he attributes this view to Miliband, as perhaps choices that have to be made, must be made, is unhelpful. In fact, it’s not unhelpful, its verging on mendacious.

Are we to see a political divide between not just the toffs and the rest of the country (people united in their plebishness, some might hope), but between the toffs and the Jews, and any other minority groups we might mention, which of course are inherently virtuous, and obviously not toffs, and so obviously not Tory, which is who we are really taking about here?

And do ‘we surmise,’ that “____ plebs” is ‘exactly what the Tories call the rest of us?’ I think not. Miliband, Labour supporters and the like, maybe (some of them); but certainly not all of us. Making this sort of generalisation is to resort to stereotype and prejudice, which are just the things the Left (and, in the interests of balance, some on the other side of the seesaw, no doubt) spends so much time denouncing in people who don’t necessarily support their world view.

But at least Jacobson uses the word surmise, which at least recognises there might not be any evidence for the given belief. Yet this is not what one reads here, this is not the message the reader takes away from such an article; quite the opposite.

If you want someone to believe something is true, then first you have to say it. And if you say what you want others to believe often enough, surmising it or not, beliefs and attitudes become received opinion, irrespective of their veracity.

I suppose these comments should not be directed at Howard Jacobson at all, because he is only reporting and commenting on the perceived opinions and motives of Ed Miliband in his speech. Miliband is the one driving a wedge between the toffs and everyone else, between those who look down on people and those who look on their potential. He is the one who treats people like people, and not objects for Tory aggrandisement who should know their place.

But where Jacobson and Miliband are in accord is in their jointly held assumption that you can pursue ‘One Nation’ politics by dividing that nation down the middle and then either grossly generalising about the other half or pretending it does not exist at all.

It may, in a partial way, be accurate to say that ‘Miliband was uniting (or attempting to unite) all those who feel they have come from the margins of society, or been forced back into the margins of society, with those whose nature is essentially liberal and welcoming.’ But he was not doing it with noble ways and means. His method seems to be less noble, that by appealing to and indeed fostering some people’s sense of grievance, he can unite them against the hated toffs and Tories.

This is not One Nation politics, this is not discussion of policy: this is Division Politics.

Though was it ever much different?