CONFERENCE SEASON is open and another intense, civic and meaningful debate has opened on how to rebuild the union that has brought us so much. Well, there's time yet.
We are all so jubilant over how well the Tories have done this last year and how badly Labour has fared. Wading through the sunbeams I found an excellent article today by David Torrance that was much more measured, if slightly pessimistic. I was delighted and couldn't agree more that hubris and pride come before a fall, or in the case of a second indyref, a cliff edge.
Whether it was a campaign to get out those most financially secure and diverse to vote Tory in 2016, or get that Prod vote out last week in Ulster, unionists are playing a pennywise pound foolish game in devolved politics. The demographic that is growing, those who are younger, more European in outlook, yet financially insecure and over-enjoying the very flexible labour market, is not ours.
Younger people are more likely to support a united Ireland and indyScot even if there is not a majority for either at the moment. Devolved administrations control education and politicise it remorselessly, especially in Scotland. The throw away comment by Arlene Foster that she "doesn't want to see Northern Ireland destabilised like Scotland has been" was as crass as it was cretinous. Scotland has been divided for decades over the role Westminster plays here and how well it does it. Indyref crystallised a time point, just as the referendum for a Scottish Parliament did back in 1998.
The question is why unionists always seem so perpetually on the defensive. How much ground do we give? Devolution hasn't brought progress so much as lock both Northern Ireland and Scotland into the politics of yesteryear’s social democracy because no one really wants to talk about anything but the constitution.
Tories have been guilty of this, though not to the extent of the Nationalists. But they have always been a poor yardstick to measure ourselves against because they place a premium on the dynamism of change,, while we must promote an open society AND defend the status quo. Maybe we should stop defending the status quo quite so reflexively.
As an Englishman, hearing other Englanders say how important Scotland is jars with me. Do we say this to prove we really don’t have a problem with unionism? The fact is the UK and especially England does have a unionism problem. Westminster for the most part has used devolution as an excuse to ignore the union and not build on it.
The devolved regions do have different demographics to Toryshire and in the name of embracing diversity we should perhaps embrace our own. West Belfast has the worst child poverty in the UK, Glasgow the lowest life expectancy, both have below average incomes.
Liverpool and Leith have lost their economic base over decades and are asymmetrically hit by certain service and benefit cuts. Yuppy flat construction is not regeneration in anything more than the most superficial and temporary sense. Those flats may well generate revenue in rents, and in the UK having another asset to offer hungry Chinese investors, but what really is the economic point of so many of these places?
Rather like jaundice affects the liver or gout affects the joints some ills affect parts of the union far more than others, which brings me to the point. If we do not look to the poorest 20% of the UK population first and foremost the union will remain in serious trouble. These are overrepresented in devolved regions and they vote Nationalist, they also are pro-indy. Playing the game whereby you don’t worry about them voting for your party is very dangerous because the strategy to maximise the Tory vote is not the one to ensure 51% of us choose to stick with what we know, especially if many feel it is not getting better.
The bottom 20% do not care if the GDP expands by 2% or if the average salary rises 1%. That is not their demos. They earn a pittance before their wages are used against them to cut care allowance. In my pitch to stand for Copeland recently I said I would campaign to link care allowance to 16 hours on minimum wage rises directly because at the moment some people lose everything or have to drop their hours in a part time job because the minimum wage rises at a different point to care allowance.
This would mean, shock horror, letting the amount earned rise from 101 to 150 pounds a week before their allowance is cut off. For most of us this is nothing. To those saving the rest of us from higher taxes by doing much of the care themselves this could mean so much.
There is a plan afoot again to end housing benefit to the under 21s on the basis their parents can support them. This is fine unless of course this is not possible. Parents with substance misuse, 18-years-olds discharged from care, and those with family strife are not in this position. We don't seem to want to know. Why is this an issue? Above and beyond a sense of duty in our Christian union we should remember well the Poll Tax and how Nationalists made a meal of it. How rent scandals in Ulster rallied poor Catholics. How Mhari Black, the phony Clydesider, made her maiden speech as follows,
“My housing [in London] is subsidised by the state … but in this budget the chancellor abolished any housing benefit for anyone under the age of 21.”
“We are now in the ridiculous situation whereby, because I am an MP, not only am I the youngest, but I am also the only 20-year-old in the whole of the UK who the chancellor is prepared to help with housing."
We laughed and turned a cheek but this was powerful and it struck a chord. There is a genuine need to cut spending. It must be done, if not more than at present. But why do we subsidise the rich in their houses? George Osborne only last year ended the absurdity where those paying the top rate of income tax received a bigger tax rebate on their buy-to-lets than the rest of us. What on Earth was Labour doing before then?
Is it so absurd to cap the rate of housing benefit for all so the upper limit of £350 a week is trimmed to £300? Better still cap the 25% discount on council tax given to singletons in expensive property, like those yuppie flats, to £300 a year? How can it be that someone with a council tax bill in central London of £3000 can be £750 a year better off from the same policy that gives a working single mum in Niddrie £250? These do not require the undeliverable radical tax policies so many think tanks offer this time of year. They need us to start thinking like unionists instead of setting up a game of chicken where we defend the establishment and they defend their horrendous economic vision as if these are the only two choices.
These are of course little gestures. But they matter to little people. Those with the least to pay hurt most when we take their last penny, when we walk past the well and toss in our gold and then wave a finger to them as if to say, "not enough from you, you must pay your way too". This is of course the very opposite of the Christian message. The poor are with us and worse, in this noisy digital world, they are more silent than ever. This was the basis in part for John Wesley to urge the faithful to leave the pews and ride on horses to preach the Gospel wherever it was needed.
When we hear the news that 160,000 people who could access disability money now will not – can we not at least feign conviction that this, just perhaps, could have been debated in parliament before the budget?
Instead we had some very insensitive language from the policy chief that was out of order and gave Nationalists just another quote to use against us. These comments matter, they sting.
For many in Labour and the Tories who found Copeland far away, and hard to get to, try Dundee or Gourock. These are the towns and cities that could break our union for good if we look away from them. That feeling, of being uncared for and being to made to feel poor really hurts people in these de-industrialised communities. This is what brought us Trump and a chance for change in America – but the UK does not change so fast.
It is not ties between nations that will keep our union together it is the solidarity of the Christian message and the triad of faith, family and flag. Flags are powerful and ours includes the saltire, as opposed to theirs’ excluding all else. The Union flag represents a common bond thath through many decades has worn thin for many. The last 40 years have not been kind to those at the bottom. Yes we are all better off than we were back then but why should that be enough?
Until we take hold of welfare for the wealthy we are sending a message that will come back to bite us all sooner than we think. We have to learn from history, that a penny to a pauper is worth more than a pound to a prince. We should take great care in choosing which one we take.