In the early 2000s, the Conservative Party held its annual conference in Manchester. The mood was somber – Labour had just been re-elected by a sizeable majority, a pre-Iraq Tony Blair was still largely untainted and the Tories faced another long exile in the political wilderness. Everyone believed these were truly the worst of times. Everyone, that is, except the keynote conference speaker. Whose name was Margaret Hilda Thatcher.
“Why are you all so sad?”, she demanded. “Cheer up! We won!”.
Nervous glances were exchanged. Delegates wondered if perhaps the rumours about her failing health were true after all, or perhaps she’d been indulging in one those large single malts she famously enjoyed.
But the penny dropped soon enough.
What she meant was that by remodelling the political landscape so fundamentally she and her party had created a world in which, if their opponents wanted to beat them, they’d have to move to the right to have any chance of winning. Taxes would now always be low. Banking would be largely de-regulated. Any government wanting to win would need to be seen as tough on crime and immigration. Privatisation would be here to stay and the state would always be small. We may have lost the electoral battle, she said, but we’ve won something more permanent – the ideological war.
Which meant that, when Labour elected a leader, it had to be someone who embodied the new neoliberal consensus and didn’t scare the horses. Hence Tony Blair, not Robin Cook. It’s why Jeremy Corbyn was always going to be replaced by someone less threatening to big business. It’s also why the Democratic Party in America chose Hillary Clinton and then Joe Biden, rather than an actual centre-leftist like Bernie Saunders, to take on Donald Trump.
You don’t have to be some woke liberal to see that this is awful news for those of us who like to believe Barack Obama’s contention that civilisation generally arcs upwards. That the recent news of Trump’s tax avoidance – he paid no income tax whatsoever in two of the last three years – was considered a bit of a non-story should have set the alarms off. This is a president who has spent four years lying, dividing communities, mocking the disabled, calling Mexicans rapists and white supremacists “very fine people”, while mishandling COVID to the extent that a quarter of a million Americans are dead. What’s a bit of creative accounting amongst all this? Trump’s shamelessness, far from behind the electoral hindrance that it should be in any sane universe, is actually a USP that appealed to a long established nativist right wing political tradition. Trump is not America, but the election result – whatever it is – proves that he speaks for a much bigger part of it than we’ve ever dared to think.
And yet America didn’t disown him. Or, at least, not enough of them did. America was founded by the slave owning Founding Fathers on the twin pillars of genocide and racism, and today it feels like the apple hasn’t fallen all that far from the tree.
I hope Joe Biden gets over the line, if only to see Boris Johnson begging for a deal – any deal – with a guy his administration has been briefing against before swiftly backpedaling when the polls started to favour Trump, and having already deeply offended Americans proud of their Irish heritage – not least Biden himself – by being willing to the internationally recognised Good Friday Agreement by drafting the Internal Market Bill.
And for Scotland?
Biden is old school and looks to Europe. He won’t see any mileage in a deal with a post-Brexit Britain but will surely pursue access to a market of half a billion people through a deal with a smallish independent EU member state like Ireland.
And a Trump win delivers the no deal Brexit favoured by Johnson and his team of disaster capitalists from the start, an outcome that would devastate Scotland’s economy, not least the food, drink and farming sectors in which, Covid notwithstanding, three hundred and fifty thousands jobs depend.
Clearing out my office this morning, I came across a copy of Time Magazine from 2008, just before Obama won the White House.
It’s a reminder that Trump won’t be here forever. On the cover, there’s a picture of Abraham Lincoln, who in his great Gettysburg Address expressed his fervent wish that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”.
It should be our fervent wish, too. Whatever transpires, events in America can only further reinforce our belief that Scotland can only flourish by doing what our stateside friends did two hundred and forty-four years ago. And make our own Declaration of Independence.
Stay safe good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.