For all the talk before the election of the emergence of a progressive consensus in the UK-in parliamentary terms at least-any such prospect fell apart at the first post-election hurdle. Although the idea of a defeated Labour Party clinging to power might not have been to everyone's taste, it remains the case that a Lib Dem/Labour coalition, backed by 15.4 million voters as against 10.7m Conservatives, could have formed a viable administration, supported on matters of confidence by the SNP and Plaid Cymru. An opportunity for developing a progressive coalition has therefore been missed.
Perhaps a period in opposition will allow Labour to refresh itself. However, the refusal by some elements of the party to even consider working with the Lib Dems in government, far less with fellow-travelling Nationalists and a Green, shows that the party still has a long way to go to recognise that other political traditions also have a legitimate claim to the mantle of progressiveness. And so it is that Labour now finds itself out of office in every capital of the UK except for Cardiff, where it continues to share power with Plaid Cymru.
The new coalition politics between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives presents a challenge to all other UK parties. Even at this early stage the new coalition can point to some fairly strong progressive credentials of its own: a constitutional reform package which includes Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay; an economic agenda of raising the starting threshold for income tax, banking reform, strengthened consumer protection, extending the right to flexible working and restoring the earnings link for the basic state pension; a civil liberties agenda of scrapping ID cards, the defence of trial by jury, the better recording of hate crime and restrictions on the storing of DNA samples; enshrining in law a commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on overseas aid; and supporting the expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the nationalist inclined left in Scotland tended to cast arguments for home rule in terms of what it could do to halt an 'alien' Thatcherite philosophy at the border. And though Scottish politics has begun, thankfully, to move on from that negativity, the new policy agenda from south of the border, with its Conservative influence diluted, has the potential to change the Scottish political landscape, particularly if it is seen to be respectful of political difference and allows space for the country's differing policy agenda to develop.
For most Scottish voters, the response to the question 'Independence, yes or no?' is still based on the question of whether Scotland will be better or worse served by assuming greater sovereignty. The question which now faces Scots of all persuasions is whether having a Parliament in Edinburgh, possibly with enhanced fiscal powers, is sufficient to meet growing aspirations and keep Scotland in the UK. Should the answer come back as 'no', the question will take on an added significance for the future of the left elsewhere in the UK. Thus the impact of the 'new politics' could have far-reaching consequences.
Charting a different course
Inevitably, whatever broad headings the left signs up to, these values will be expressed in different ways in practice. There are already many differences between practices north and south of the border, and these will shape future progressive alliances.
One of the arguments often posited for Scottish independence from a left perspective is that the political centre of gravity would, liberated from Westminster, allow Scotland's 'innate' sense of social democracy to further assert itself. It's a cherished myth in Scottish left circles that Scotland is somehow more egalitarian, more left-wing and more pro-European than England. While the truth of this is certainly open for debate, there can be little doubt that Scots are less inclined to elect Conservatives. …