One of my favourite sayings is ‘who sups with the devil needs a long spoon.’ I love the imagery – and the meaning too. It seems as though we often need to sup with one devil or another – and we need to be constantly on our guard, and to make sure our spoons are long enough or we’ll find ourselves sucked into the devil’s grasp.
The times when the saying is relevant to politics seem almost endless – the poor old Lib Dems didn’t have nearly a long enough spoon when they went into coalition with the Tories, and they’ve been sucked almost dry. It’s not likely there will be much of them left after the 2015 election – and even what is left will be horribly damaged. They’re probably the best example of all – and show all the different stages of the ‘long spoon question’.
There are three parts to it. Firstly you need to recognise the devil when you see him. Secondly, once you’ve recognised him, you have to decide whether you really need to sup with him. Thirdly, if you do need to sup with him, you need to equip yourself with a long enough spoon. With the Lib Dems, I think they failed on all three, at least to a degree. David Cameron’s smarmy smile seemed to convince the Lib Dems – well, at least to convince Nick Clegg – that he wasn’t the devil. At any rate, he wasn’t that bad a devil. Secondly, even if they had some doubts about the Tories’ devilish nature, they decided that they’d better sup with them anyway, ‘for the good of the country’ – or perhaps for the attraction of the ministerial cars and the seats around the cabinet table. The idea of not supping with them didn’t seem to really occur to them. Thirdly, they didn’t equip themselves with nearly long enough spoons – indeed, their spoons were very short indeed, and they found themselves sucked into the Tory plans in pretty much every way. Breaking their pledge on tuition fees was just the tip of the iceberg – from secret courts and surveillance to the bedroom tax and the most illiberal justice and immigration policies in a generation, this is, in terms of liberalism, an almost definitively devilish government.
Labour has been watching the Lib Dems over the last four years – or at least should have been – but over the Scottish Independence Referendum they seem to have found themselves falling into exactly the same trap. Not on such a big scale, but ever bit as much of a trap… and with even less of an excuse.
There’s nothing like a ‘vow’ that should ring alarm bells for politicians. Nick Clegg’s experience with the Tuition Fees pledge should have been etched into the brains of every politician in the country – and yet they fell for it again, in a moment of desperation as the ‘yes’ campaign had their fleeting moment of leading in the opinion polls. And yet Cameron, Clegg and Miliband’s ‘vow’ to Scotland was worse than that: it was a trap, a devilish trap, into which Miliband fell face first. It’s another classical ‘sup with the devil’ situation – and again, Labour failed on all three levels.
First of all, they should have recognised the devil. If anyone in the Labour Party doesn’t see the devil in the Tories, they should be ashamed of themselves – and yet I suspect that some of them don’t. The way that the Independence Referendum campaign went, it seemed at times that Labour felt more affinity to the Tories than to the SNP – or indeed to the people of Scotland. They seemed to assume that Salmond was the devil – and hence that Cameron, as the enemy of their enemy, was their friend, and hence not in the slightest devilish.
Secondly, they decided that they should sup with Cameron – that Miliband should join Cameron (and the almost invisible and irrelevant Clegg) in the campaign to save the union. Supping with the devil indeed, but seemingly for a good cause. But did they need to? Could they not have campaigned to save the union without working with Cameron? Without a joint ‘vow’? Without agreeing in some collective way to cancel Prime Minister’s Questions at the last moment? It looked, from the outside, like not just supping with the devil but spooning with him.
Thirdly, their spoon wasn’t nearly long enough – they didn’t see the trap that the devil had laid. The way that Cameron joined the ‘vow’ to the Scots to the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ suggestion less than a day after the referendum result should have been predictable. Perhaps not in detail – but that the cooperation was a trap, and that the Tories would find a way to use Labour’s cooperation against them should have been entirely predictable. The devil will be the devil. And even if Cameron now doesn’t ‘officially’ join the two questions together, they’re connected in people’s minds, and Labour looks weak, looks as though it’s ‘anti-English’, as though it’s ‘unfair’ – and that it has betrayed the Scots.
This, though the devolution and localisations issues for the English and the Scots are very, very different – and sorting out a solution for England, even if there is a problem to ‘solve’ is far more complex than granting powers to the Scottish parliament. English nationalism has become part of the story, and it is a part that the press will love, the Sainted Nigel Farage will play for all it’s worth. It’s a trap, and one that Labour should have avoided.
They didn’t recognise it. They didn’t know the devil even as he invited them to sup. And their spoon wasn’t nearly long enough. It rarely is.