Scottish politics have been in a sense of disbelief since the UK general election. The Con-Lib Dem coalition government is being slowly assessed by the main two parties north of the border, SNP and Labour.
We have an SNP administration under Alex Salmond – which has proven itself a decent, competent, relatively popular administration – which now seems to have run out of money and ideas. And a Scottish Labour Party under the uncharismatic Iain Gray which seems even more bereft of ideas, but which thinks it can win next year’s Scottish Parliament elections by posing as the more effective defender of Scottish interests against the coalition.
Blair says he knew it would be hard to "stop" Salmond after devolution
Scotland feels like a nation and political community waiting for something dramatic to happen. None of the parties north of the border really seem to be active agents in the climate of public spending cuts and coming age of austerity.
Some commentators and observers can hardly contain their glee, seeing the end of the devolution era of what some called ‘the land of milk and honey’ and The Economist called last week, ‘a supercharged welfare state’. Centre-right perspectives from figures such as Peter Jones and John McTernan, the latter previously an adviser to Tony Blair in No. 10, see the coming storm as the crisis to challenge what they perceive as decades of featherbedding pre- and post-devolution.
The Economist essay – which was last week’s top UK story in the magazine – reflected that the SNP came to office ‘promising a big set of giveaways’. Some were delivered: ‘freezing council tax bills, abolishing post-graduation university tuition charges, making eye tests free and cancelling bridge tolls’. Others such as ‘getting rid of prescription charges and reducing class sizes in primary school, are part way to being achieved’.
Then comes The Economist’s overview of Scottish devolution:
All of these things, like the Labour giveaways before them (free personal care for the elderly with washing and dressing, for example), made Scots proud of their public services, happy about devolution and glad to be Scottish rather than English.
And then the supposed killer blow:
But a lot of the early shine has come off. This is partly because Scottish public opinion is less inclined than before to support its government’s decision to release from prison the terminally ill Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.
Following the thinking here, The Economist has less of a dislike for the ‘supercharged welfare state’ as it calls it, than the SNP Justice Minister’s decision in August 2009 to release on ‘compassionate grounds’, al-Megrahi. And yet, the basis of this argument is threadbare; all of the opinion polling done last year showed that Scottish public opinion was fairly evenly split on this issue.
Scotland as The Economist states – like the rest of the UK – is posed for public spending cuts, of as much as 5.9% or £1.7 billion in 2011-12, and this will force major reconsiderations of previous decisions and exasperate tensions within Scotland, and between Scotland and the rest of the UK. The Scottish Government is even considering making Scottish Water into a not-for-profit holding company similar to Welsh Water and Network Rail, and doing the same for Caledonian Macbrayne, the state owned shipping company.
The Economist’s thinking is straightforward. Alex Salmond might be ‘a high-wire act’, but even he is going to find his political skills pushed to the limits of endurance. The magazine reflects:
It is too soon to know yet just how austerity will play out in Scotland, and Mr. Salmond’s ability to defy gravity should never be underrated. But he came to power to effect a revolution, to sweep Scotland, generous welfare state and all, to independence.
It then concludes with a little concealed sense of satisfaction:
Secession sentiment took a knock when Whitehall had to bail out Scotland’s big banks. Now budget cuts look set to erase much of the social spending that set Scotland proudly apart from the rest of Britain.
All of this it believes will work to Scottish Labour’s advantage, and pose problems for Alex Salmond and the SNP. This seems the conventional wisdom of the moment, which may or may not turn out to be the same wisdom by next year’s elections.
And this brings us to Tony Blair’s memoirs – which have a similar sense of bewilderment and frustration at the Scots. Blair writes of devolution:
I was never a passionate devolutionist. It is a dangerous game to play. You can never be sure where nationalist sentiment ends and separatist sentiment begins. I supported the UK, distrusted nationalism as a concept, and looked to the history books and worried whether we could get it through. (Blair, A Journey, p. 251.)
He comments of himself:
I always thought it extraordinary: I was born in Scotland, my parents were raised there, we had lived there, I had been to school there, yet somehow – and this is the problem with nationalist sentiment unleashed – they (notice the ‘they’) contrived to make me feel alien. (p.251)
Henry McLeish, Labour First Minister of Scotland from 2000-2001 said that Blair was ‘a functionalist rather than an enthusiast about the Scottish Parliament’.(1)
And Blair says of the 2007 Scottish Parliament which saw the SNP become Scotland’s Government and Alex Salmond First Minister:
I knew once Alex Salmond got his feet under the table he could play off against the Westminster Government and embed himself. It would be far harder to stop him than to stop him in the first place. (p.651)
What The Economist and Tony Blair’s Westminster focused reflections are united by is a sense that Scotland matters and that its politics, priorities and dynamics are a threat to the preservation of the existing order, and however imperfectly, showing that a different kind of politics is possible.
Whatever the result of next year’s Scottish Parliament elections, Scottish politics are going to move to a different heartbeat from the rest of the UK, while going through anxieties, pain and cuts like everywhere else. And central to Scottish politics as it has been for the last forty odd years, is the SNP, who have given voice to many Scottish voters for a radically different politics than that on offer from the Westminster parties.
(1) Angus Macleod, ‘Blair: My fears over Scotland falling to separatists’, The Times Scottish edition, September 2nd 2010.