A Different Pulse of Politics: It’s Time for a Radical SNP Vision for Scotland

With its opponents in disarray the Scottish Nationalist Party has a glorious opportunity to take a fresh approach to governing and unlock a broad movement for self-government in Scotland. This is how it should begin.
Gerry Hassan
4 September 2011

It was a strange summer. Westminster has been preoccupied by the on-going Libyan intervention and eventual collapse of the Gaddafi regime, hackgate and the Murdoch affair, also ongoing, and there have been the English riots, widespread debate about their causes and the appropriateness of the sentencing policies of the courts.

Scotland has moved to a very different dynamic. A few months ago the SNP won a landslide victory in the May elections to the Scottish parliament, which challenged many of the assumptions about Scotland and Scottish politics. The SNP Government had then, and still has, enormous goodwill and support behind it.

Immediately after the election, the SNP got embroiled in the spat over the Supreme Court, an important issue, but one where its tone and language was all wrong. Then came the mess of the Sectarian Bill, tackling one of Scotland’s biggest issues in too much hurry and alienating almost everyone.

Political Life in a Northern Country

Now it just happens that at the moment the SNP’s opponents are a bit distracted. While the British political classes and media have talked about Murdoch, the reasons for English riots and the lessons of NATO’s military intervention in Libya, Scotland has been influenced by a different set of dynamics which emphasises how politics north of the border have their own pulse and belong to a different, autonomous society.

Firstly, Scottish Labour are waiting for the conclusion of their post-election review after their election rout in May this year and hoping something will turn up. Four months after its defeat the party is in effect leaderless and unable to start a proper leadership contest through a lack of serious candidates or an understanding of the new political environment with a majority SNP Government.

Secondly, the Tories are having a leadership contest which has removed them from the equation. They have been in popular decline for decades in Scotland, long predating Thatcher, but are now reduced to a small rump. The leadership favourite, Murdo Fraser, MSP, has belatedly started a debate about the purpose of the Conservative Party north of the border, proposing that the party abolish itself as being part of the British party, and reconstitute as a new, autonomous Scottish party of centre-right, that is progressive and unionist but also independent, leading the Spectator’s Hamish Macdonell to predict the certainty of “civil war” whether he wins or loses the leadership.

Thirdly, the Scottish Lib Dems are still in a state of shock after their electoral catastrophy in the Holyrood elections where they were reduced to their worst electoral showing in Scotland since 1951, winning not a single mainland FPTP constituency. The consequence of being in coalition in Westminster with the Conservatives is redefining them generationally. North of the border they will never be seen the same again. This week an IPSOS-Mori poll reported that in terms of backing them for Westminster elections their support has slumped from 19 per cent in the May 2010 general election to 6 per cent; that’s to say from a respectable fifth of the electorate to scarcely more than a twentieth, a seismic collapse which appears to be benefiting the SNP most of all.

A Historic Opportunity for the Scottish Nationalists

The SNP thus find itself in a historic place with a once in a lifetime opportunity: majority government, the momentum behind it, and its opponents in retreat and disarray. What it does at this point will have major repercussions not just for Scotland, but the United Kingdom. In the lead up to, and the aftermath of the Comprehensive Spending Review due in a couple of weeks the Nationalists need to move away from the discordant sounds of the summer.

Yesterday, in my regular Scotsman column, I put forward five suggestions for the SNP Government to move onto new ground and begin to flesh out a different future. While directed to Scottish readers with a focus on national concerns, these suggestions have implications for Britain both directly and perhaps as an example of how the wider opposition to the Coalition should conduct itself.

1. A Different Kind of Economy

We do need to talk seriously about the economy. Scotland’s economy is not heading for some ‘Third World’ (so late 20th century that phrase!) basket case in the near-future as Douglas McWilliams of the Centre for Economics and Business Research claimed. This was ‘research’ done on a weekend, invoking the Edinburgh trams fiasco, the Holyrood Building disaster, and getting stuck in Edinburgh Festival traffic jams!

We have to resist tales of oblivion from wherever they come, but at the same time we have to recognise that we had our own Scottish version of ‘Fantasy Island', that the financial Bubble blew this up and it isn’t viable any longer.

We should be thinking about how Scottish businesses and companies can express different values and practices from the short-term shareholder capitalism of these isles. A different Scottish entrepreneurial ethic, rather than just dreaming of restoration to life before the crash. And that while the health and well-being brigade (Layard et al) overdo it, ignoring the economy, we know there is indeed more to life than economic growth and classical economics.

2. Fairness

When I suggested to the Scottish Government last year that they set up a Public Sector Commission I also advocated that they set up a Fairness Commission. I am not so sure now we need another commission, but we do need to define what we mean by fairness.

Scottish society, our economy and culture, are just as disfigured as elsewhere in the West by inequality, insecurity and anxiety about the future. This has in many senses become part of the conventional wisdom of our times across Europe, North America and Japan, but given our belief in our egalitarian credentials, shouldn’t we take time to address how we are doing?

If we stopped and looked long enough we would find plenty to worry us. There is ‘the forgotten Scotland’ illustrated in the BBC Scotland series ‘The Scheme’, the voices of a dispossessed, disenfranchised community without political or economic power. We have a struggling middle. Like most places, we suffer from increasingly narrow definitions of what ‘success’ and ‘intelligence’ mean – usually centred on excessive material reward. As a small nation we are ideally placed to do something about this, addressing those who have fallen off the radar, and those who earn astronomic amounts.

3. Health and Education, not Hospitals and Teachers

Most of our political and public conversations about health and education are nothing of the kind, but about institutional capture and the obsessions of politicians and public with hospitals and teachers.

Instead, we need ministers (and others) to stand up and break the spell and talk about health and education. What is the Scots road back from the poor health of so many of our people? What are the appropriate values of Scots education that would give young people the best start possible? The new mantra around early years intervention is welcome, but we need to address all the years and encourage empathy and self-esteem. And an approach which didn’t just swallow whatever the EIS or BMA are saying would be helpful.

4. Shifting Power: Land Reform

This isn’t just a teuchter issue, but fundamental to all Scotland, city and country, Highlands and Central Belt. The first Scottish administration’s land reform legislation was welcome, but the impetus has gone after the early Eigg and Gia community buy-outs.

Land reform has to be part of a wider debate about redistributing power and resources in Scotland, and nearly all that needs to be done can be done under devolution and doesn’t need to wait until independence. A positive sign that the SNP has ‘got’ land reform would be stopping the stealing of common land and giving children the legal right of inheritance which would aid the creation of a more open, egalitarian Scotland.

5. What Do We Do About Glasgow and the West of Scotland?

Glasgow and the West of Scotland have many positives, but are also the site of many of Scotland’s most enduring problems: ill-health, male violence, economic inactivity and social dislocation. Doing something about the city region and ‘the Glasgow effect’ would dramatically change the nature of Scotland. We know that money on its own isn’t the answer, which is just as well given the straightened times. Why don’t we do something different such as give greater self-government to Glasgow, not the council or public bodies, but to its people?

What is the SNP’s Scotland?

The SNP has travelled far as a catch-all party – one which is home to successful business people, former Tories, Red Clydeside radicals and socialists, but eventually it will have to make a choice about in whose interests it wants to govern.

If it doesn’t make the choice itself it will end up, by the pressures of events, coming down in the interests of the conservative order and inertia, and thus, the forces of power and privilege. It is in the SNP’s own self-interest now, at the point of great power, to begin to flesh out a radical approach on its own terms. If Scotland is on a journey towards greater independence we can only embrace it by being more daring, imaginative and bold. We won’t do it by a ‘Safety First’ bank manager approach to independence.

We need people to feel that the risk and uncertainty inherent in independence is less than the risk of remaining in the UK, and that there is a real viable difference being offered.

How not to do things is shown by the behaviour of the once proud Scottish Liberal Democrats and the behaviour of their Scottish Westminster ministers. Reflecting their desperate position of being unable to alter the course of what is a disastrous strategy seen from Scotland, their language is becoming more stridently regressive. Last week, Lib Dem Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore demanded the Scottish Government answers six questions on independence, including how would Scottish banking regulation work, the issue of the Euro, and defence arrangements. In an apparently co-ordinated assault Lib Dem Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, at a CBI Scotland dinner, argued that an independent Scotland would be financially unviable once it took its share of the UK debt, which he estimated at £65 billion.

The main content of Alexander’s speech was a positive case for the union, a case that does need to be put in a mature, thoughtful way. However, this was drowned out in the apocryphal imagery he invoked of a bankrupt Scotland. The Lib Dems are putting themselves in a dangerous place in Scottish politics: invoked hackneyed, cliché ridden unionist language which brings back memories of the Tories at their worst in the 1980s or Gordon Brown trying to stop the march of the Scottish Nationalists.

It won’t work as a political strategy for the union, and it will cost the Lib Dems dear in the process (while Cameron and senior British Tories play a longer game). There is also the paradoxical situation of UK Government ministers invoking the near-bankruptcy of the UK state, and car crash of the British economy, banking and finance over the last few years, as an argument against Scottish independence. If anything surely it is an argument against the continuation of the imperial British state.

Scottish political life requires a healthy, pluralist debate about the nature of independence and the meaning of the union. The main opposition parties to the SNP in the Holyrood Scottish Parliament all face hard internal questions of leadership and direction. In these circumstances the SNP will be sorely tempted to do what parties enjoying office usually do, namely sit back and enjoy the disarray of their enemies.

In fact it has both the duty and an extraordinary opportunity to initiate a fresh, far-reaching inventive and attractive argument about the future of the country it wants to lead. It is a duty because this is why it has been elected – to see what it is really made of, or to put it more crudely, whether it is a narrow, office-seeking, self-interested machine for power and advancement ‘just like the rest of them’, or not. It is an opportunity because the disarray of the other parties provides an opening for fresh thinking without the fear of a confident opposition breathing down its neck seizing on every exchange of views as a weakness.

What kind of Scotland do we want to live in, and how do we best advance towards it? This is the question the SNP needs to raise, debate and answer.

It is self-evident that there is a widespread consensus that Scotland should be a very different kind of society compared to England, and have far greater autonomy and control over its own affairs. The SNP needs to build on this to show the larger purpose of independence. They need to make the case for an independent Scotland by taking action now across a range of economic and social issues to show the kind of Scotland they aspire to. That requires radical action across the waterfront of Scottish public life, building up of the spaces and resources for new ideas and organisations and the capacity for innovation and self-government; finally breaking from the corporate, top-down traditions of Scottish Labour to permit the Scottish people to make it for themselves.

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