Flickr/Defence Images, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Years ago the dream was that the Scottish parliament would usher in a new politics. It was going to be different from adversarial Westminster – consensual, caring, thoughtful, leading to better debates and laws.
Much of this was wish-fulfillment. There has always been mutual scorn between Labour and SNP – aided by the fetishisation of tiny differences, given they agree on so much. But in recent years all of this seems to have got worse. And the last week in particular, was a new low.
In the previous seven days, Labour and SNP crossed swords on the replacement of the UK nuclear ‘deterrent’ Trident. Scottish Labour debated the issue at their conference for the first time since 1998 and came to the same result – opposing nuclear weapons and voting for disarmament.Scottish Labour debated the issue at their conference for the first time since 1998 and came to the same result – opposing nuclear weapons and voting for disarmament
This produced a brief moment of consensus when SNP, Labour, Greens and independents joined together in the Scottish Parliament and voted 96-17 against Trident replacement. Only the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour’s Jackie Baillie voted for.
This was but an interlude. Honest debate wasn’t aided by Jackie Baillie (whose constituency includes the Faslane base) and the GMB union continually stating that Faslane employs 13,000 workers and that it is the biggest single-site employer in Scotland. It isn’t by a long shot, as Channel 4 News have shown. Instead, this number of jobs is the combined Trident total for the entire UK.
All of this was sweetness and light compared to the Scottish parliament debate on tax credits. Labour leader Kezia Dugdale had made the political weather, committing to reversing the cuts in full. This sent the Nats into a fury, as they said that no such powers were in the current Scotland Bill.
The parliamentary debate was politics at its worst. Jackie Baillie and SNP minister Alex Neil traded insults. Baillie accused Neil of being ‘a pantomime dame’. Neil used over the top rhetoric and contradicted himself. First, it wasn’t possible to reverse tax cuts as the bill didn’t have the powers. Then in the same speech, he said it was, but wasn’t completely clear.
Sanity was restored by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon doing the right thing and declaring that the SNP would act to reverse the cuts. But damage had been done to the body politic and we can’t go on like this.
Scotland has had too many pretend debates – from tax credits to the bedroom tax. They aren’t really about what they say they are. They are driven by trying to tarnish with Tory association your main opponents. Both Labour and SNP point left in rhetoric, but neither do in action and deeds. Everyone flaunts their social justice credentials (even Scots Tories) and feels good about themselves – while the whole debate lacks any real link to realities.
This poses big problems. What does it say about the spirit of last year’s referendum and its democratic upsurge? It says business as usual and politics is a closed shop.
Labour have spent devolution trying to delegitimise the Nats, or out Nat the Nats – and failing in both.Labour have spent devolution trying to delegitimise the Nats, or out Nat the Nats – and failing in both. The SNP, Scotland’s dominant party, now find themselves as the incumbents and majority with an accountable record. Yet the party still wants to act as a minority – and avoid responsibility for its record.
When Labour were in the ascendant they believed they owned ‘social justice’ and never bothered to define it. Now the SNP are enacting the same kind of mistaken politics – believing that in their DNA they have a divine right to embody ‘social justice’.
This leaves no room for talking about what we should do about social justice. 40% of Easterhouse children grow up in poverty today; 27% of people in the area live with a disability. This in the fifth richest economy in the world, one where prosperity and opportunity are a foreign country to millions of our fellow citizens.
We cannot go on with a debate of two tribes trying to club each other to death. What does it say about what an independent or any future Scotland would look like? The SNP loyalist line is ‘don’t worry, everything will be alright on the night, post-independence.’ That’s terrible politics and prophecy.
The future Scotland is always being made in the present. If we want to live in a country – pluralist, pioneering, questioning orthodoxies and rich with ideas and ambitions – it doesn’t start on Independence Day One. It starts in the here and now.
We have to ‘act as if’ we already are self-governing or independent. The SNP need to loosen up, bin the control politics, and embrace a bit more substance. Independence after all isn’t just about ‘full powers’ for the parliament. It is about all of us as a nation and how we look after and relate to one another.
Independence is a state of mind. It is about much more than flags, embassies and shibboleths. It is about maturity, looking at ourselves in all our glories and shortcomings with honesty. It is about taking responsibility for ourselves. And yes that requires more powers. But most of all it necessitates a cultural mindshift in the grudge war between Labour and SNP in recent decades. It isn’t good enough any more.
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