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Is Scotland really the social democratic country It proclaims?

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Scotland's idea of itself as an archetype of social democracy is the product of a bygone era. The left need to wake up to the fact that independence alone cannot bring a new politics, while the vision of a return to a pre-Thatcherite organisation fails to address the new problems and new potentials for change that we face today. 

Gerry Hassan
20 August 2012

There is a widespread assumption across most if not all of Scotland that this is a land of the centre-left; that we don’t vote Tory, didn’t buy into Thatcherism, and that we are all the children of social democracy.

Leaving aside the Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys on Scots/English differences (which show there aren’t that big differences), there is a prevalent belief that centre-left, left and collectivist values percolate through and define our society.

Some voices on the left believe that they speak for what they see as a wide and potentially powerful constituency. However, if this was the case wouldn't our politics and society already be shaped and influenced by these currents?

This week Henry McLeish, former Scottish First Minister, and Gordon Brown, former UK Prime Minister, have made significant interventions. McLeish talked of the possibilities of independence leading to the ‘cultural transformation’ which he believes Scottish society desperately needs, while holding back from embracing it yet.

Gordon Brown in a fascinating lecture started to talk about equality again after a decade of New Labour self-denying ordinance. He noted the scale of inequality disfiguring Scotland and England, while at the same time claiming that the UK still worked, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

The SNP, for all its centre-left aspiration, isn’t a party of primarily social democracy and social justice. First and foremost, the SNP is about independence and statehood to which everything else comes second.

Alex Salmond a couple of years ago made deeply ambiguous remarks about his attitude to Thatcherism saying Scots ‘didn’t mind the economic side so much but we didn’t like the social side at all’.

Mike Russell, just before he became a minister, wrote a book proposing to shrink the Scottish state by 40% in the first four years after independence: a kind of Greek style shock therapy. The point about these remarks is that they reveal the SNP as like most successful parties in Western democracies: trying to be ‘catch-all’ and bend to economic liberalism while combining it with social justice.

The left do have small forces such as the Reid Foundation and Bella Caledonia but these exist without money and resources. Scotland seems to be a society whose politics is infused by the memories of a left without much of active left. There have been no new radical left policies, ideas or thinkers since the onset of Thatcherism.

More seriously, the language and mantras of social democracy have been appropriated by the professional groups of Scotland: health, education, law, local government, for their own interests. And a large part of Scotland seems to be happy to go along with this pretence.

Our public spending favours the most middle class people and groups aided by the distributional decisions and consequences since the Scottish Parliament was established. And we don’t seem to have a culture where we want to examine or question these choices.

A Scotland that was a social democracy would prioritise a number of key areas about the values we wish to champion. It would ask: to what extent are we becoming a more egalitarian society? Are we becoming more inclusive reaching out to those left most behind and vulnerable? In what ways is this a place where the state and government shifts power away from vested interests?

It would ask what kind of partnerships are we creating between government, business and civic bodies which are widening opportunity and social justice? How are we nurturing the inter-generational compact which society is based on, supporting children and early years and not just the votes of the retired? And is all of this aiding a different kind of society and capitalism which points away from the Anglo-American model?

None of these things are happening in modern Scotland. We live in a society as divided and unequal as England and anywhere in the Western world. Where we choose to feel good about ourselves, blame Westminster or look for Nordic nirvanas, rather than actively do something and come out our comfort zones.

Scotland isn’t a land of the left, but a deeply cautious, conservative nation. It is a society which has a propensity to not want to face up to some hard truths about itself, or take hard decisions which might involve taking on some vested interests. And what passes for the remnants of Scotland’s left seems to be content to go along with this, rather than challenge it.

Here is the question. Is it enough for us - as some want us to do - to aspire to reheat social democracy from the supposedly ‘golden era’ of Scotland and Britain 1945-75? Is that the high point of our aspirations and dreams: to turn the clock back to the world before Thatcherism?

Instead, a different approach would draw on the difficult choices we are going to have to face, financially, demographically, economically and socially, and say that we can do better than the ‘old’ conservatism of the managed society of elites, and the ‘new’ conservatism of crony style, manipulated capitalism.

It would be good if we could bring this debate and its choices out into the open. The pro-union and pro-independence forces mostly talk about their abstractions, the former invoking a fantasyland Britain which has never existed, and the latter, seeming to invoke a faith based politics that everything will come right the other side of independence.

At the same time, the professional gatekeepers of large swathes of our society go on running education and health without major challenge or debate. In those areas, there are clear examples of change makers and innovators, but they are stifled by their respective cultures and the attitude of devolved government: of targets and safety-first caution alongside a deep seated fear of letting go, mistakes happening and the pull of short-termism.

This debate is going to come to Scotland due to the wider crises and it would be edifying if we began it ourselves. That would mean beginning to take a long hard look at ourselves, checking some uncomfortable home truths, and recognising that the story we have told ourselves: of Scotland as this compassionate, egalitarian, warm, welcoming nation, doesn’t hold.

This requires leadership not just of a top down nature, but from groups and movements. It necessitates a different kind of political class, less managerialist and cautious and more focused on ideas and thinking; open to new propositions and asking questions. And it means we have to have a more pluralist notion of what politics, change and being a political actor mean. If we could begin to make a start on asking these questions, the independence debate could make real headway. 

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