The ‘New Tartan Tories’ of Scottish Public Life

Hyperbole and misinformation swamp the Scottish headlines as the independence referendum draws closer. How can radical thought overcome 'phantom Tories' and provide the framework to overcome the nation’s toxic cocktail of populism and complacency? 

Gerry Hassan
11 October 2012

Scottish politics has certainly burst into life in the last two weeks if the scale of overblown rhetoric and insult is any gauge.

The catalyst has been Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont’s speech challenging the consequences and cost-effectiveness of certain universal benefits in hardened financial times. The interventions from politicians and the ensuing public discussion present some revealing truths about our ability to have honest conversations.

Firstly, lets look at some of the language used in this debate. Lamont talked about a "something for nothing society" and public policies being funded "all on the never-never". This was a sloppy, ill thought out choice of words (or if it wasn’t, it was much worse).

Even more erroneous was Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson’s intervention at the Tory conference where she claimed that "only 12% [of households] are responsible for generating Scotland’s wealth". With this came the implication that 88% of households "put in nothing": an inference which out-gaffed American Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s discarding of 47% of the electorate who didn’t pay income tax  as "victims" and "dependent upon government". Elsewhere Davidson spoke of the public services as "the gangmaster state": combining a toxic mix of hard right rhetoric and mafia talk.

Secondly, lets examine some of the responses to the Lamont speech. Iain Macwhirter called Lamont’s intervention, "Nick Clegg without the apology" and "the second longest suicide note in history" (only exceeded by Labour’s disasterous 1983 election manifesto). Ian Bell declared it "the triumph of Blairism in a party that no longer seems sure what it means by a welfare state". Joyce McMillan, identified Alex Salmond as the man to lead us out the carnage, stating that Lamont’s "fatal slip", left the SNP leader as "one of the few Western leaders of our time with the courage and gaiety to buck the trend and to dare to offer a politics of hope rather than of fear, mean-mindedness and decline." Salmond is many things and a consummate politician, but casting him as the most effective opponent of crony capitalism and all it brings with it, is part wish fulfilment and testament to the desperation of some in these trying times.

There were numerous other examples of the debate being closed down before it started. Macwhirter on ‘Newsnight Scotland’ (3.10.12) confronted an incredulous Brian Wilson with the charge that Lamont’s stance meant Labour was supporting "£9,000 student tuition fees in Scotland", a complete fiction. Elsewhere Kevin McKenna commented that "Mrs Thatcher would have been proud" and that Lamont's views must have "tickled the Iron Lady".

Now we should differentiate here between the caricature of political opponents which has always been part of politics and its debasement by the commentariat. It is just part of party politics that Salmond called Labour and Lamont "the new Tories". Nicola Sturgeon tried out various similar mantras and Lamont in her much cited speech twice called John Swinney, "George Osborne in a kilt". This happens the world over; it always has and always will.

What is damning is the lack of proper debate in large parts of the media and in public life in Scotland, beyond thinking by soundbite and insult. There is in all of this a set of unexamined assumptions: that Scotland is the land of social justice, compassion and fairness, that our values are the right values, and that these inform our actions as a society and our government. And that makes a large number of us feel warm and good about ourselves.

Ian Bell put this perspective articulately when he wrote, "The principle of universality is a bastion. Once it is breached, everything is up for grabs." What Scotland or UK does Ian live in? It must be different from the place I know because from the outset of the welfare state and Beveridge it was a mix of universal and selective benefits, with the contributory principle at its heart in the early years: you put in and you got something out.

Before I am assailed as a ‘new Tory’ or ‘Blairite’ what I am trying to get over isn’t whether Lamont’s speech was right or wrong, but what the subsequent closing of ranks tell us. For the record, I think her speech was politically and tactically inept, but that she legitimately raised fundamental questions about what kind of Scottish society we are and want to be, and what spending choices we make which aid this.

The post-Lamont reactions revealed the limits of permissible political debate and indeed with the trundling out of the totems -Thatcher and Blair - the boundaries of what we see as the political community of Scotland. 

There is the propensity to discuss social justice as some abstract devoid of much facts and details. It does not matter that ‘free’ student tuition fees comes at having to prioritise higher education students above further education students who are seeing bursary support cut by 11% while FE colleges are also seeing cuts.

This seems to be the zenith of our aspirations as a society. Politicians lead by example but why do we have too follow them with such compliant acquiescence? Nicola Sturgeon spoke of the Scottish Government’s solidaristic state: "Devolution has enshrined the concept of a social contract between the people of Scotland and the government which serves them".

This sounds an attractive, popular idea, defining us as a society and differentiating us as a community from the Con-Lib Dem coalition. But it also represents the tyranny of narrative, also seen in the hapless Lib Dem UK ministers banging on about ‘fairness’ irrespective of reality. Salmond’s ‘social contract’ is narrative over fact and in how it doesn’t distribute monies or resources to those most in need is, dare I say it, practically identical to David Cameron’s pensioner guarantee: protecting the winter fuel allowance, TV licence and bus pass. 

What the comments of Macwhirter, Bell and others represent post-Lamont is the inherent conservatism of large swathes of modern Scotland: a land which defines itself by not voting Tory, but at the same time supports the status quo in our society and the settled will of institutional and vested interest Scotland. Bizarrely, people seem to think this is radical and progressive: cloaking conservatism in the language of 'tribunes of the people'!

In the last few months, the consequences of not being able to question and challenge power and vested interests led to calamitous consequences for Rangers FC. Many friends of mine have subsequently commented on this whole episode, reflecting that they worry about what this says about Scotland’s capacity to confront power and have open, honest conversations about more crucial issues such as the independence debate.

This is more serious than Rangers FC, important though that is. Beyond the tactical positioning and rhetoric, if we can’t have a real debate about social justice, connect to some of the uncomfortable truths about contemporary Scotland, and discuss public spending choices, then it doesn’t bode well for the debate on independence and making that debate relevant and connected to people’s everyday concerns.

We cannot leave the debate about social justice until after the independence referendum. If Scotland aspires to be ‘a progressive beacon’ beyond the rhetoric we have to have it leading up to and influencing the vote. That debate has to be about more than constitutional processes and systems.

If one wanted to reach out and use the same kind of pejorative rhetoric to describe modern Scotland which it consistently uses, one would be tempted to call much of what passes for public debate as representing ‘the new tartan Tories’ – the forces of conservatism, caution and defending the pseudo-people’s language of institutional Scotland. Someone commented to me last week at an event that this is aided by the absence of ‘real villains’ in public life; i.e: given the weakness of actual Tories, we hunt for phantom and fantasy Tories.

Scotland’s public sphere, or what Scottish academic William Mackenzie called  "the community of communicators", is one which has a profound complacency, significant gaps where many voices and opinions are not heard, and in which the 'settled will society' finds expression.

The language of how we debate the big issues matters – whether it be from politicians or the commentariat – but more crucial is the philosophy and values which sit behind such pronouncements. We have seen in the last few weeks an unhelpful populism across the political class, with Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson putting forward counterproductive approaches that, combined with the commentariat’s narrow view of Scotland, have revealed the barriers to widening debate. At least now the parameters that constrain Scotland - populism and complacency – are amply illustrated. This leaves the challenge: where and how are radical ideas of Scotland’s future going to come to the fore?

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