As British politics enters uncharted waters, Scottish politics seems strangely familar and returning to the parameters of the 1980s and the politics of 'no mandate', as Labour and SNP out do each other in the oppositionalist opportunism. How can we demand and expect more from our politicians than this?
British politics has just entered absolutely uncharted territory – with the establishment of ‘the Liberal Democrat-Conservative administration’ as David Cameron calls it. This is the first British coalition government – along with the first time the Liberals have been in office – since Churchill’s wartime administration – the anniversary of which was funnily enough on Monday (May 10th 1940).
Yet, Scottish politics seem to be settling into a pattern and set of positions which feels strangely familiar. The Labour and SNP can hardly contain themselves and seem to think the Con-Lib Dem alliance gives them permission to treat the Lib Dems as Tories in all but name, and vie for who can be the most opportunist, oppositional and inane. These are two supposed serious parties: one in government and one aspiring to office, both trying to out do each other in what looks like a politics of simplicity and childishness. Can we not expect more from our politicians than this?
I was just on ‘Newsnight Scotland’ with Alistair Carmichael, Lib Dem MP for Orkney and Shetlands, and Alistair Allan, SNP MSP for Western Isles, and it was a revealing occasion in the paucity of thought from the SNP (1). Allan trundled out the ‘no mandate’ argument about the Con-Lib Dems – arguing that the Lib Dems had got into bed with the fourth party of Scotland and one which only has one MP out of Scotland’s 59.
We really need to explore this argument of the ‘no mandate’ a bit further. In the 1980s this arose as Thatcher’s Tories saw their vote fall – from 31% in 1979 to 24% in 1987 – and their parliamentary representation fall by more than half from 22 in 1979 to 10 in 1987 (2). At the same time the anti-Tory parties began to define themselves as such and coalesce around a shared centre-left agenda.
Things are very different now. The Con-Lib Dem alliance has a base of 36% support in Scotland, nearly twice the support of the SNP (20%) and not that far behind Labour (42%). Yet something much more fundamental than number crunching is at work here.
The ‘no mandate’ argument of the 1980s was always more than arithmetic. Instead, it was political, cultural and even psychological. Scotland felt under attack, in that a large part of Scottish society felt that its values and sensibilities were being assaulted by a government that the vast majority of Scots didn’t vote for.
The ‘no mandate’ argument cannot be just arithmetic, because if we take that view none of the Scottish parties would have a mandate as they are all minorities in terms of votes. No party would have had a Scottish mandate since the Tories won a majority of the vote in 1955.
Another interpretation of the ‘no mandate’ allowing for votes and seats would see no Scottish result producing a mandate apart from the election of a UK Labour Government. Are we really going to try and argue that the only result Scots will think legitimate and valid is the election of a UK Labour Government? That’s not a very good democratic argument and takes you into uncharted waters.
We should also remember the English factor. The Tories may have been twenty seats short of an overall majority last week, but they easily won a majority of English seats – having an overall English majority of 61 over all other parties and 106 over Labour. A Lab-Lib Dem coalition, as was muted at the start of this week, would have had severe problems of English legitimacy, so us Scots should just be a bit careful in how we conduct ourselves as it could bring up all sorts of issues and complexities.
There is something more serious in all of this than just political posturing and positioning. This is that the constant war of attrition between Labour and SNP disguises a profound conservatism and lack of ambition in both. These are two parties who have chosen to be silent and complicit in what I would call the ‘forgotten Scotland’, the scale of inequality, welfare traps, and culture of worklessness and exclusion which exists across large swathes of Scotland. These problems which blight and limit so many lives and communities remained with us in the supposed ‘good times’ and will undoubtedly get worse in the coming difficult times.
I wrote last week in ‘The Scotsman’ (3) about the inability of our political classes to engage in a proper, mature debate, which addresses these kind of questions, and which demands difficult thinking which scrutinises and challenges some of the conventional assumptions and in particular, institutional gatekeepers in Scots public life. Bodies like the EIS, the BMA and COSLA. It was rather rewarding that Peter Ritchie in Saturday’s ‘Scotsman’ commented on my piece that it was ‘possibly the most penetrating piece of political journalism I’ve ever read in The Scotsman’ (4).
The responses of the last couple of days lead me to realise that Labour and the SNP are really going to try to get away with approaches in the run-in to next year’s Scottish Parliament elections which are devoid of original, difficult thinking, which are shamelessly oppositional, and which are motivated by which of them can claim to be defending best Scotland’s interests.
We cannot allow this to go unchallenged. A serious response politically has to involve at least two things. The first is dealing in a mature way with the politics of fiscal autonomy and greater powers to the Parliament. The Con-Lib Dem administration have already said they are committed to the Calman proposals (5), but I have a feeling we are going to have to go way beyond Calman’s rather timid, technocratic and over-complicated proposals.
The second is the institutional order and establishment of Scots public life. Both the Labour and SNP see this as the bedrock of a distinct Scots social democracy, with the SNP now oblivious to the fact that the Scots extended state is a means by which the Labour Party still control large parts of public life as if it were its own personal property.
We have had three years of SNP government, mostly successful on a number of fronts, but we have not had the slightest move or suggestion of a move to begin to challenge the extended networks and systems of patronage by which Labour ran Scotland for so long and continue to do so. Prior to the election some of this came into the public domain with Steven Purcell’s resignation as Glasgow Labour leader, while Strathclyde Passenger Transport, a multi-million pound regional transport agency, was caught funding a whole pile of councillor global jaunts.
What the politics of such a radical approach would entail would be are a wider, genuine one of self-determination. By this I mean self-determination in a way which shifts power to individuals, communities and groups, and away from the state and corporate power.
A politics which sees Scotland’s journey as one from talking solely about self-determination at a political level and about institutions and the nation, and thus excluding most of us, to one about self-determination as a society, where we look at how power can be diffused and dispersed, and people actually take responsibility into their own hands. This could draw from a number of traditions, the old ILP ethical socialism which used to be so powerful in Scotland, ‘Red Tory’ ideas and some of the thinking associated with the Compass group.
This should be the sort of politics which a radical Labour and SNP would be attracted to, but the former are the political establishment still across large swathes of Scotland, and see self-determination as synonymous with devolution; the SNP on the other hand see self-determination as equalling independence. Neither has anything to say about Scottish society and how they would like to see it as different.
I don’t think I am alone in already seeing in the Labour and SNP approaches a return to the comfort zones of the 1980s, which they both think worked for them: branding then the Tories as ‘alien’ and ‘uncaring’, and lumping the Lib Dems in with them now.
We can’t let them away with such simplicities now. We have a Parliament and we have had ten years of devolution which have mostly avoided hard choices, spent lots of money, and reinforced a narrow Scots consensus which has told us how social democratic we are, while ignoring the deep seated problems we have which don’t quite fit the story of ourselves we want to tell.
We have to at least challenge these hackneyed, clichéd approaches, demand more from our politicians in these difficult times, and aid the opening of spaces and discussions which begin some of the difficult thinking, and nurture new ways we can imagine a truly radical politics of self-determination.
1. Newsnight Scotland, BBC Scotland, May 12th 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00sfts1/Newsnight_Scotland_12_05_2010/
2. See for a counter to the prevailing centre-left view of the 1980s in Scotland, David Torrance, ‘We in Scotland’: Thatcherism in a Cold Climate, Birlinn 2009.
3. Gerry Hassan, ‘The Myth of ‘Red Scotland’’, The Scotsman, May 6th 2010, http://www.gerryhassan.com/?p=1123
4. Peter Ritchie, ‘Hassan Spot On’, The Scotsman, May 8th 2010.
5. Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Deal: Full Text, The Guardian, May 12th 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/may/12/lib-dem-tory-deal-coalition
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