Scotland has experienced an interesting experiment. Four years of the first ever Scottish National Party administration, the first ever Scottish Government committed to independence. Now is surely an appropriate time to assess how much this has altered the SNP and Scotland and what the prospects for future change are?
This has been a decent administration, one that in many areas has had or attempted to articulate the right instincts on a range of economic, social and cultural matters. It has felt like Scotland’s Government, our national and international voice.
At the same time it has not been a transformational government. It has been one of caution and timidity, a government born of the Scottish character, culture and institutional life.
This has been an SNP administration of Devolution Scotland – rather than radical or nationalist Scotland. This has seen the continuation of the professional and vested interests which have governed Scotland since the rise of the corporate state in the 1930s.
After four years of the SNP in office, the Labour network state remains in place across society - in the state, voluntary sector and wider civil society. It is a kind of parallel state which exists behind the institutions of the Scottish Government and Parliament, running large parts of Scotland, exercising power and patronage. This begs the question: why did the SNP not do something to dismantle it? Firstly, I don’t think it knew how to, but secondly, the politics of caution encouraged the SNP to think it could win over this institutional landscape by charm alone; it hasn’t.
Then there is the issue of what happened after the crash. The main parameters of SNP economic policy and the case for independence were significantly weakened. It didn’t matter that the entire political class and every mainstream party were also implicated.
For the SNP was meant to be the protector of Scotland’s social democratic conscience, and yet was found as wanting as all the other parties. The result was this left the SNP without a plausible vision of the Scotland it wanted to advance. What now is the SNP’s story of a successful, self-governing, independent Scotland?
It is a political catch-all drawing from contradictory political systems, referencing Ireland and its low tax policy and in particular corporation tax, and the Nordic model of social cohesion and public services. Ireland is still mentioned, but obviously less post-crash, while the mentions of Norway have risen.
This circle cannot be squared by invoking the example of a Norwegian style oil fund. Others go further and dream of a land of flat taxes and Estonian enterprise law, ignoring that no mature economy anywhere in the world has managed to slash public spending as a proportion of GDP and shift from our levels of public spending to a more minimal state; the nearest example we have is New Zealand in the 1980s.
Where this ambiguity can be seen is in the relationship between the SNP’s economic and social policies. The former has embraced the economic orthodoxies of the age: the world according to bankers, the obsession with the financial sector, and market deregulation. The latter has seen a host of decent measures to address poverty and disadvantage and advance social justice and public health.
This isn’t just about individual ministers, and Jim Mather and Mike Russell at points being more neo-liberal, and Nicola Sturgeon and Shona Robison more social democratic. This duality cuts straight through the SNP philosophically, and, to be fair, can be found in most centre-left parties in the Western world. New Labour embodied this divide at its height to an almost schizophrenic degree.
However, the party’s economic thinking has impacted and restricted its social ambitions and vision. There is a deep ambiguity in the SNP about challenging the inequalities, dislocation and powerlessness which scars the heart of Scotland. Where is the cause of wider human freedom, fairness and liberty in the nationalist cause?
The first SNP administration has proven the party’s respectability and competence. This cannot be disputed and should not be under-estimated. But it was never going to be enough to radically change, let alone transform Scotland.
The SNP have gone out of their way to not alienate and make enemies of the cluttered world of institutional Scotland. Yet these groups are not supporters of radical change in Scotland; their self-interest is in maintaining the status quo and their place in it. Many of them were anti-devolution or devolution sceptics, and are with the odd exception anti-independence.
Devolution was never meant to be about fundamental change within Scotland, but instead giving a fresh face to the Labour patronage state which has governed Scotland for so long. The Labour-Lib Dem administration did many decent things, but it did not shift power and influence in Scotland. And sadly so far the same has been true of the SNP Government, admittedly restricted by the politics of minority rule.
The SNP has historically been the party which has pushed and driven constitutional change. It pushed the other parties into Calman and it has shaped the fiscal autonomy debate. However, focusing on these issues and constitutional change isn’t going to have the same impact with voters as articulating an economic and social vision about Scotland and independence.
There is a powerful potential agenda for the SNP. Scotland’s experience of establishing a Parliament has been one of self-government: focusing on politics, political change and politicians.
What it has not been about is self-determination, an agenda of shifting power and developing non-institutional ways of change. Self-determination theory is about people, power and psychology; it talks about the individual and collective need for autonomy, competence and relatedness, and a different kind of society. Importantly, on these kinds of measurements and values, Scotland fails so many of its people today. At the same time this prospectus would offer an appropriate set of ideas for the coming ‘age of austerity’, while offering a different road to that of the UK government and Labour.
For too long the Nationalists have spoken of political change and even independence as being focused on the Parliament: on it achieving ‘full powers’ and of Scotland becoming ‘a normal nation’. One SNP MSP told me that all that was required for independence to come about was for the Scotland Act to be expanded until magically the UK state just disappeared!
This kind of political thinking presents independence as a narrow elite project of politicians and institutions. It cannot be that; it has to be about our entire nation, its transformation, the changing of our culture, and the finding of a national mission.
Some in the SNP may have embarked on this sleep walking approach to independence, dulling institutional Scotland into the promised land, because they don’t want to scare people and want to present independence as unthreateningly as possible.
This has I think been a decent Scottish Government, and one that for all its limitations marks an important watershed not just for the SNP, but our democracy, politics and nation.
We cannot go back to the minimalist and authoritarian politics which Labour offered under devolution. We cannot go back to the stultifying lack of ambition, confidence and vision that characterised much of that period.
Yet, the SNP is not surprisingly born of the shape, hopes and contradictions of the Scotland it wishes to see blossom as an independent nation. It has at times itself reflected this caution and reserve.
The party has shown its capacity to learn, adapt and lead, in winning and then showing it has the capacity and will to govern. It has learnt the importance of a powerful, positive outlook and philosophy centred on talking Scotland up and releasing our potential as a people and nation.
Now it has to move to the next stage of its journey: a more radical agenda, one far-sighted, challenging the vested interests, and linking the case for self-government and independence to self-determination as a society.
This piece was originally published in The Scotsman.