What kind of Scotland do Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP want?

Post-referendum plenty of big questions remain to be answered.

Gerry Hassan
13 November 2014

Scotland and Scottish politics are in unchartered waters. The post-indyref has shaken and rearranged the normal reference points: SNP membership has gone through the roof, while the Labour ‘winners’ have laid claim to putting on a paltry 1,000 members.

Amid all the noise and debate, there is in the confusion, an eerie lack of substantive discussion, as people try to find their way. In the Labour Party a clutch of left-wingers believe that their core problem is the party’s embrace north of the border of ‘Blairism’; in the SNP, Jim Sillars and Gordon Wilson have been making predictable sounds calling for a more defiant, traditionalist nationalist approach, mistakeningly believing this will somehow win more widespread support than that achieved by Alex Salmond.

In both Labour and SNP contests there has been a surprising lack of debate. The Labour contest at least has another month to run, and the possibility that a choice between Jim Murphy, Neil Findlay and Sarah Boyack, will bring out some of the huge questions the party has to face if it is to turn its fortunes around.

In the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon will win the party leadership on Friday, having faced no opponent and contest, and instead having a coronation and quasi-monarchial procession through the country meeting the adoring SNP masses. The deputy contest between Keith Brown, Stewart Hosie and Angela Constance, could have acted as a surrogate for many of the key issues, but has focused on such issues as whether the party should embrace the idea of a Yes Alliance in 2015 (an alliance which would be completely dominated by the SNP).

More broadly the SNP looks likely under Sturgeon’s leadership to continue the proven successful strategy of the Salmond years, namely, of simultaneously portraying themselves as underdogs, particularly in relation to Labour and Westminster, and positioning itself as the new establishment. Some in the party such as former MSP, Andrew Wilson, openly embrace the idea of the SNP becoming the party of the insider class as a sign of acceptance by institutional Scotland.

This balancing act is as important as any left v. right, or older and now irrelevant gradualist v. fundamentalist divide. There is also the evolving geographies of the party’s appeal as it slowly morphs from its once rural North East heartlands to the Central Belt and West of Scotland. This will be a gradual shift, and one of emphasis, rather than being completely emphatic, and will not see the emergence of some pronounced ‘Red Clydesider’ SNP. (In a related note can people stop calling Dundee a ‘Labour heartland’ when the last time this was true was about 1973?)

Is Social Justice Scotland really what we are about?

The mantra of the moment is that the SNP under Sturgeon is going to become a party of social justice and take this mantle from Labour. Sturgeon has said her aim is for the SNP to replace Labour as ‘the party of social and economic progress for people’.

This is conventional wisdom in contemporary Scotland. Social justice is what defines us, when what should be said is that talking about social justice defining us is what defines us, which is a very different proposition.

Does the SNP really have the credibility some ascribe to it in pursuit of social justice? The answer has to be a mixture of yes and no. Yes compared to Labour, but that is hardly a high bar to set. The Nationalists eventually mitigated the worst excesses of the bedroom tax, but on most aspects of welfare they have barely ever said a single original word. Thus, the SNP have to get a thumbs down for failing to say anything positive on welfare, beyond opposing Westminster cuts and supporting the devolution of welfare, both of which can be taken for granted as positions.

The SNP does have to take a stand on democracy and democratisation, and not see these and independence as synonymous with itself and the claims for more powers for the Scottish Parliament. The centralisation of public life has been one of the hallmarks of post-war Scotland, but has gathered apace under devolution, and even more so under the SNP. In the indyref, this tension between the ‘let one thousands flowers bloom’ feeling of ‘abstract’ Scotland, and the more challenging nature of reality, became more and more problematic. Post-ref, the inexorable logic of standardisation and rationalisation is away to hit large sections of the public sector – from health boards to higher education and local government.

There is the coming shockwave of Westminster cuts, with Osborne planning £48 billion of UK public spending cuts over the next few years. But there is also an insipid and widespread managerialism and consultant mindset which is well entrenched in Scotland, which will determine the shape, language and values of such cuts.

Beyond the Scottish Government, there is now an increasingly powerful sensibility that the politics and culture of centralisation has reached breaking point, seen in COSLA’s recent report on greater decentralisation. Yet, all the dynamics of the central system point to public services increasingly being organised on a nationwide basis or in bigger units. This raises the question: who does the SNP speak for here: the insider class, or the gathering alliance of people wanting and demanding a greater say and more decentralism?

The SNP and Winning Labour Scotland

Sturgeon’s SNP will face the huge question of understanding Labour Scotland. One of the many indyref myths has become how brilliantly Yes did winning 37% of the Labour vote. This rarely reflects that this 37% is of Labour’s 2010 Westminster vote, which is made up of significant numbers of SNP 2011 Scottish Parliament voters; the portion of Labour 2011 voters who supported Yes was a smaller, but still impressive 31% in the Ashcroft post-indyref poll.

The SNP and Yes did not have a very informed strategy and approach towards Labour in the referendum. One example of this was the store put on the old Labour stalwarts, Charlie Gray and Alex Mosson, as figures who would give party supporters permission to vote Yes. The truth was that no one aged under 65 years would know who these figures were, and no senior party figures supported Yes. Such an outcome would have been easily predicted by a pro-independence strategy which had a deeper understanding of Labour.

Post-ref, there is a mixture of fury, rage and dismissal of many in the SNP and Yes towards Labour. The party is still subject to intense, almost elemental emotions which for some border on an irrational hatred. A reality check is required in this, for these feelings are for a party which has been in opposition in the Scottish Parliament for seven years. This is displacement activity at best, as if Labour were still governing Scotland and the current establishment, when power has now moved on, and in many aspects sits with the SNP, who require serious scrutiny.

One powerful strand of post-indyref society is the lexicon of anti-Tory Scotland. This can be seen all across politics, but one of its central manifestations is the SNP v. Labour divide, and who can stand up to the Tories. In recent times, Labour have taken numerous brickbats for committing the sin of getting into bed with the Tories in Better Together. The logic of this argument which runs through most of politics is that even a tactical alliance with the Tories on a single issue, admittedly the biggest of the day, tarnishes and diminishes those co-operating with the Tories forever. People really need to reflect on the implications of such a stance across public life.

This attitude will be the main ground of politics in the 2015 UK general election between Labour and SNP: who best stands up and protects Scotland from the Tories. This is perhaps understandable, even necessary to an extent in 2015 considering the scale and consequences of Westminster spending cuts, and that according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies 60% of George Osborne’s intended cuts still have to come. But it also plays to some of the worst and laziest Scottish instincts: our contentment with defending things, and the collective will to ‘other’ Westminster and the British state.

A Scottish culture of debate and pluralism?

A common theme which will prove critical in all of the above will be the health and vibrancy of a culture of debate and pluralism (or not) post-indyref. One of the defining elements of this is the potential emergence of the SNP as a one party state, facing an enfeebled Labour and opposition parties. Another is the widespread ‘chumocracy’ of civic and public life where numerous debates and opinions are defined by whether people know or like/dislike each other: this leading not surprisingly to restricted and predictable positions across a range of issues.

Perhaps the most crucial dimension in this will be the extent of ‘left cover’ provided to the SNP by a significant part of the opinion former community in the media, public sector and voluntary bodies, and in particular, the commentariat. Is part of articulate Scotland really content to continue blaming as the arch villains of everything that is wrong in our land, the malign, malicious Tories?

This is reinforced time and again, from Johann Lamont’s ‘something for nothing’ speech to how Jim Murphy’s New Labour past is interpreted, as a prism which links Thatcher, Blair, the 1980s and selling out Scotland, into one potent, linear story. This account served its purpose three decades ago, but has long ago, become a way by which a political culture pretends to be much more progressive than it is.

Where does the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon stand on letting these shibboleths go and abandoning the time warp of the 1980s? This is dangerous terrain, as Alex Salmond illustrated when he got into lots of trouble in 2008 when he admitted that Scots ‘didn’t mind the economic side’ of Thatcherism, only to have to qualify and explain his words.

In a feature by the writer Peter Ross in ‘Scotland on Sunday’, Sturgeon was quoted as saying, reflecting on growing up in Irvine in the 1980s, ‘Thatcher was the motivation for my entire political career. I hated everything she stood for. This was the genesis of my nationalism. I hated the fact that she was able to do what she was doing and yet nobody I knew in my entire life had voted for her.’

Those words for many will be uncontestable and unshockable: they are close to what has become the ‘official story’ of Scotland. I recognise my own political evolution in them in the 1980s. But in 2014, those sentiments and remarks have to be left in the 1980s, if we are to be able to have more honest debates, face some of our difficult choices, and reflect on who has power and who doesn’t in this nation.

There is a big question for Nicola Sturgeon, but it is also a question for all of us, including the SNP and Scottish society: what do we seriously want to stand for, and what do we aspire to do? Scotland used to be known for big, ambitious things: from inventors, explorers, scientists and engineers, to in the twentieth century, building bridges across some of our great rivers such as the Forth and Tay, to the huge Hydro-Electric schemes of the Highlands, and massive slum clearances of large swathes of the Central Belt.

This then is a fundamental question for Scotland, for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. What Scotland do they aspire to champion beyond the vision of independence? What does this amount to beyond the catch-all vision of Ireland and the Nordic combination of globalisation, willfully ignoring the tensions and contradictions between the two.

Addressing what kind of Scotland to aspire to, what kind of ambitions to have, and what big achievements to make the mark of our times, contains within it the need to mark out what kind of state, government and public agency, the SNP and pro-independence opinion believes in. The huge infrastructure projects of the last century came from an active, interventionist state, which galvinised people, made alliances and priorities, and mobilised resources, energies and hopes, which reshaped and reconfigured this nation physically and in how it saw itself.

This is the question for our times and what have been called the independence generation: what do we want to define ourselves, our age and our country by? To some the answer to this is independence, no more no less, but for most Scots, they see such a politics as a means to an end. How this plays out will occur in the forthcoming elections and contests of the next few years, and the success or not of the energising of public life and engagement seen in the referendum. It certainly won’t be defined in the narrow confines of the Smith Commission and how Westminster understands and doesn’t understand Scotland.

It seems from the shape of Scottish politics that the conventional answer to the above is that we as a society are for social justice. If this is indeed the answer and not just a mantra, then we are going to require not just detail and directions. It will entail an understanding that doing so will require taking on those with power, the establishments, both old and new, and some of the SNP’s new friends. And as well as that, one crucial and difficult step, will be leaving the legacies of the 1980s as part of our recent past, and not allow it to continually define the battles of today and tomorrow.

Can the SNP show this week and in the coming months that they understand politics is about shaping and creating the future, and not continually fighting the past? Nicola Sturgeon understands this, but part of Scotland and some of her party’s influx of new members don’t want to let go and embrace a politics which finally lets some of these comfort zones go.

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