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Where is Scotland going? Foreign lands and forgotten places

The future of Britain is at stake as the country heads towards an election year: a recent Scottish by-election gave Labour a surprising majority. Anthony Barnett takes this as the starting point for an exchange with Gerry Hassan on where a country with many parliaments is heading.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett Gerry Hassan
24 November 2009

Scottish politics often seem like a foreign land to the Westminster cognoscenti, its political class and media. Where is Scottish politics and where is it going? After all the talk of the popularity of the SNP and Alex Salmond and problems of Scottish Labour what was the significance of the recent Glasgow North East by-election? Labour got an unexpectedly large majority, confounding expectations in a constituency held by Speaker Martin and was tainted by the expenses scandal. It seems to be passing into history as if it was a blip. But maybe it wasn't. The London media especially considers that the mandate of heaven has passed to Cameron's Conservative party and is incapable of considering any alternative. So OurKingdom has decided to host a discussion with regular contributor and our de facto Scottish Editor Gerry Hassan. Anthony Barnett asks the first question.

Anthony: This was a by-election with high visibility taking place at a time when voters are angry and disgusted with Westminster. Yet there was only a 33 per cent turnout. By-elections can often have low polls. The by-election David Davis forced at his constituency of Haltemprice and Howden in 2008, for example when he got 34 per cent of the vote. He put a major issue of our liberties to the public. But while there were lots of fringe candidates neither the Lib Dems (who came second there in 2005) nor Labour stood against him. I argued that to get a third of voters out when there was no contest was not bad. Does the same logic apply here - was there always a sense of 'no contest'? Even though Labour were running against the SNP as the Scottish government? There is another possibility. That Glasgow North East expressed the profound disillusionment that is now widely felt, and voters actively sat on their hands. Perhaps we are heading towards yet again breaking the record of low turnout in the coming general election? Do you think this conclusion could be drawn? What caused the extraordinarily high degree of abstention?

Gerry: Lets start with the Glasgow North East contest. You have to look at the immediate context and the wider picture. This is a seat which is part of the forgotten Scotland and indeed the forgotten Glasgow. A place only mentioned in the media to provide a backdrop to illustrating trite tired phrases as ‘dependency culture’. This is a place where none of the four main parties in Scotland have any real roots, organisation, voice, and where local people themselves have little voice or sense of power.

Now of course the same is true of Glasgow East. And last year in July 2008 something happened there which at the time looked significant, a safe Labour seat was overturned by the SNP in a dramatic fashion. One differences between it and this by-election concerned the candidates. In Glasgow East Labour had trouble candidate wise – eventually ending up with the third choice candidate, Margaret Curran, who lost to the SNP’s John Mason; in Glasgow North East the SNP ended up with their third choice candidate, David Kerr a former BBC producer, who then, as well as being an Opus Dei member with a host of predictable, stereotyped right-wing views across economic and social issues, fought one of the most inept campaigns run by the Nationalists in many years.

This though only fed into more powerful factors already at work. The SNP fought a campaign with no real content and no anger about the state of Glasgow North East – which has the highest unemployment in Scotland and is the second most unhealthy place in the UK. Labour, by contrast, learning the lesson of Glasgow East fought an abrasive, oppositional campaign even though it rules in Westminster election – against the Scottish Government – wrong-footed the Nationalists. Labour had already tried and succeeded at this in Glenrothes in November 2008, so the SNP should have been forewarned. Instead, Labour combined its ‘insurgent’ approach with drawing on Glasgow pride and parochialism, claiming the SNP were anti-Glasgow. This was hugely effective and not rebuffed by the SNP who had little positive to put forward.

There are two wider points here. Viewed from London, ‘Scotland’ might seem a small place its population less than the capital itself. In fact it is a sizable country with important differences within it. For all the froth of Glasgow East, the SNP have never had a ‘Glasgow strategy’. This would involve a medium term strategy of building the party locally in the city, winning voters and council wards, and developing a campaigning perspective and organisation around a vision for the West of Scotland.  They don’t have one. Instead, the SNP have a Greater Glasgow/West of Scotland problem. Labour holds most of the directly elected constituency seats for the Parliament across the region with only a few isolated SNP outposts. Meantime, the SNP itself, far from developing focussed approaches that articulate its government region by region within Scotland has become more characterised – but not completely – by a sense of creeping complacency, believing its own rhetoric and lapsing into an unconvincing technocratic, managerial language.

Anthony: Thanks Gerry, this is very clarifying but it does not answer my specific question! So before getting onto the nature of the SNP government and what Labour has to offer, what was going on with the abstentions? Were they a harbinger? A recent Hansard report suggested there might only be a 53 per cent vote in the coming General Election across the UK.

Gerry: Yes I was aware I had only obliquely answered your question. The key here is in the phrase ‘forgotten Glasgow’ and examining what happened to this part of the world, the lives, families and communities who have lived and passed through here in the last thirty odd years.

Over this time places like Glasgow North East and East – the old Springburn, Baillieston and Shettleston of the world to use their previous names – have experienced massive economic and social dislocation which has left – even at the height of the good times – one third of the adult population relying solely on state benefits. And this is shaped particularly by the loss of male role models, the masculinity of the old traditional jobs and industries, and a generation of men who have grown up ‘walking wounded’ – defined either by the jobs they lost and which vanished, or in the younger ‘Trainspotting’ generation by drugs. This gender divide within the poorest communities – which is more marked in Glasgow than anywhere else in the UK – is untouched by the political parties and policy makers. When I did my Glasgow 2020 project this was one of the main themes of it, and the different ideas of change and activism which women bring to even the most disadvantaged parts of the city …. so it isn’t all gloom.

If you combine the scale of change with the political parties and political processes failure to understand it, you end up with 33% turnout in Glasgow North East this year and 42% in Glasgow East last year, in an uber-competitive by-election which the UK media were swarming over.

But one should emphasise that the collapse of turnout in such Glasgow seats is a recent historical occurrence. I think this is a crucial and never commented upon point - in the 1950s such places had 80% plus turnouts, often above the Scottish and UK averages. The scale of political dislocation is huge and directly linked to the “dislocation”, really an economic and social earthquake of recent decades.

However this is addressed will be a long haul. First, we have to stop describing areas like Glasgow North East in Andrew Neil cliché terms as an ‘underclass’ and ‘dependency culture’. The ‘underclass’ thesis is a pernicious one, as it explicitly says as Neil does, these people are not like ‘us’, so let’s give up on them and not feel guilty. It gives legitimacy to ‘tough love’ - such as New Labour’s 60 welfare bills and what Cameron and company have in store. The Glasgow East by-election last year was a fascinating example of the power of popular prejudice – even more than the recent North East contest the UK media swarmed over the seat. Broadcasters and commentators used it as an opportunity to generalise and stigmatise the people and communities in the area and do so in a way which would be impermissible on other issues such as race or sexuality.

Second, there have to be ways to allow spaces and avenues to open up which aid people in places like Glasgow North East to have a voice. I think one of the greatest lies perpetuated about poor places is projecting them in terms of lack of hope and hopelessness; this isn’t the case at all as we found in Glasgow 2020. What you do find is a sense of powerlessness. The hope is very much there if you dig deep and listen to the stories, dreams and fears for the future people have. Why wouldn’t it be there? Hope has a habit of finding roots in the most unfertile soil; what is missing is a way of people connecting it up and finding vessels and vehicles which they own which take forward their hopes.

This may sound a bit misty-eyed. To return to your specific point, places such as Glasgow North East and Glasgow East show the logical conclusion of an atomised, winner-takes-all-world. It is a horrid, one-dimensional dystopia – which you can see all over Scotland and the UK – but is so entrenched and severe in parts of Glasgow. It is almost a two speed city, where winners and losers have disengaged from each other and live in separate worlds: almost as if, if you are born in one, you live, work and die in that one, and don’t traverse between the two worlds.

Anthony: This is a very powerful and troubling reply. It points to a low turnout in next year’s election that can’t be reversed by short-term measures and gives a context for the BNP vote holding up in traditional Labour areas as well. My final question, then, is about the SNP. For Labour did well electorally – in relative terms, admittedly, but this is all that elections measure. I can see too from your first response that the SNP did badly enough to lose because of its candidate, local campaign and lack of a Glasgow strategy. But it did worse than badly. This suggests two possibilities. First, that Brown and Mandelson could win a UK general election next year by the same positioning, running not as the government but as the ‘insurgents’ against the traditional, upper-class, Tory rulers. As if they are still the outsiders and the Conservatives are still the ‘real’ government. Second, that Cameron who has made his own technocratic embrace of Blairism fails to light up the opposition in the same way that you imply Salmond has done. You argued way last year in OurKingdom that the Scottish Nationalists had like all the Westminster parties embraced neo-liberalism. Their confidence and self-assurance had the same roots as Blair and drew on the same energy, even if Salmond carried it off with integrity and skill that Blair lacked. If this is right, he too will find it hard to sustain his domination in the same way as the financial system’s collapse impacts on our political culture. In different ways in both Edinburgh and London, Labour may be able to project itself as less in hock to the bankers and less a creature of neo-liberalism than its main opponents. Sheer hypocrisy in my view, as New Labour has been a centipede for Alan Greenspan but that does not mean it can’t get away with it – because it’s opponents can’t actually oppose it on this front with any alternative principles.

In other words, there seems to be a possibility that Glasgow North East may indeed point to what will happen in the election across the UK. This is most unlikely to mean a Labour victory, but it could gain the most seats even if the Tories win a larger number of votes, with both being outclassed by abstentions while the smaller parties fall by the wayside.

Gerry: Anthony, these are very thoughtful and challenging comments that leave me wondering where to start my response! The first point is perhaps about the nature of the SNP and from this addressing Scottish independence and the wider question of the state of democracy.

First, the SNP embrace of neo-liberalism needs to be acknowledged and contextualised. Alex Salmond’s much quoted remarks last year about Thatcher is relevant, ‘We didn’t mind the economic side so much. But we didn’t like the social side at all’. This remarks dramatically reveals the duality which exists in the SNP: the economic head and social heart, citing the Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’ pre-crash and the Nordic model, often in the same Scottish Government document or minister, without acknowledging the contradiction: one being about cohesiveness, equality and solidarity, and the other, inequality, insecurity and open globalisation.

Where there are differences in Scotland is that the Scottish state has not degenerated in the way the British state morphed into a neo-liberal state which has operated in a triptych with a neo-liberal public culture and neo-liberal idea of the self. Scotland has elements of all of this, with the Scottish state circled and surrounded by the corporate vested interests of consultants and accountancy firms, but they are not embedded at the heart of the state and the policy process. It is difficult to emphasise how pivotal this difference is without lapsing into essentialist romanticism about Scotland.

The character of the UK state has been fundamentally, perhaps irreversibly changed by the cumulative experience of Thatcher and Blair. The Westminster political class and world is committed to the maintenance of this state of affairs, with none of the main forces up for challenging it. The Scottish state, polity and political space is profoundly different, and this affects the SNP’s nature and the degree it can push an implicit neo-liberal agenda. And this difference between the UK and Scottish state will get much wider with a UK Conservative victory.

The SNP hold this dualism together – because as I argued in the recent book I edited The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power – the soul or utopia of the party isn’t about social democracy. Instead, it is about the idea of Scottish statehood and independence and seeing the party as an expression of Scotland’s identity and voice. Another related point from James Mitchell of Strathclyde University’s survey of the SNP membership, the details of which are in the book, is that the SNP membership is hugely relaxed and flexible about the road to statehood.

This brings us to the prospects for independence. Today’s ‘Daily Telegraph’ which leads in England with ‘Recycle and get £130 a year under the Tories’, in Scotland has a top story entitled ‘Dual blow for Salmond as break-up bid loses support’. This focuses on a slight drop in support for independence in a ‘YouGov’ poll, and the finding that it is bottom of a list of voters’ current priorities. Top was reducing unemployment with 63%, followed by tackling drug abuse with 36% and reducing immigration with 26%. (See Monday’s Newsnight Scotland.)

Now a quick search of the ‘Daily Telegraph’ over the last year will find every month or two a headline (in the Scottish edition anyway) such as ‘Support for Independence Slumps’ or ‘Only third of Scots favour independence’. (Editor’s note: Indeed, today’s Telegraph has a story entitled Independence and SNP support down, Telegraph poll shows.) Profoundly British and unionist institutions such as the ‘Daily Telegraph’ can be expected to do all they can to hold the union together and whenever they can dish the Nats and their nasty separatist ways!

What are the Nationalists going to do in reply? The answer is a party and movement strategy. First, the party has to acknowledge that the Salmond leadership, however effective it may have been as a government, has not increased support for independence. His core strategy isn’t working, at least on the evidence we have of the last two year and a half years. Second, the party has to undertake a renewal of its claims about the positive capabilities of a self-governing Scotland – which was such a breath of fresh air in the 2007 elections but which has been damaged by the financial crash and what’s followed.

Then there is the point that a party on its own cannot bring about dramatic change. I personally think the SNP have never had a very firm grasp of social and political change. The party has, despite its rhetoric, been a profoundly British and conservative entity, which thinks the Scots will just vote for independence in an election and referendum, and then it happens and change occurs.

However, if Scotland is to change in the direction the SNP wants there will have to be an ecology of nationalist movements, ideas and opinions – which operate independently of the party, and contribute to the common weal and civil society of Scotland. There is no sign that the SNP understand this: that to bring about fundamental change in Scotland requires the encouragement of institution building – which demands the nurturing and nourishing of people independent of the party. This is one of the crucial questions about the future of Scottish politics: how do we aid a culture of self-government and self-determination; how do we begin to ‘work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’ in the words of Alistair Gray’s famous quote.

To conclude, it is possible given all of the above, that despite the economic crisis and political crisis, and the demise of the old Westminster culture and ruling ethos, that the whole rotten edifice can just keep bumbling along for want of anything better. There is a tangible feeling despite the obvious inadequacies, shortcomings and lies of neo-liberalism that there is a barely disguised ‘restoration’ project going on across politics and economics, which would trump any of the home improvement programmes on TV!

We need to openly acknowledge this. We need to be frank about the weakness of radical democratic forces in Westminster, UK politics and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Yet I have a profound sense of optimism for a number of reasons. First, there is the scale of the economic and political crisis. The nature and shortcomings of neo-liberalism has been exposed and things can never be the same again. Second, the UK has changed and cannot be put back. New spaces have opened up in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London which are evolving very different practices. And the old Westminster ethos which colluded with and gave us the neo-liberal state is flailing and falling apart.

All of the above affects the terrain of any future Conservative or neo-liberal Labour Government. The political space for it occupying and advancing such an agenda is incredibly restricted by the new post-Westminster institutions. Any attempt by them to continue the next stage of the Thatcher/Blair McKinseying of the state will meet widespread opposition. It could easily be an incoming Conservative Government which unwittingly acts as the harbinger of a very different kind of UK and which presides over the last rites of the Westminster political system. But if Glasgow North East is a harbinger of things to come and Labour somehow manages to claw back at the next general election in a cloud of depression and abstentions then it is hard to imagine this as a positive outcome, but instead as something which fundamentally deepens and accelerates the crisis.

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