Commentary by Christopher Silver
Party conferences are strange beasts. At a time when politics is hobbled by a constant need to respond to the surreal and the unexpected, the party conference tells you everything, and nothing, about the substance of how decisions are made, courses set, careers ruined and policies arrived at.
Party memberships do not determine election results, while the cloistered intrigue of political correspondents and insiders is mere grist to the media mill. Fringe events offer the odd splash of colour and zest, but in the main, these are groups of people who already agree, coming together to restate that, and then some.
But the old rubrics of these ceremonies seem increasingly arcane. Theresa May’s failure to mouth the platitudes and present the basic veneer that such events are all about, simply reminds us that it is all theatre.
The business of detecting gradations in the way agreement and common purpose is framed and where the emphasis falls, is a seasonal sport for the pundit class.
This means that in Scotland the question of independence, viewed through the lens of the SNP’s intent and narrative, is a matter of phrasing and winks and gossip – as though the creation of a new country can be dreamt up in a backroom by a speechwriter.
The potential extinguishing of one country and the birth of another will always polarise opinion. So for some the SNP machine is a vehicle of permanent revolution, for others it is a ‘small c’ conservative project, hooked up to the machine-politics of centrism at a moment when it is fast becoming obsolete.
Out in the country itself, many simply grate when told that things are getting so much better all the time.
With workers facing fifteen years of stagnant wages, major systematic economic change must become, if not the order of the day, then at least a highly topical political issue.
So when the SNP talks of ten years of progress, to be crowned by independence at some still unknowable point, it jars.
Everyone who has read this far will already know that the Scottish Government is not empowered to change the macro-economic situation, but do the majority of Scots?
The areas where the SNP has struggled to articulate a distinct state of affairs in Scotland might seem less significant, but they are absolutely fundamental to the impending challenges it will face as it seeks to consolidate in advance of 2021.
Fixed on changing the iniquitous power relationship between Scotland and London, it all too easily forgets the significance of the way power is structured within Scotland.
This is why the SNP has often been reluctant to step beyond fixes that start from a centralised civil-service-stamped mind-set.
If Holyrood is the place where solutions to the problems of Scotland get fixed, so the logic goes, this progress will steadily build towards more support for independence and the SNP. A grateful populace will nod in agreement at how well the centre is being managed.
Ironically, at a moment where Scotland’s relationship with Europe is one of the most vital matters facing the nation, this top-down approach places the party in a British tradition of governance – as opposed to the European tradition of subsidiarity – where power originates in localities and moves up to the centre.
Meanwhile, one of our wealthiest councils, East Renfrewshire, this week announced major cuts and a council tax hike: legally it can do little else.
New Labour’s legacy
Of course, after ten years, devolved government has changed under the SNP, but never in a prolonged or systematic way. The New Labour designed approaches to running the country were largely adopted, unchanged, by the SNP in 2007. In fact, the unifying outcomes and performance indicators are still largely in place to this day.
On balance, over the past ten years, it is not clear whether the SNP has managed to change the way Scotland is governed, or whether the way Scotland is governed has changed the SNP. After all, the Scottish Government remains a part of the British state, an essentially Blairite creation in thought and deed.
It’s therefore no coincidence that “smart” interventions are favoured over redistributive measures. Behind the big ticket policies on health and education, there are have been a number of areas where the SNP in government has been content to leave things largely unaltered.
But now austerity is biting. Cultural funding in Scotland is set to decline, threatening some of the big iconic arts institutions that receive regular funding from Creative Scotland. Will the gap be plugged, or will other venues and companies join the internationally renowned Arches as casualties of indifference?
Such investment is not only cheap, it is also an open goal for a government with a stated its intent to make Scotland different, bold, radical and imaginative. But there has been no cultural renaissance of the kind Scotland experienced in the 80s and 90s over the past ten years.
McConnell’s administration, despite its flaws, did at least understand that culture should be absolutely central to devolved government.
It founded a national theatre – giving substance to a relatively freewheeling national cultural body. Where are the equivalent steps forward today?
The Labour First Minister stated on St Andrews Day in 2003: ‘I believe we can now make the development of our creative drive, our imagination, the next major enterprise for our society.’ 14 years on, that enterprise feels stalled.
The long game
If the current Scottish Government needs an agenda, running parallel to its ultimate goal of independence, but not trapped by a potentially ruinous second referendum, it must be defined by a new set of priorities.
These ought to include a return to powerhouse local government, a new freedom for civil servants to break with the patrician centralism of the New Labour mindset, and a renewed interest in seeding cultural revival.
Independence is once again a long game, played with rules that are constantly changing.
The areas of policy where the SNP have been strongest – on introducing and maintaining universalism in health, education, personal care and childcare – bind Scots to a distinctive set of social policies that they all share.
But a nation is about something more than just the shared experience of institutions and services. A nation is a diverse, jumbled and often contradictory mix of places, peoples, cultures. Scotland is no exception here; it sits in the mainstream.
Looking to the local and empowering people to embrace and participate in their own culture, are the only ingredients potent enough to build the confidence that will make independence happen. In both these fields, with cuts looming left, right and centre ten years in, the SNP has struggled to find a new instinct and break out of the mould it inherited.
It is impossible to imagine a Scotland without the SNP – the country now exists in the party’s image.
But that image: gradualist, reformist, cautious and economically optimistic, was forged in an era, a mere decade ago, entirely different from the one we’re now in. Things really have been changing that fast.
The claim of Scottish nationalism, unless it’s going to be overtaken once again by events elsewhere, must not be defined by loose and nebulous concepts like growth or progress. It should instead by defined by resilience. A deeper democracy, a confident, empowered and inspired populace – a bulwark against the coming storm, and the only foundation sturdy enough to build a new country, when all around, destruction is the order of the day.