Commentary by Christopher Silver
What do the people want of the place? They want it to be filled with thinking persons as open and adventurous as its architecture.
Edwin Morgan, For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004
We often overlook the fact that the Scottish parliament is still relatively young. At times it still seems nervous and unsure of itself: its hemicircle still largely populated by rows of characters seldom distinguishable or worthy of note.
Yet that’s not to say that there aren’t traditions and examples already laid out that are worth emulating. Looking back at the roll call of those who have sat in the Scottish Parliament, there is one pre-eminent figure, now tragically absent, who encapsulated for me what Scottish politics ought to be about.
Despite a lifetime in politics Margo MacDonald was not, in any sense of the term, a career politician. Despite an unwavering commitment to Scottish independence, she was often vociferous in her criticism of the SNP. Despite never being part of the political mainstream, she was equally far from obscurity — in fact, as one of the Scotland’s rare first name politicians, she was a prominent and inimitable public figure.
While Margo was reputedly nervous about the prospect of first standing as an independent, for younger, newly engaged Scots her blaze of colour in the far corner of the Holyrood chamber seemed definitive. Margo was also, in her own way, mother to the Yes movement: generously offering garrulous humour, invaluable advice and some of the campaign’s best lines, in the very final, trying months of a terminal illness. Few efforts were more inspiring, or necessary.
Obviously, there is no single politician and no party that can fit into such a distinct space. Yet this does not mean that we cannot ask for members of this new cast of representatives to take inspiration from Margo’s example.
I do not have a particular view on what party should or should not triumph tomorrow. What I do hope for, is that at least a proportion of the new intake are prepared to follow that tradition of measured, meaningful dissent and independence. I want MSPs who will fight the most unpopular causes, because they need to be fought. I want MSPs who question their party’s line, whether that party is in government or not and regardless of some notional, unknown and uncharted march to independence or closer union.
Dissent and Independence
To talk of a tradition is of course to talk of far more than any single politician. The hagiography of Scotland’s political development is packed with mavericks and dissenters — few of whom would have been able to thole regimented party discipline. Thrawn and carnaptious they may have been, but in a small, unequal country that gravitates towards consensus, an awkward squad, of whatever hue, is as deeply necessary as a second chamber. A Scottish democracy that lacking this ingredient offers thin gruel for the bellies of energetic political activists.
Independence of mind does not have to mean freedom from the party whip. But if there is one lesson that the rather drab conduct of this election has taught me, it is that governing from the centre for the centre does not spark political action or engagement. A march towards independence that is cautious, single-minded and unquestioning will result in independence being cautious, single-minded and unquestioning in turn.
So if this is a plea for a more disputatious parliament, it is based on my own deeply held convictions about the nature of Scotland itself. In 2011, propelled by an unlooked for insurgency Alex Salmond was able to describe the SNP as the ‘national party of Scotland’.
This is to forget that no one party can ever speak for an entire nation, because a nation can never be singular. It is not Scotland’s uniformity or sameness that underwrites its age old claim to be something more than a region but its internal diversity. Diversity that we so rarely get a slice of in Scottish public life.
Dissent within the SNP might happen on the floor of party conferences, but it is rarely taken up by any of its legion elected representatives. A pattern that has been established since 2011 has seen the emergence of independent MSPs: Jean Urquhart, John Finnie and John Wilson, the former now standing for RISE and the later two for the Greens. While the lead party of independence is intent on maintaining its facade of cast iron discipline within the roomy interior of its broad church, the predominant activity within still seems to be gaping at how numerous the congregation has become. If few parishioners are prepared to stick up their hands and ask awkward questions, a steady build up of noises off will be necessary.
As countless examples from Scottish history tell us: politics is not easy. From the Highland Land League to the Glasgow rent strikes, major shifts for the common good are never handed down from above. Some politicians are able to recognise this, welcome it and channel it, others seek to avoid or placate it.
The Scottish establishment may be harder to pin down and less ostentatious than its southern cousin, but it exerts its force all the same. In fact, an ability to comfortably nestle in amongst the many cracks in the architecture of a crumbling union often works in its favour. Concentrating more power in Holyrood means that the decisions we make in Scotland are equally vulnerable to the influence of Scotland’s homegrown elites. Those hell-bent on the pursuit of independence above all else ought to remember this — injustice is not some kind of nasty import handed down from London like a Barnett consequential. Independence in and of itself will do nothing to rid us of it, but with no one else to blame, it might make us see the problem with more clarity.
We also now know that the character of Scotland is not, in any significant way, inherently left wing or progressive. In part this can be seen by nationalist outriders bemoaning the existence and behaviour of ‘far left’ groups, even though the deviations from the centre offered by the Greens and RISE are often incremental and never revolutionary. Politics in Scotland is starting to revert to habits many thought had been discarded or rendered foreign: the bizarre online furore over the First Minister’s photo op with the nation’s largest tabloid being a case in point.
If a great wave of disillusionment with New Labour propelled the SNP into power, the lack of any effective opposition has left the party free to tell us things can only get better. The clear limits being placed on this different, better, vision of Scotland are now obvious.
If Scots were more amenable to redistributive policies, mainstream parties would offer them: they don’t. There is, as in England, a desire to promote smart interventions — in childcare, education, or health — all of which feed into a comforting narrative that no signifiant shift in wealth is required to deliver “fairness”. It is all part of a now well worn assumption that triangulation is the only game in town and wrapped in the blanket of a devolved settlement out of which middle Scotland does rather well, as it happens.
All of these certainties cry out to be questioned: silent acquiescence does not a nation make. I am not a party political animal and there may well be individual candidates across the political spectrum that would make excellent, combative, parliamentarians. Foremost amongst them in my own estimation is Andy Wightman — who has already turned the once obscure and opaque issue of who owns Scotland into a vital and pressing political concern.
Andy was also one of the first on record to point out the significance of the referendum result, remarking on the night itself:
“Looks like the poorest & most disadvantaged of Scotland’s citizens have cried the loudest for change. Responsibilities follow.”
Uniformity will not keep Holyrood anchored to that responsibility. Dissent, scrutiny and a parliament of independent minds will.