Just enough to keep the punters happy without interfering with the financial interests of the powerful


by Robin McAlpine

I’m getting pretty fed up with the patronising attitude to the Scottish Elections which I seem to be hearing quite a bit.  This is not the attitude of my friends, or people I chat to in the street or the pub, but of what I will just lazily call ‘the establishment’ (people in some form of position of power who believe that being in some form of position of power equates to wisdom and good judgement).

What they seem to be concluding is that this is a tawdry little election in which the participants can do nothing more than try to bribe us all with giveaways and populism.

To be clear, it’s not exactly that I disagree with them.  What irks me is the suggestion that when a Scottish politician feels the need to play to the interests of the Scottish population that is ‘cheap’ but when a UK politician plays to the interests of the right-wing media and business lobby that is ‘mature’.  That is just a function of the ideology of our era; what is so patronising about it is the suggestion that this is a mark of the inferiority of devolved Scottish politics.

So just to confirm the superiority and ‘honesty’ of UK politics, could someone please remind me when during the General Election campaign David Cameron mentioned dismantling the NHS, handing over much of the public sector to private sector companies and basically privatising the university sector?  Or perhaps they could point me to the rider that accompanied Labour election pledges to the effect that ‘these policies are absolutely the only choice for Britain – except if we lose in which case we will rethink the whole lot?  And on the ‘not completely honest with the electorate’ front, is there even any point in mentioning the Lib Dems?  Is it arrogance, ignorance or prejudice to imagine that this is somehow a Scottish affliction?

Campaigning is always about pressing the right buttons – enough positive buttons to make the electorate (and media) feel good about you, enough negative buttons to make them fear your opponent.  So it is the world over, with nothing different to see in Scotland.  In fact, ‘just enough to keep the punters happy without interfering with the financial interests of the powerful’ can be taken as a basic definition of western democracy.

But this does not mean that elections are of no use.  They may not tell us all that much about the nuts and bolts of what a government will do in power, but they at least give us some impression of where a politician stands and where they will draw the line (and of course a chance to punish those who do not live up to the image they paint of themselves).  Which is why I find it so disappointing that we are going to have to go through this election campaign without hearing what Alex Salmond, Iain Gray and the rest make of events in the Middle East or the strategies being pursued in the regulatory reform of the banking system.  It is not that I expect them to shed any particularly revealing light on either subject (any more than I expect it from Cameron or Milliband) but that I want to hear the way they answer the question.

I work hard to try and keep party political neutrality – in editing a non-partisan political magazine I think it is pretty essential.  But I make little secret of the sorts of things that affect my views of the parties, and perhaps none has affected me more than the positions taken by the parties over the release of Megrahi (other than perhaps the positions on minimum pricing for alcohol).  This was Scotland on the international stage and whatever your or my view on the decisions made, I suspect we would concur on the reasons positions were taken.  Frankly, this told me more about the seriousness and maturity of our politics than a hundred debates on who built the most schools.  And that in turn told me much about the kind of politician I want to build those schools.

So in this at least I do agree with ‘the establishment’ – we need politicians who are made to face up to the big decisions with the responsibilities on their shoulders if we are to see them for what they are.  If we limit Scottish politics to the division of cash handed to them from elsewhere we will see politics in Scotland in those limited terms.  How much better if in this campaign we could hear candidates’ views on international politics, tax evasion by big corporations, regulation of big finance, monetary policy and so on, just so we could feel the cut of their jib.  But like sharp objects from a child, these powers are withheld from the Scottish politicians and so we shall never know.

Which means we must simply make the best guess we can on what these politicians would be like if they were running a proper country and we must therefore make do with the ‘partial election’ this bequeathed to us.  In the meantime, I can do no more than enjoy the spluttering impotence of those who say ‘a democracy which delivers policies people want like free education, no privatisation, fairer tax and suchlike nonsense – what kind of a country is this?’.  Welcome to Scotland.

Robin McAlpine is Editor of Scottish Left Review

Published with thanks to the Scottish Independence Convention{jcomments on}