By David Torrance
Two windows in a flat facing the Edinburgh International Conference Centre had been put to creative use. ‘TORY SCUM BACK TO YOUR CASTLES YOU SPOILT LITTLE BRATS,’ screamed the one on the left, while that alongside added: ‘NO TO FOOD BANKS. EAT THE RICH. YUMMY.’
This caused a degree of amusement among delegates at the Scottish Conservative Party conference, but then I guess it was supposed to. It was also well targeted, for quite a few Scottish Tories do actually live in castles, so-called knights of the shire that once dominated the party in the 1950s and ’60s.
Some of them still exist, for example Sir James McGrigor (Baronet), the Highlands and Islands MSP and, though a peer, Lord Strathclyde, who’s chairing the Scottish party’s devolution commission. But then, as is widely known, Scotland’s original Tartan Tories aren’t the force they once were.
Richard Keen QC, the party’s relatively new chairman, also looks like he probably owns a castle, and on Friday introduced the Prime Minister (an Old Etonian for the uninitiated) in beautifully clipped tones. Weirdly, he couldn’t pronounce the First Minister’s name properly and was somewhat wooden; his picture in the conference programme also made him look a little like Alan B’Stard.
A few weeks ago Keen told the Daily Telegraph that he could envisage the Scottish Conservatives, who currently have 15 MSPs, being Holyrood’s majority party within a decade, while on Friday afternoon Baroness Goldie spoke of the party she used to lead forming part of a future coalition Scottish Government.
Standard goals for a minority party, certainly, but also quixotic ones for a political organisation that once dominated Scottish politics. But if this was fantasy politics of the Right, the same afternoon I also witnessed fantasy politics of the Left in the form of Tariq Ali, who delivered a lecture on behalf of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) at Edinburgh University.
Now Ali is a major figure for those who like that sort of thing, but his intervention in the constitutional debate (trailed in the Guardian) didn’t amount to very much. He caricatured, for example, recent Scottish political history, talking about the ‘rise’ of the SNP in response to the ‘ravages of Thatcherism’ (in fact the SNP didn’t ‘rise’ until much later).
There was also the usual hyperbole about Maggie ‘dismantling’ the welfare state (which begged the question: what’s being ‘dismantled’ now?), while Ali portrayed the economic problems of the 1980s as somehow never having gone away. Lastly there was the Scottish Left’s favourite new myth, that somehow Labour ‘hemorrhaged’ votes as a result of its move to the Right. Only it didn’t. Even at the 2010 general election the party of Blair and Brown managed a swing of nearly three per cent.
To be fair, Ali had some nice lines. ‘At the moment,’ he said, ‘it’s incredibly depressing living in England; living in a land without any opposition.’ He meant the absence of an SNP-like force south of the border; the independence referendum, he added, meant Scotland was a ‘much livelier place to be’, with more politicised voters and the creation of a new ‘mode’.
But beneath the fantasy politics of both Left and Right, there lurked good, legitimate points and developments. This weekend the Scottish Conservatives finally found themselves in a sensible place on the constitution, comfortable with devolution and committed to delivering more of it. The key line in the Prime Minister’s speech alluded to Ruth Davidson wanting more powers after a ‘no’ vote and the fact that he agreed. Delegates even applauded.
And Ali, although irritatingly black-and-white in his observations, did at least point out that envisaging an independent Scotland along free market lines ‘does not work’ because neoliberalism ‘creates a Scotland which isn’t socially just’. ‘Being part of the wonderful neoliberal world doesn’t make any sense at all,’ he said at one point, ‘the system is in crisis.’
Try telling that to Mr Salmond, who remains quite attached to neoliberal dogma about cutting taxes to undercut the City of London and fuel economic growth. Ali said New Labour had ‘bought into the Thatcherite myth’, but then by that analysis so too has the SNP. He also had a pop at the last UK Labour government for having been elected by just 22 per cent of the electorate, but then the same is true of the present Scottish Government.
Ali strayed back into Left fantasyland when he said it was ‘perfectly possible’ that an independent Scotland could forge relations with Ecuador (another small nation that had ‘rejected neoliberalism’), Bolivia, Venezuela, China, and so on. More widely, and more accurately, he said the independence referendum was the ‘most important political event in the history of these islands possibly since the Second World War’.
[As an aside, Pete Ramand and James Foley of the RIC have just published a book called ‘Yes: The Radical Case for Independence’, which I look forward to reading. Curiously, it opens with a dig at my 2011 biography of Alex Salmond, claiming that ‘history thumped…in the face’ my ‘forecast’ that the 2007-11 Scottish Government would be his first and last. I say curiously because I didn’t predict that. The original edition, published in late 2010, did not call the 2011 Holyrood election, while the paperback edition, published after the election, obviously covered the beginning of Salmond’s second term in office.]
Meanwhile, over at the Tory grassroots website Conservative Home, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson was claiming that for the ‘first time’ in her lifetime the Conservatives had ‘good reason to claim that we stand foursquare aligned with the values of the majority in Scotland’. This, however you look at it, is quite a claim, even though it could be argued that the referendum campaign has given its activists a bit more energy.
Turnout at the EICC was good, perhaps more than 1,000 people, a similar number as attended the RIC’s gathering in Glasgow late last year, but the trouble is that neither the Scottish Tory Right nor the Radical Scottish Left holds much broader appeal. Just as Richard Keen, David Cameron and Theresa May preached mainly to the converted over the past couple of days, Tariq Ali – however lucid and experienced – simply told some old (and indeed far from old) lefties what they wanted to hear. This is not territory on which the referendum campaign will be won or lost.