Challenging the scorn


by Stephen Maxwell

Many of Scotland’s established commentators are in a state of despair about the election debate.  Take this sample from the pages of the Scotsman over the last two weeks.

Writing from a temporary refuge in Tunisia Michael Fry contrasts the excitement of “lively and searching” late night debates among supporters of the Jasmine revolution with the “pork barrel politics” and “miserable trivialities” dominating our grey northern election.

Jim Sillars bemoans SNP’s neglect of the case for Scotland breaking free of the crisis stricken UK in favour of making spending pledges to “every interest group they can identify” while intoning the mantra of “more powers”.

Despair, scorn, hair tearing frustration or straight disbelief dominate the contributions of Gerry Hassan who believes that the social democracy which is the default mode of Scottish politics is “in tatters “ throughout Europe, John McTernan, surely the last living Blairite in Scotland, and Joyce Macmillan the most persisitent champion of an ethical politics for Scotland, as well as academic commentators such as Professors David Bell, Gavin McCrone and Stewart Sutherland.

The avatar of despair and scorn is Bill Jamieson, the Scotsman’s own Executive Editor.   “This election is heading to be one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated on the Scottish public … How has Scotland the country that shone the torch of Enlightenment, the nation of Adam Smith, been brought to this?”

There will be few champions of independence who do not sympathise with some at least of these sentiments.  But we should be aware of their very different political premises.

Michael Fry is an idealist free marketeer who supports independence and believes that the national movement has “enough mental vigour and conceptual depth” to redeem its current failings.  Jim Sillars is a professed “unreconstructed fundamentalist” who holds that SNP’s current gradualism is misconceived.  Gerry Hassan is an intellectual entrepreneur who is continually stretching for the next Big Idea.  Joyce Macmillan is a champion of a value based politics who has been persuaded to support SNP for this election by its defence of public service universalism.

McTernan and Jamieson present altogether different challenges to the Scottish mainstream.  They share a frustration at the refusal of Scottish politics to accept the UK’s fiscal crisis as the grounds for abandoning its consensual social democracy for more radical change.  McTernan, a former senior policy adviser to Tony Blair, wants Scotland to take up the Blairite programme of reforms to the NHS and education.  Without radical reforms to the public sector and the abandonment of universalism Scotland will fall further behind a more dynamic England.

Jamieson targets the size rather than the shape of Scotland’s public sector.  We must cut our spending to the exigencies of the UK’s fiscal crisis.   Election promises to maintain let alone extend public spending are “lollipop politics”, an insult to the intelligence of the voters which will breed yet more cynicism towards politicians.  While he has expressed support for greater fiscal powers for Scotland he sees these first of all as a way of confronting the Scots with the hard financial realities rather than an escape route from the UK’s decline.

The policy challenges presented by this sample of commentators will survive the election.  Whether their common scorn for the quality of the parties’ policy offerings is shared by the voters will be shown by the turnout on May 5th.


Published with thanks to the Scottish Independence Convention