Scottish Politics Before the Storm

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Gerry Hassan

Chartist, July/August 2010
The UK general election has brought defeat and bad news to Labour with the end game of the New Labour era producing a demoralised party with its second lowest vote since 1918. At the same time the results painted a mixed picture for the party: with its decent showing in parliamentary seats, and emergence of the Con-Lib Dem coalition government, feeding into a widespread sense of denial and belief that Labour isn’t in too bad a state.

Gerry Hassan

Chartist, July/August 2010
The UK general election has brought defeat and bad news to Labour with the end game of the New Labour era producing a demoralised party with its second lowest vote since 1918. At the same time the results painted a mixed picture for the party: with its decent showing in parliamentary seats, and emergence of the Con-Lib Dem coalition government, feeding into a widespread sense of denial and belief that Labour isn’t in too bad a state.

The national and regional results have aided this sense of complacency, with Labour performing well in Scotland, and relatively well in London. While these were positive signs, the party’s poor showing across England per se and Wales did not give any encouragement.

Scotland was the only part of the UK which actually swung from the Tories to Labour (0.8%) and saw an increase in the Labour vote (2.5%). The rise in the Conservative vote was miniscule (0.9%) showing no discernable ‘Cameron bounce’ while the Tories could not affect a single parliamentary gain north of the border. Scotland’s complex four party politics also saw the SNP make no real headway – increasing their vote but finishing with under 20% of the vote, while the Lib Dems fell back from their 2005 high.

Labour’s ‘Official Story’

The Labour interpretation of this has become clear and was already self-evident before the 2010 vote. The ‘official story’ of Labour – now put forth by Iain Gray, leader of Scottish Labour in the Scottish Parliament – is that Labour has slowly, but effectively learned the lessons of 2007: the party’s narrow defeat in the polls to the SNP, and emergence of the first ever SNP devolved government.

This account now states that from Labour’s narrow defeat in 2007 the party at first went into reverse: losing the Glasgow East by-election to the Nationalists by 365 votes in the summer of 2008 and in Gray’s words ‘finding itself 16% behind in the polls’. This situation has been turned around – witness the party’s victories in the Glenrothes and Glasgow North East by-elections – culminating in its triumph at the recent Westminster when according to Gray ‘one million Scots said yes to Labour’.

At the same time another interpretation of Scottish politics has emerged which is not necessarily in complete contrast to the above – around the publication of the Calman Commission last year on more fiscal autonomy for the Parliament. The logic of this was to counter the dynamics and appeal of the SNP’s constitutional stance.

Even though independence has never commanded consistent majority support – the Nationalists have driven much of the last forty years of Scottish politics: the party which has given most voice to Scotland’s cultural and political identity, stood up and represented its interests at Westminster, and shaped much of the debate on autonomy.

The Limits of Labour’s Success

Both of these interpretations are shot through with flaws. Take Labour’s ‘official story’ first. Two points need to be made about Scottish Labour support. The first is the nature of its vote in 2010 was not in many respects a positive endorsement of Labour, but a defensive reaction. When Scotland sees the spectre of a Tory Government, a large number of Scots see Scottish Labour as the most effective anti-Tory vehicle at Westminster to protect them.

Labour’s vote in Scotland is a product of the anti-Tory nature of politics here, and the all-pervasive anti-Tory consensus. And just as the SNP have been more trusted in the Scottish Parliament, Labour would be foolhardy in the extreme to over-interpret this result in an exclusive, partisan way and overreach itself.

The second is the state of Scottish Labour is not despite Iain Gray’s protestations a good one. This is a party which has been atrophying for decades, and has grown used to a certain kind of ‘machine’ politics of cronyism, corruption and boys’ patronage and preferment. The recent scandals at Glasgow City Council where Stephen Purcell, former leader resigned, and Strathclyde Passenger Transport, the regional agency, revealed a huge, labyrinth of ‘men behaving badly’: of Labour men or Labour identifying men enjoying largesse and the good life at the expense of the public.

Then there is the sense that Scottish Labour has no real clear sense of positive identity – beyond being against the Tories and Nationalists. The party has very few clear, popular policies and little to nothing to say on the main challenges facing Scotland: its poor economic performance, and the scale of social inequality and division which characterises so much of Scotland and should shame anyone who talks of a ‘social democratic Scotland’.

Similar problems arise with the Calman Commission interpretation of Scottish politics. This arose out of Wendy Alexander’s obsession with what she regarded as the SNP’s obsession with the constitution. This is never a sure-footed basis for political strategy: the default of being driven by the logic of your opponent’s priorities. The SNP’s entire raison d’etre has been about Scottish independence and statehood; previously Labour has answered this by talking about economic and social values.

Calman springs from a number of strategic errors: that Scotland can continue revisiting the achievement of the Scotland Act 1998, of accruing and acquiring powers from the centre, without a wider reckoning taking place about Scotland’s role and position at Westminster, and indeed, the whole nature of the UK political system.

Then there is Calman’s understanding of Scottish politics – which was revealed by Alexander when the report was published last year when she stated: ‘this is how we do politics in Scotland, Kilbrandon, the Scottish Constitutional Convention, Calman’, meaning that elite, expert driven commissions come together to recommend a way forward on constitutional politics.

This is the Scotland of pre-democracy – which still shaped most of its politics before devolution: rule by committees, professional groups and experts, and a world that Scottish Labour has never challenged, but instead used to support and reinforce its position, and ultimately which has ultimately changed the nature of the party.

The Calman proposals recommended that Scotland’s Parliament gain a limited amount of fiscal autonomy with the Scottish block grant cut by the equivalent of 10p of Scots income tax, and the Parliament given powers to make up this gap, thus having the power to raise more or less taxes. The Calman plans are now widely seen as deeply damaging, counter-productive, and politically ill-thought out policies from which no one would gain: not Scotland’s finances, public services or economy, and not a British wide shared sense of citizenship.

Beyond the Evolution of Devolution

Since the general election Scottish politics have evolved in ways which suggest parts of it may be slowly moving from these interpretations. The Con-Lib Dem coalition has changed politics north of the border as well as the UK. The coalition government has a much wider constituency of support in Scotland than a Tory Government on its own would have had. Cameron does seem to be serious about developing a ‘new unionism’ which learns the lessons of Thatcherism’s abrasive style; whether this can survive the culture of cuts and celebrating ‘savaging’ parts of the public sector remains to be seen.

This has consequences on the Calman Commission with the Tories rightly nervous about implementing such proposals. Instead, a broad based Scottish campaign has arisen which is promoting full fiscal autonomy. This is opening a welcome and much needed debate, yet at the same time, some of the business voices around this debate are not so much interested in widening the debate or fiscal autonomy per se, but using this as an excuse to totally change the culture of Scotland.

What some of the loudest and most siren voices want is a framework which allows massive cuts in business taxes in Scotland, and corporation tax in particular. Despite everything that has happened in the UK and the Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’, what these supposedly ‘non-political’ business men are driven by is the ideological orthodoxies of the deregulation mentality: of getting the state out of the way of enterprise, of ‘trickle down’, the Laffer Curve, and distorting everything in the interests of business and capital.

There is also a profound political disingenuousness about some of this which borders on being dishonest. Moving towards fiscal autonomy at a time of cuts, would produce a ‘double whammy’: a kind of ‘shock therapy’ to Scotland’s finances and culture which would be close in style if not scale to what the post-Communist economies endured.

This business community, neo-liberal approach to fiscal autonomy has to be treated with scepticism; and instead more research undertaken, and a debate started about protecting public services and centre-left values. What is interesting is that both the Scottish Labour and SNP leaderships have listened to and appeased this kind of narrow, economic determinist dogma for too long.

This takes us to the future of Scottish politics. For all the talk of social democratic Scotland, both Labour and SNP have been shaped economically by neo-liberalism. Neither have had much to say about the economy since the crash, and the collapse of the banks, Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS; this has had more consequences for the SNP given that it matters to the politics of independence.

Underneath the surface, the SNP are slowly moving away from stressing independence in the immediate future, recognising that they don’t have the votes in the Parliament, let alone the nation. Alex Salmond and the party leadership seem open to taking a more mature, strategic approach which develops a wide consensus in Scotland on devolving the maximum amount of powers, and being relaxed about the pan-British arrangements which may flow from that.

What is missing in this – in Scotland as in the UK – is a genuine centre-left set of voices which is questioning the business orthodoxies which lye behind a lot of this. The difference north of the border is that there is a smug, self-satisfied feeling across society – in Labour, the SNP and the professional classes – that each is the custodian of Scotland’s conscience.

None can be really trusted to challenge the siren voices of neo-liberalism and financial discipline, but will Scottish Labour, the SNP or some other group find a way in which it can articulate a positive politics which challenges such assumptions?

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Gerry Hassan.

Read Gerry Hassan by visiting his blog: http://www.gerryhassan.com