Scottish politics and the politics of change after social democracy


by Gerry Hassan, Scottish Review, March 9th 2011

Scotland likes to see itself as a radical nation.  An egalitarian country.  A country of socialism and more latterly social democratic and progressive values.  A nation which never voted for the Tories in large numbers in recent decades, didn’t like Mrs. Thatcher and didn’t buy into Thatcherism.  A political community which has stood for timeless Scottish values of caring for the vulnerable, compassion and not buying into the certainties of the last few decades which have obsessed Westminster and Washington.

It is a powerful story and despite all the failings and shortcomings in contemporary Scotland – it is still one which a large part, maybe most of our political class, media and public discourse still buys into.  Scotland has stood defiantly against the charms and bluster of Thatcherism and Blairite New Labour, and was shocked by the sad fag end of Gordon Brown’s premiership: not quite believing in him by the time he got the top job, but not quite being prepared to give up on him entirely either.

We need to ask if Scotland has told itself that it is this centre-left nation, anti-Tory, anti-New Labour – why has our politics not advanced this agenda in such a favourable climate?  We have a Parliament with a host of political parties which profess to be social democratic, and a decade of significant public spending increases.  This has been ideal conditions to test the strength of the thesis that Scotland is this proud, rich centre-left country.

The last decade of Scotland has shown the profound limits of devolution – both in terms of resources, ideas and capacity – and the power of the forces of caution and conservatism – despite our belief that we are radicals, rebels and challengers of orthodoxy.  There were several accounts of devolution, but the dominant, prevailing one which emerged was not about transforming Scottish society or a supposed ‘new politics’.  Instead, it was about legitimising the existing vested interests and forces of institutional Scotland.

There have been many positives in the last decade: the effortless establishment of the Parliament, its widespread acceptance, and many changes in society which make us a more liberal, tolerant nation.  It is significantly easier to be gay or Asian and live in Scotland today compared to a decade or more ago.  What has happened in the last decade isn’t just about the limitations of devolution and the 1950s staid, static world which a large part of the devolution class are happy to live within a modernised version of, but the wider Scottish picture.

Scotland isn’t a Social Democratic Nation

How can one put this bluntly; the story that Scotland is this comfortable social democratic nation with a centre-left consensus is a questionable one.  This argument rests on Scottish public opinion surveys showing attachment to centre-left values and politics.  But on this criterion – the UK and England would be – if one takes the British Social Attitudes Surveys in the 1980s – social democratic places.  This was when Thatcher won three elections in a row, and no one would argue the UK and England then were characterised by being social democracies.

For Scotland to be a social democracy it has to exhibit certain qualities associated with the creed the world over: a dynamic, outward looking economy, public services which are driven by the public good, and a society which is not disfigured by inequality, exclusion and righting off a significant section of your population.

Scotland fails on all of these to be a social democracy.  What we are is a social democracy for the institutional classes, for the vested interests and for the middle classes.  This isn’t a Thatcherite or centre-right argument; it could equally find such a view on the new left who challenged authority and deference across the West post-1968, and who with a few exceptions – Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in the 1970s – did not flourish in Scotland.

Why would we think we were a social democracy given the scale of our inequalities, poverty and exclusion.  Instead we are a society where the forces of caution and institutional voices – around professional interest groups – have learned how to talk the people’s talk – and pretend they are the champions of centre-left values.  The experience of Thatcherism aided all this, but one needs to look long before Mrs. Thatcher to see the origins of this.  There is a long story to this: the lack of radicalism of Scottish Labour from the 1930s onward after the ILP breakaway, the rise of the corporatist state from the 1920s on, and going back even further, the nature of how Scotland is governed post-1707 by committees of the great and good.

Scotland as an Undemocracy

There is a good argument to be made that democracy, as a lived, vivid, diverse practice, has come late to Scotland.  The managed society of the great and good wasn’t one about popular voice or sovereignty for all the romantic stories.  Indeed, the cautious politics of Scottish Labour – which has disappointed so many of us – has to be seen as but one expression of this limited politics. In many respects, the politics of the SNP – without the cronyism and patronage – sits within this politics as well.

Many hoped (this author included) that devolution might challenge this, but I did always have my doubts about the prospects for change in the early years.  When people used to talk of the Parliament as ‘a historic moment’ which would radically change Scotland, I used to reply that all of this depends on what we do.

The story so far: the lack of policy ideas, lack of spaces and lack of challenging, divergent voices outside of institutional Scotland is not an accident.  There is a closed cycle of consultation where interest groups talk to other insider groups.  The biggest respondent in the last decade to Scottish Government consultations is – surprise surprise – the Scottish Government; literally the system talking to itself!

While our professional classes seem to be omnipotent there is also a palpable feeling of exhaustion and disillusion in these groups.  They know the cupboard is bare policy and idea wise, and that they have not exactly delivered the bright, hopeful Scotland they promised would come about.

After Social Democracy and The Free Market Utopia

What are we meant to believe in after social democracy’s humiliation by New Labour and across the globe?  What are we meant to trust in after free market zealotry and the masters of the universe turned out to be yet another hollow sham?

Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination brings together a range of voices looking at how Scotland can change – most Scottish based and some international thinkers and practitioners.  It draws together radicals, nationalists and post-nationalists, and people who are fed up of being put in boxes.  We need a Scottish politics which isn’t totally defined by the ideas of tribes and challenges the monopoly of the old declining, hollowed tribes.

We have brought together a number of conversations between academics, commentators, experts, writers and observers, looking at policy and ideas – attempting to widen the policy conversation and how the policy community works.  These include a range of discussions with thinkers from outside Scotland and the UK – looking at wider global concerns and include a passionate and enlightening discussion on public health between Phil Hanlon and Freja Ulvestad Kärki in Norway, while Will Hutton and Zygmunt Bauman confront the nature of global capitalism after the crash and the nature of progress.

What unites the different contributors is an impatience and disappointment at the limits of devolution and belief that we can do better and do it fundamentally differently.  The book offers not just critique – which we have had lots of – but outlines the beginning of an alternative.

Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination maps out how we can move from the fixation on self-government – politically – to the wider notion of self-determination – as a society.  This is about a vision of Scotland and change which isn’t narrowly about politics, politicians or the Parliament – but diffusing and redistributing power across Scotland – to individuals, communities and wider society.

The book isn’t about the union or independence as the solution.  Instead it argues that we need to develop a different vision of Scottish society – which can then inform a real politics of self-government.  Many people will pour scorn on this; the forces of vested interest Scotland, the minimal devolutionalists, cynics and miserablists who fill public life – will say it cannot be done.  But we know that the Scotland of caution and limited visions is not attractive or sustainable, and doesn’t work for large numbers of Scots.

The limited politics of the last decade is cracking, under pressure and scrutiny from the age of austerity and popular expectations.  At the same time the trajectory of market fundamentalism is devouring all before it south of the border with the aim of turning England into a neo-liberal fantasyland.  This will have huge consequences for Scottish politics, and weaken and undermine the politics of stasis, inertia and institutional clutter, masquerading as the people’s democracy for too long.


Gerry Hassan and Rosie Ilett (eds), Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination is published this week by Luath Press, £12.99.

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