The coming Scottish revolution


by Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman, January 22nd 2011

The appeal of the familiar.  Or so it seems.  Apparently Scots are in their droves returning to Scottish Labour with the latest polls predicting the party could win an overall majority in next May’s election.

There are only two governing parties in this contest: Labour or SNP – either on their own, or in alliance with others, but never each other.  What kind of appeal are they going to offer to Scottish voters?

Scottish Labour have learnt the trials of opposition after the wobble of Wendy Alexander’s leadership, going after the SNP and turning into a formidable campaigning machine in by-elections and the UK election.

Labour presents a story of its eight years in office in Holyrood as a world of sunlit uplands: 34,000 apprenticeships, 200,000 children lifted out of poverty, 120 new schools and 2000 more teachers.  This begs the question: if it was as good as this how come it didn’t feel like that?  And how come the voters kicked out Labour?

The party has been busy in opposition.  It is ‘the party of ideas’ according to its website and its Policy Forum set up four commissions speaking to business and civic Scotland.  They covered a prosperous and sustainable economy, opportunity, care and health, and law and order and wider safety.

Trouble is there is little of light or originality in them.  Labour is for expanding apprenticeships to every suitably qualified 16-18 year old and a Scottish Living Wage.  And most importantly, being tough on the SNP and tough on the SNP’s ‘broken promises’.

What about the SNP who so effectively campaigned and developed a positive message and tone in 2007?  They list with pride what they think are the 56 key achievements of the party in office: freezing the council tax, phasing out prescription charges, police numbers at an all-time high, and class sizes at an all-time low.

The SNP will run on this record and make the issues of defending Scotland’s interests, public spending and services from the ConDem Government their main clarion call.  It is a kind of Nat version of Willie Ross standing up to the Treasury to protect Scotland’s share of the booty.  There won’t be much capacity or room for anything other than that in what will be a safety first, consolidation manifesto.

Much noise and energy is going to be expended between these two in the countdown to May 5th, but both of them will not be explicit about the tough choices facing us.  How do continue affording our public services? What distributional choices are we prepared to make?  How do we maintain the social contract between the generations?  And how can we stop ‘the grey vote’ dominating politics, given its propensity to vote?

Both Labour and SNP claim the mantle of being social democratic, the tradition which has defined Scottish politics for decades, and which there is a consensus around.

It is no accident that this tradition is in tatters and retreat across the Western world, bent and compromised out of shape by voter expectations and the assault of market fundamentalism. Scotland cannot buck this development.  We cannot be the land where time stood still.  And yet that is the delusion of much of what passes for debate in Scottish politics.

There is little remaining for Labour and SNP to take from this tradition; it is a cupboard which has become increasingly threadbare and embarrassing – given social democracy’s dominance in Scotland.

There is an element of the Scottish political classes and institutional Scotland in this telling us a comforting story about ourselves.  Scotland isn’t the social democratic nirvana of our dreams, or a social democratic country in any real sense.  A place with efficient public services, a dynamic economy, little inequality or poverty?  That’s not Scotland.

What in fact we call social democratic Scotland is the professional and vested interests of this nation – who pretend to talk the people’s talk.  This group learned from the 1950s onward that if they administered welfarism and statism  – they could continue their self-preservation ways of running Scotland by patronage and preferment.  Indeed, there is a longer version of this elite story: the Scotland of the committees of the great and good has been the narrative of our society since 1707.

So it has turned out to be.  Who gains from Scots education and health and the power of the EIS and BMA?  This isn’t a Blairite or a Cameroon Conservative argument; instead it is one about questioning the rhetoric and practices of institutional Scotland.

We should not look to our political classes for change in this.  The Labour Party and SNP, along with the Lib Dems and Tories are all apologists for this.  They are all committed to a defence of 1950s administrative Scotland which devolution has become the mouthpiece of.  Our public life is characterised by policy exhaustion and policy pretence: the constant rewriting of strategies and policy documents in a parallel universe Scotland that is the equivalent of a Potemkin village.

Change will not come from the traditional ways.  Not from our parties, civil service or think tanks.  Instead, it is going to come from the way Scotland has radically altered in the last few decades, and which the politicians still barely seem to understand.

Voters are more questioning, demanding and unpredictable, and expect to be able to have a say in public services and decisions which affect them.  More and more this is going to challenge the self-interest of professional Scotland.

And then we have the spending constraints and cuts.  That again is going to challenge the capacity of elite Scotland to maintain the closed order it has built for itself, and the pretence that they are the people’s champions.

We are going to find over the next five to ten years that the status quo which has governed Scotland since the 1950s will be shaken to breaking point.  The political parties are going to eventually have to change and adapt to this, but they are not going to lead on this, but follow what is already happening.

Scotland is going to have to leave the comfort zone of the assumptions we have all grown up with.  This isn’t an argument of left and right, but about democracy, expectations and tough choices.  This is going to be difficult, have growing pains and an element of unpredictability, but eventually Scottish politics is going to have to stop treating us as children, but adults capable of running our own lives.

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