The crisis with mainstream ‘safety first’ Scotland


by Gerry Hassan, Open Democracy

The Scottish election approaches the finishing line; the polls have narrowed with the latest Scotland on Sunday/YouGov poll putting the SNP on 42% to Labour’s 34% on the constituency vote, a lead of 8%, and 35% to 33% respectively on the list vote, an SNP lead of 2% (1).

The campaign has shown, thanks to three consecutive Sundays of YouGov polls, that the SNP’s campaign has worked with men and stalled with women; the Nationalists are 13% ahead on the constituency vote with men, 3% with women; while across the last three weeks men have swung 5.5% to the SNP from Labour, whereas women have shown no change at all.

In the last few weeks, it has caught the brief attention of the London media; the New Statesman’s editorial fitted Scotland into how it affected Ed Miliband (2); the Spectator had Gerald Warner talk from another planet about ‘Vichy Tories’ (3); the Economist had a sober analysis with charts (4).

At the same time the mainstream Scottish media haven’t exactly been breathtaking.  We had three TV leaders’ debates, which lacked any of the drama and occasion of the UK debates.  We had Newsnight Scotland managing its record number for a male-only panel: eight.  The highlight of the media campaign was the Sun coming out for Salmond and making itself the story.

The leader debates tell us something alarming about the Scottish media, voters and politicians.  The first by STV chaired by Bernard Ponsonby was clearly won by Salmond with Labour’s Iain Gray trailing; yet it also revealed a Scotland where the voters were still stuck in a 1980s timewarp where public spending solved everything and Tories were still ‘the nasty party’.  One member of the audience verbally attacked Annabel Goldie after she announced a £200 discount for every pensioner council tax, decrying that this was ‘the same old Tories’.

The second debate on BBC Scotland’s Politics Show and chaired by Isabel Fraser had all four leaders, Salmond, Gray, Tavish Scott and Annabel Goldie sitting intimately together, and there-in lay the problem.  Apart from a couple of cheeky Annabel asides to Salmond, all that was memorable was the sight and sound of the four leaders on several occasions talking through each other.

Then we come to Sunday night’s BBC Leaders’ Debate chaired by Glenn Campbell in Perth before an audience of 1,000.  There was some sense of occasion in this, although it was broadcast on a Bank Holiday Weekend Sunday at 10.25pm; hardly the time for a mass audience and collective water cooler moment.

This was actually the best of the three debates with the most theatre, occasion and drama.  There were some revealing moments; Iain Gray and Tavish Scott’s evasions on an independence referendum vote, and even more when Campbell asked Gray to turn and face Salmond and tell him why he shouldn’t be First Minister.  But it couldn’t breakout of the narrow bandwidth of our politics.

These ‘debates’ show that we have a major crisis of our mainstream politics, of our media and even the role of voters in this.  The three leader ‘debates’ showed an atrophied, unimaginative world of politics stuck in another decade, a strange mix of the 1950s and 1980s, one where institutions are not held to account, the state is always trying to do good, and Tories are out to sell our grannies to slavery.

This is the product of our truncated public realm, a contorted space increasingly pressured by a mix of commercial pressures, regulation, London bigwigs, and our own lack of autonomous resources.  Part of this is aided by our problematic politics: a Labour party which is in clear decline in ideas and energy after the Indian Summer of the 1980s, and a Nationalist party which has chosen the path of least resistance in nurturing the widest possible alliance for power.

How we try and change this is a massive challenge.  Just imagine the Scotland of the mainstream continued into the future.  This would be a land of cynicism, disillusion and disappointment.  Disconnection and apathy would define our modern life with increasing low turnouts and participation at elections, along with identification and membership of political parties.

This would lead to a Scotland which had all the appearance of a functioning democracy, but which was an undemocracy, a place run by the post-democratic elites of corporate groupthink and the state.  With fewer and fewer people voting, society would be fragmented, divided, insecure and getting more unequal.  Our politics would revolve around obsessing about the global winners, insecure middle, and older voters who turn out more.

The only substantial political debate would be between different versions of ‘reform’, of modernising Scotland in the interests of these groups and post-democracy.  Everything else, left v right, unionism v nationalism, would be subsumed by this.

Many Scots still interested in politics may think this is overly alarmist, and that this couldn’t happen here, given our glorious traditions of ‘the democratic deficit’, belief in egalitarianism, and anti-Tory voting.  Isn’t this after all the land of Red Clydeside, the ILP and the land New Labour never took root in?

I think we really need to wake up and get a sense of proportion.  Yes there have been good things about this Scottish election: the tone and feel of the SNP campaign, Labour’s efforts falling apart, and more.  But we have witnessed the crisis and exhaustion of the mainstream, of professional, institutional Scotland, of the elites in our public life.  And despite this they refuse to be open to new practices, thinking and ideas.

The only way we are going to defeat the miserablists and modernisers, and challenge institutional Scotland, is to develop countervailing forces in society; to develop our own interventions in the public realm, in the media, in public conversations  and deliberations, and in institutions.

We have to recognise that ‘safety first’ system Scotland has reached a dead-end, but it wont just collapse of its own contradictions.  And that change cannot come from just voting SNP on Thursday or kicking Labour or the Lib Dems, or even the Tories because of the dim distant 1980s.  All of our political parties are locked into a collective mindset of institutional, closed Scotland.  We have to force them out, aiding, pushing, cajoling and encouraging them.

It isn’t going to be easy; I think there is a decent chance we may not succeed, but the alternative is a Scotland of comfy stories, where aged grandparents still tell stories of Tory bogeymen, and where politics increasingly feels like a sideshow while power is exercised elsewhere unchallenged.  I don’t believe that is the Scotland that many of us want to believe in, but it is the Scotland of the system and the status quo.  Let’s bring the reimagination of our political community, nation and society, and the idea of the future centre stage.


1. Eddie Barnes, ‘The X Factor’, Scotland on Sunday, May 1st 2011,

2. New Statesman Editorial, ‘Failure in Scotland would be a big blow to Miliband Leadership, May 2nd 2011,

3. Gerald Warner, ‘We’re all Doomed!’, The Spectator, April 23rd 2011,

4. The Economist, ‘Sea Change’, April 28th 2011,

Published with thanks to Gerry Hassan