How to make Scotland a place we’re proud to call home

Scottish Review, by Gerry Hassan


There is only one subject on the lips of many this week: independence and Michael Ashcroft’s 52:48 poll. This is the Scotland of 2019: 20 years of the Scottish Parliament, five years since the indyref, nine years of Tory-led government, and less than 90 days left until the prospect of a no deal Brexit.

We have also had 12 years of SNP government. Once its admirers talked of its competence and sure touch, but they do less so now. The passing of time and pressures of office have had a cost, and even though the SNP is still popular and by far the most popular party in the country, the sense of political attrition and wear and tear on the administration is palpable.

There are now obvious shortcomings in the SNP record, in their style of government, widespread disquiet within and across the party, concerns about the style of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership, and despite the poll mentioned above, huge worries about the absence of any strategy in relation to independence. Most of these sentiments are expressed quietly and in private, but with a sense of vacuum and drift, other issues become more divisive, such as the trans issue and Gender Recognition Act, which has seen bitter exchanges between senior figures in the party.

Twelve years into office the official rhetoric is still of building ‘a kinder, fairer, more equal Scotland’. This has become the equivalent of a stuck record. There is no sign of this Scotland anywhere – or of it being attainable or visible in the near-distance. There is no route map or sense of direction on offer from the government to get us from where we are now to this brave new world.

Across too many areas Scotland is not going in the right direction. Take inequality. Scotland is not, on any measurements, becoming fairer or more equal. Using the Gini co-efficient, the accepted way of measuring income inequality, Scotland has shown no progress at all over the past 20 years. We are still more equal than England, but if you take London out of England, we are broadly as unequal: the reason being that London is one of the most unequal cities in the world.

Then there is the recent scandal of the drugs epidemic, with Scotland having 1,187 drug related deaths in 2018. This has brought forth the totally inadequate response from Joe FitzPatrick, minister for public health, talking of ‘complex reasons’ behind the rise, but seeming to have little understanding what they were, or what to do. Worse than that are the people who say that this tragic situation is the responsibility of Westminster given that drugs policy is reserved; and even worse than that are those who think the main issue in this is disputing how the figures are calculated, citing that there are different criteria in Scotland and England. Neither of these responses seems to care one iota about the human tragedy sweeping our country and the lives wasted and lost.

Moreover, Scotland, after more than a decade of SNP rule and two decades of a parliament, is not a more democratic country. We live in a land where political authority has become increasingly centralised, and located in the top echelons of the Scottish Government, with even the parliament, let alone wider society, frequently left out in the cold.

The scale of centralising power in our country is often seen through partisan eyes: the fault of the SNP or the devolution class. But it is much more serious and entrenched, for we have a long-term historical problem which we barely seem to understand. As Scottish-wide political institutions have emerged and become more powerful, first, under administrative devolution, then the Scottish Parliament, the loose patchworks and networks of public life and civil society have steadily been eroded.

This long predates the SNP, devolution, and even Thatcherism. It can be traced back to starting with the 1929 local government re-organisation which abolished a whole host of councils. As the Scottish state has grown larger across the 20th and 21st centuries, it has accumulated more and more powers, sweeping up and incorporating parts of society which were once more autonomous. As of now, there seems no break on the drive of the centre to try to control as much as it possibly can.

Overshadowing all of this is the independence question. It raises the questions: independence for what, and what kind of independence? The answer to the first is usually framed in the mantra of ‘a fairer, kinder Scotland’, but given we have made no real progress in this, and in the SNP there is little debate about this lack of progress, are we really meant to believe that somehow, post-independence, the appropriate levers will be found and change will happen?

With this backdrop and the disaster nationalism of Boris Johnson and the no deal Brexiteers, there are a host of keyboard warriors of the tartan twitterati who seem to think if they just incessantly tweet about independence, hector, harass and cajole, that this can be enough to achieve a convincing majority for independence.

As Sturgeon goes through the motions of progressing an indyref, the underlying assumption is that the UK Government will refuse any new Section 30 request for a referendum and the SNP leadership will use this to campaign for a fresh mandate in the 2021 elections. The attractiveness of this is obvious: it gives the SNP something positive to campaign on after 12 years in office, and it makes a future indyref about democracy and Scotland’s right to choose.

However, in the present political chaos, there is the prospect of Boris Johnson’s government facing a parliamentary vote of no confidence in September, and a non-Tory majority asserting itself in the Commons, before and after a UK general election. This could bring about Labour-SNP co-operation with the nationalists supporting a minority Labour government in return for a second vote. Corbyn ally, John McDonnell, has said that in such circumstances Labour would not ‘block’ a Scottish vote, but he and the Corbyn leadership have yet to stick to a consistent line on independence.

All of this underlines the lack of any real strategy in the SNP or independence opinion at this critical juncture. Difficult questions have been systematically avoided since 2014. Where was the post-mortem on why Yes lost? It never happened. Where is the acceptance of difficulties and hard choices which come with the early years of independence? And where is the engagement and curiosity asking: ‘what does it take to win over people who voted No?’

The pro-independence voice, ‘Southsidegrrl’, said recently ‘there is no such thing as No voters. There are only people who voted No’. It is a profound, illuminating statement and a revelation. It takes you to a very different mindset than the one of seeing all No voters as ‘unionists’ and all those who don’t believe as ‘yoons’. It is essentially a politics that isn’t about labelling and putting people into boxes to dismiss them.

We have to ask what kind of future Scotland we want to live in. The conventional answer to this in recent times has been to cite the ‘fairer, more equal country’ mantra, and beyond that, to cite that Scotland is defined by its social democracy and centre-left characteristics. But this response warrants investigation considering the patchy record of governments since the arrival of the parliament.

We need to address some fundamentals. First, in recent decades, neither the SNP or Labour before – when dominant – have contributed anything significant to social democracy as a philosophy and set of values. Instead, it has all been about social democracy as pragmatism and making it up as you go along.

The SNP have contributed little to social democracy as a set of ideas. The party came to this tradition, skirting with it in the 1970s and embracing it in the 1980s. Thus, the SNP came late to the social democratic tradition, which was 100 years old by the 1980s and in retreat across the developed world. Like Scottish Labour’s long tail end of decline, the party had a threadbare notion of what social democracy was – reduced to vague mantras and soundbites.

Yet, the difference between the two parties has been profound in one respect. We are comparing the relatively early years of SNP dominance, historically speaking, with that of the last years of Labour’s rule and downward spiral. Scottish Labour had a vibrant era of thinking in the 1920s with James Maxton, John Wheatley and the ILP. Where has been the comparable SNP fertile period of embracing and encouraging ideas? There was a short window in the mid-1970s when the party broke through electorally, and similarly, one in the late 1980s, but at neither point were they continued.

Scottish politics in recent times have been defined by a nationalism which sees itself as centre-left and a unionism of the centre-right. The consequences of this are to place Left vs Right politics in the straitjacket of the constitution, and indeed as secondary to it, and to demote left and right ideas. Instead, political oxygen and energy is sapped out of such thinking, as everything is centred on the independence question.

Where are the emboldening ideas of social democracy, conservatism, liberalism, and the green movement beyond the constitution? All of them are constrained by the focus on the big question, which is not conducive to good politics. The ground of the future state of Scotland is being made in the here and now. If we allow this truncated menu of political possibilities to be what our choices are made up of, then not surprisingly, this is going to be the future we get, independent or not independent.

We need to ask questions beyond the soundbites and trench warfare. What is the kind of Scotland and society that we want to live in and be part of in the 21st-century global order? What do we want and aspire to be our unique contribution? What do we want to make us proud and say that this is collectively ‘us’, this is who ‘we’ are, and the values, principles and actions that we want to define us?

In short, Scotland is our home: what do we really want to do to make it somewhere we feel we all own and have a place in, which is welcoming to its many peoples and traditions, is outward-looking, comfortable with diversity, and celebrates people coming from other nations and enrichening it? To answer these questions, we must take an honest look at ourselves and get organised in the face of a no deal Brexit and the disruption that the UK Government is deliberately embarking upon.