Scottish politics is ripe for a revamp – but where are the new ideas?

The Guardian, by Libby Brooks


There are glimpses of bolder thinking from Holyrood, but what’s really needed is fresh, independent criticism.

I remember chairing a fringe meeting for the human rights group Liberty at the Scottish National party’s autumn conference in 2015. It was Liberty’s first official visit to the SNP conference, but its then director Shami Chakrabarti and Nicola Sturgeon had recently shared a platform defending the Human Rights Act. So I was surprised by the hostility and suspicion directed towards the Liberty speakers, and how personally offended audience members appeared to be by even a degree of friendly criticism.

Liberty had come with the good intention of being the grit in the oyster and it was apparently not welcome. Activists should have been riding high after an unprecedented Scottish landslide at the Westminster elections in May, but it struck me – not for the first or the last time – that the SNP is not used to critical friends.

This is not to say that those who support the party don’t also criticise it: there has been plenty of critique of the SNP by the wider independence movement, and the caricature of an army of indy-bots waiting patiently for Sturgeon to press “go” on a second referendum is just that. But the tradition of external expertise – usually marshalled by thinktanks – offering fresh ideas to government has not taken root since the establishment of the Scottish parliament in 1999, and on the rare occasions that it does sprout from the stony ground, it is greeted defensively.

As far as the SNP is concerned, it’s not hard to understand why. Activists who can recall being laughed at in the street are now members of one the largest and most successful parties in the UK. The psychological adjustment must be mammoth. That attitude of “if you’re not for us you’re against us” – necessary for survival a few decades ago – still permeates party thinking in a way that limits otherwise nourishing exchanges. Many will laugh at the suggestion that the SNP lacks confidence, but compared with parties more experienced in power, it does.

It is baffling that a country that has known such an intensity and scale of politics over the past five years has such a slender capacity for serious work that holds up a mirror to it. And this is perhaps most noticeable after 10 years of SNP government, when, as one of those indy movement critics, the Scottish commentator and academic Gerry Hassan, puts it: “While the SNP government has done many decent things, with a track record of competence, there has also been a conspicuous absence of any real radicalism or innovation in policy.”

It is partly the fault of thinktanks themselves, which fail to look north, while those such as the Resolution Foundation or the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), who are doing work in Scotland, struggle for funding. That’s why the arrival of the Scottish Policy Foundation is so timely.

With an estimable, cross-party advisory council that includes the deputy SNP leader, Angus Robertson, former Labour cabinet minister Douglas Alexander (senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy school) and a recent Tory minister for Scotland, Andrew Dunlop, it was established expressly to tackle the lack of independent policy research by providing funding and support for thinktanks. It is currently inviting research organisations to submit applications on the economy, tax and education for its first round of funding.

But this is about more than just funding. Researchers have valid concerns that their efforts will be viewed only through the constitutional prism. As one London thinktanker puts it: “A lot of people don’t want to be pinned to the wall on a binary issue and don’t want their work to be interpreted that way.” And research that doesn’t have independence or union as its starting point is exactly what Scotland needs.

Despite the mass radicalisation of the 2014 campaign and post-referendum efforts of groups like Common Weal, the Scottish Independence Convention and Rise, promises of an expanded public square have not materialised. Indeed, the three years since the referendum vote have been marked by continual frustrations for many independence activists: at the way grassroots energy has been co-opted into winning elections for the SNP; at the lack of consensus or strategy on big questions such as the economy; at the failure to establish a forum to dissect and build up the failed arguments of 2014.

There’s plenty to concern ourselves with in the way pop-up research units spread misinformation during the EU referendum campaign, but where would Tony Blair’s “third way” or David Cameron’s “big society” be without Demos or the Centre for Social Justice? The time could not be more ripe for a reimagining of what the Scottish state could look like, especially with the potential devolution of further powers post-Brexit.

Thinktanks have the capacity to bring some intellectual rigour to the naivety and introspection that hampers some pro-independence thinking. Unionist activists will acknowledge that there is still the need for an optimistic case for the union, so glaringly absent in 2014 and ever more pressing as we prepare to leave the EU. And what would a liberal conservative vision for welfare devolution look like? So it’s opportune that the centre-right thinktank Bright Blue, whose flavour of Conservatism blends far more comfortably with the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, than it does with Theresa May, is planning to open an office in Scotland.

There have been glimpses of bolder thinking from the Scottish government about a future Scottish state – in plans to create a welfare state based on human rights principles, legislating for victimless prosecution of domestic abuse and the funding of four universal basic income pilots (reported on by one of Scotland’s few native thinktanks, Reform Scotland) – but this is the kind of thinking that happens best outside of government.

Perhaps 2018 will be the year that a country with such an appetite for doing things differently finally gets the public square it deserves. Because politicians of all stripes, civil servants, journalists and activists can all do with a critical friend.