The SNP has gone back to old politics. IdeaSpace is the antidote
The Guardian, by Robin McAlpine
The independence vote made people feel they mattered. From across the river Clyde, we can see that the SNP has left that intoxicating idea behind.
One of the quotes I have used most often since the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 is from American civil rights activist Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said: “A man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, seldom regains its original dimensions.”
And it’s true. Scotland experienced a major political campaign that, for the most part, wasn’t designed or curated by political insiders or professional campaigners. Rather, it was put together by a mass movement of grassroots activists who were drawing ideas from whatever inspired them.
For about 18 months we talked not about the priorities of the financial services or corporate retail sectors, but about who we are, what we value, how we want to live and what kind of society we aspire to be.
It was undoubtedly intoxicating. I met many people who told me that it had never occurred to them that politics could be something they were interested in. The aftermath saw established politics punished. The SNP swept to power on the back of these new hopes.
The problem is that, outside of exceptional moments like the independence referendum, politics exists in its own ecosystem – and that ecosystem is populated mainly with ideas and analyses that have money behind them.
This is for the simple reason that getting heard in professional politics requires sustained promotion and the ability to get the ear of the mainstream media. I have worked as a professional political strategist for the past 20 years and I know just how much resource that requires.
So we end up with a system where what matters is who has money and wisdom is defined by wealth.
In this world, it is wise to pay three times as much for a school built by private finance initiatives rather than a publicly funded one. Expecting domestic businesses to pay all their taxes – but not the multinationals they are competing with – is “just life”.
But moderate, people-centred policies on housing or banking or transport or economic inequality are seen as wild-eyed and beyond common sense.
This ecosystem harms everything it touches. I am writing this in the cafe of the Glasgow Science Centre, across the river Clyde from the SNP’s annual conference. Common Weal, the think and do tank of which I’m the director, has always had a stall at the SNP conference. But this year, the costs quadrupled. We simply couldn’t justify the expense.
So, about 40 organisations created IdeaSpace, a “festival of ideas” that is open to the public and coincides with the SNP conference. We have people talking about a national investment bank, land reform, a transformation in early years education, feminist economics, a new approach to housing, a different kind of monetary policy, divestment from fossil fuels – it’s a long list.
But if you are a delegate to the conference and you don’t cross the bridge, you’ll be limited to a quick drink in the “lounge” – a private franchise deal the SNP has with Heathrow. Or you could go to a fringe meeting by the lobby group for the large corporate retailers, or perhaps grab some leaflets promoting the benefits of cheap alcohol to the economy.
I wonder what lessons mainstream politics is learning from the democratic shocks of recent years. Did the SNP win a landslide on the back of a campaign to create a different nation, and conclude that what its voters really wanted was for it to parrot Heathrow propaganda?
Is the conclusion from Brexit that what people are crying out for is old politics, and the old paternal certainties of an era where the role of a citizen was to be governed on someone else’s behalf?
For good or ill, on many issues and in many ways, ordinary people’s minds are being stretched by a new idea. The idea is that they might matter, that what they think and feel should be shaping their society, their community.
It is an intoxicating idea. If mainstream politics cannot keep that idea alive, others will. And it may not be the hope-filled optimists who right now are busily talking about a better future here in the Science Centre.
One thing is for sure: hoping that people’s imagination will regain their previous dimensions would be a very risky strategy.