It is ten years since devolution – an obvious time to stop and take stock of what has happened in Scottish politics. And so the media and the commentators use the opportunity to reflect on what has been done and achieved and what not by the establishment of a Parliament in Scotland. But this only makes sense because of the neatness of anniversaries. In political terms, ten years sometimes means very little.
Take for instance the pouring over ‘ten years of Blair’. People make the attempt to force reflection into timescales which in turn makes us believe the timescales are important. But for Blair, we knew pretty well everything we needed to know within three years of his election (although some people took more time to catch on). Blair discharged his residual duties to the Labour movement in the first year (the things he couldn’t dump like the minimum wage and devolution for Scotland). At the same time, he started ‘ruling as New Labour’. By the time we had been through the first scandal (called the ‘Eccleston Affair’ even though the name had as little to do with the bribery involved as the Watergate Hotel name had to political black ops), the reinvention of PFI as PPP and the Kosovo bombing, people looking with a clear mind at the landscape had the measure of the Blair decade. Many people took a while to catch on (“he’s not a power freak who demonstrates an unhealthy degree of excitement when around any form of power especially when it involves explosives and military types, he’s actually trying to save Albanian Kosovans”, “PPP is not about making big construction companies and shady consultancies phenomenally rich, it’s about building schools to give poor people a chance”). But they really should be embarrassed – the intoxicating mixture of megalomaniacal power-love, venality, domineering and obsequious obedience in his personality was such a quick, close fit to the neoliberal and neoconservative policies he pursued from the start that not noticing was pretty inexcusable. We needed a ‘ten year review’ in 2007 about as much as we needed to ask ‘he won’t really invade Iraq, will he’ in 2003.
Neither politicians nor parties are particularly prone to real change once they get started. There are many, many reasons for this. For example, you are trapped by your previous pronouncements in a political culture where ‘not for turning’ is actually seen as a strength, not a psychosis. You also face the detritus of what you have already done which blocks possible avenues of escape. All politicians have to wrestle with increasing numbers of compromises in direct proportion to success/power achieved. But mostly they end up trapped by themselves. People often don’t understand what politicians actually face. Britain in recent years has been imbued with the ideal of ‘respect’ – everyone has started to believe that they have a statutory right to be treated in the manner which they consider ‘right’, and that rarely means being criticised. Politicians, on the other hand, live a life under perpetual attack. It can get to such a point that it is hard to even remember when positive things are said about you. They simply feel under constant assault.
The whole body of Scottish politicians are like rabbits in headlights. The politics they used to understand (with rules like ‘no-one will ever be heard criticising someone who is pro-busines’ and ‘people are so obsessed with wealth they take it and those who have it to be virtuous’) are over.
The fairly understandable psychological reaction to this is to not believe what is said about you (an avenue down which one would discover either Buddhism or a mental breakdown) but rather to believe in yourself, your ‘values’, your ‘mission’, even more than you did before. Politicians understand this but the public doesn’t – the best way to ensure a politician digs in is to fire mortar rounds at them. We non-elected-politicians really don’t properly understand this and it is one of the reason we hold politicians in contempt for doing not only what we would do in the same circumstance but which we actually do (when we argue with our partner, get irritated by another couple in a restaurant, get annoyed by a car failing to let us out when we just did exactly the same to another car). Politicians, like all humans, develop a personality and a position and, like all humans, they tend not to change these fundamentally.
So, we will leave the ‘impact of the first ten years of devolution’ to the historians. The real question is, what is the impact of the politics we have today? After all, any political strategist will tell you that ten years – three elections – is a parallel time zone. Politics is a real-time pursuit.
Two years ago the established order was unsettled. Political historians are prone to gasping in surprise that ‘as recently as the 1960s’ the Tories did pretty respectably in Scottish elections. But this perspective is of course fine for history but pointless for politics (in October this year a generation of students will be filling our universities who will have little meaningful memory of Tony Blair, while sizeable chunks of the young professional classes today will have little or no memory of Tory rule). For all political intents and purposes, Scotland has been a Labour dominion forever. And all dominions take on the character of their rulers. The British elite no longer has the propensity to build statues of themselves (although there are some who still feel uncomfortable with the unseemly speed of the deification of Donald Dewar and the erection of his tribute in such a prime Glasgow location). But they impose themselves everywhere. And the place it matters most is in the mind.
In 2007 the SNP won an election and it is no overstatement to say that for much of the political establishment in Scotland the situation was impossible to resolve in their heads. This is not hyperbole – many people seriously did not think this would be ‘allowed’. What they meant by this – they thought – was that the party which won the election did not carry a parliamentary majority and, worse than that, appeared to be on their own in terms of their ‘big idea’. They thought they meant that the will of the democratic construction of the Scottish Parliament would lead inevitably to a return to the agreed order. But that is not really what they meant. What they meant was that democracy comes second to ‘stability’, that the ‘order’ is such for a good reason and that matters will resolve back to nature. What they really meant was that They and All the People They Knew (inevitably a small, white, wealthy group) wouldn’t stand for this. In May 2007, Scotland was awash with people who had spent as many as 30 years establishing themselves in the ‘right’ networks only to wake up to discover the network has been fired. This Would Not Do.
But this isn’t that surprising because the establishment is always both convinced of its legitimacy and stupid about the wider world. The host of people in Scotland who lived on a medieval-style patronage system were undone. It is unfair to pick on only one of them, but let’s do it anyway. Kirsty Wark was a ‘journalist’ who lived in Scotland. The apostrophes are because journalists are not really meant to be protagonists, close personal friends with whichever Labour leader was in power (lunch with Donald, holidays with Jack). The traditional role of journalists is not really to end up on all sorts of commissions and bodies which in turn shaped the future in the shared image of all concerned. When she interviewed Salmond after he won, no-one watching it could have imagined it was an interview. It was venting in disbelief.
It wasn’t just ‘Donald’s Friends’ (Donald Dewar being the icon they are most likely to defer to); lots of people who ought to know better just went along with this viewpoint. Thus it was that the broad opinion as it appeared in the press was that Salmond would be lucky to last six months. This revealed the crushing stupidity of the establishment. For one thing, it demonstrates a very poor understanding of parliamentary democracy in Scotland. Every single Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MSP would have had to vote against Salmond and then in favour of (probably) McConnell. Why did they think the Conservatives wanted Labour back in power in Scotland? Did they think the Liberal Democrats didn’t know this would pretty well shred their reputation as an independent party? Why didn’t they realise that this still wasn’t enough and that they’d need the Green votes as well to get a two-thirds majority? Should they be reaching for their laptops without understanding the basic constitutional basis for what they were predicting?
The SNP came in thinking it could get away with socially-democratic neoliberalism. This is a lie. Either you are for justice or for avarice and they simply do not resolve.
But much more pertinently, did they think that this was all going to be ‘just so’ without so much as a squeak from the ‘other ranks’? You really did not need to be an SNP supporter to be outraged by the idea that, having lost an election to a party which it might be worth giving a go to see how they got on, a bunch of no-names could get together and undo it without so much as a whisper of dissent. In the minds of the elite, the townsfolk would just nod in agreement when the elders decided to remove the person who got the most votes and put their boy Jack back in. This was ignorance, and arrogance.
Which is all how we got here. It is important to remind ourselves of this context to answer the question ‘is Scottish politics as a whole any more left-wing because of the 2007 election?’.
But it is also important to establish a ‘baseline’ – how left were we before? This is of course both complicated and subjective, but here are some suggestion. Firstly, there were three phases under three leaders. The Dewar period was by far the most conservative – this might be justified by the reality of getting a new parliament to bed in, but it is something of a stretch to imagine that it was going to change much. After all, Dewar was a very small-c conservative politician, was very loyal and closely linked to Downing Street and the Westminster tradition. These three factors are how to define the Labour element of the first eight years of Government. McLeish was easily the most radical of the Labour leaders in instinct, and while he was fairly traditionally loyal and was from the Westminster tradition he was very committed to an independent approach being taken in Scotland. Most of what is taken to be the Parliament’s achievements (tuition fee abolition, free care for the elderly, a better deal for teachers and so on) were McLeish-led initiatives (the fee abolition as a Minister rather than First Minister). And thus it was that he generated the usual unhinged ire from Gordon Brown (who believed he controlled these things) and damaging stories started leaking out of the Fife Labour Party (it is hard to imagine that would happen without Brown’s knowledge at least) and he was brought down, probably more by his own side than by McLetchie or the media as is now the received history. (It is funny to look at McLeish’s misdemeanours in light of what we can now prove about his peers – out of the lot of them it seems Henry was the only MP who was involved in a muddle rather than a fiddle.) And then came McConnell, by instincts a follower (radical when it’s the done thing, cautious when it’s the done thing), certainly loyal but not of the Westminster tradition and indeed roundly ridiculed and insulted by the Westminster tendency. He has been given credit for bringing ‘respectability’ back to the Scottish Parliament, but this is surely a euphemism for ‘greater compliance with the dictates set down by London and the anti-Parliament media’. It is hard to see how history will be kind on McConnell, which is perhaps unfair. In his cautious way he did indeed protect Scotland from the worst of Blairism, but that means that he is really only credited with what he didn’t do. That his reported proudest achievement is the smoking ban is particularly filled with pathos – it was an opposition Bill that the Scottish Executive didn’t support until it realised it was going to defeated anyway.
We of course have to factor in the Liberal Democrat influence as well. For the first eight years of devolution Jim Wallace imposed a traditional liberal approach on the Labour Executive. There were a couple of areas where this pushed results in a more liberal outcome and there were a couple of big wins (tuition fee abolition being an obvious case). But the main role of the Liberal Democrats was to act as a ‘human shield’ for the defensive role of Scottish Labour – successive First Ministers could fall back on the argument that they had no option but to take a different line from London on various policies on the basis that they would be forced to by the Lib Dems anyway.
And then there were the Socialists and Greens. The folk memory of the Socialists isn’t great, to be honest. Tommy Sheridan is arguable the most impressive politician to have sat in the Scottish Parliament. This will be an extremely controversial view among many of the sages who talk about politics but then they often can’t differentiate between power and ability – Sheridan had an absolutely overwhelmingly hostile press (the Daily Record – ‘Labour-suporting’ is an insufficient description – even refused for a while to print his name). He had no resources, no long-standing party infrastructure and no parliamentary votes. And yet he instantly became one of the most visible Scottish politicians and carved out a real, functional space for the Scottish Socialist Party. You don’t have to like or agree with Sheridan to accept this. But the wins in the first four years – warrant sale abolition apart – were organisational. He built up the profile of the party. But there wasn’t much evidence that this had dragged the other parties to the left – in fact, this was the four years when the SNP took a fairly sharp right-turn.
There is plenty of evidence that the Greens were pulled along in that slipstream, at least to some extent. The sole Green – Robin Harper – simply didn’t impose himself on either the public or the political consciousness and the wins were marginal (what effective environmental actions has the Parliament taken?). The grassroots campaigning of the Greens was important but it was in some significant part the profile of Sheridan that demonstrated the viability of small parties, and led those who would never have voted SSP to consider the Greens.
And then there was the 2003-07 period. Bluntly, the smaller parties may largely have been swept out of Parliament because of quirks in the voting system but that would be an overly-generous assessment. The SSP situation has been dissected in the Scottish Left Review a number of times, but that has always been about personalities. The harsh truth is that in the four years when there were six Greens and five Socialists, the identifiable impact was minimal. OK, there was a short period where people were caught by the surprise of it, but after that the delivery was minimal. There are three things the smaller parties ought to have achieved in those four years. One was consolidation – they should have made themselves intrinsic parts of the landscape. This required two things to happen. One was that they needed to have made some real mark on the Parliament beyond the procedural – speaking in debates was fine but there had to be a sign that their presence was making a difference in terms of action. Sure, the four big parties tried their damnedest to isolate the SSP in particular, but that just makes it all the more important to find both constructive and obstructive ways to get things done. It didn’t really happen. And the third thing that should have happened is that the other parties should have been worried about electoral advance and tacked left. But this really didn’t happen – the Greens provoked a bit of token environmentalism in the manifestos of other parties but there is little evidence of any more impact than that.
So, to return to our beginning, the question is not what difference the last ten years has made. The question is what difference the last two has made and how would we know? In this issue of the SLR a variety of writers consider what has happened to the various parties in the last two years and whether they have tacked left or right. The following couple of paragraph provides no more than a snapshot to help us understand whether the totality has changed.
The SNP has taken power and is moving in two directions at once. On the one hand it is promoting a much more socially democratic (and sometimes genuinely radical) response to what might be called ‘public services’ and the wider social agenda. Labour may feign its masculine ‘people’s party’ response to the abolition of PFI and pretend it is an attack on parents or patients. This is total, complete and utter stupidity. Labour wants the SNP to build schools using Tory privatisation policies. It seems unable to understand that the ability to build any schools in the future relies on this giant off-the-books con being stopped now. Five shiny schools now and a generation of blight is not a ‘people’s priority’. Another major change is that the old Labour Executive mime act about the big world issues (a slight frown was supposed to make you believe they didn’t really want to invade Iraq but no words would be spoken) is gone. Iain Gray would love to believe that most people think Salmond’s willingness to talk about global issues is posturing, but that’s because they don’t get it; people want their leaders to speak honestly about the big issues. On nuclear weapons, nuclear power, overseas wars and the rest of it, Scotland finally has a voice, and it is saying the right things. It is elsewhere that the real concern lies.
The SNP came in thinking it could get away with socially-democratic neoliberalism. It could give full-blooded support to the low tax, deregulation, rich-get-richer-and-richer ideologies of Bush but obscure them behind the ‘other stuff’. This is a lie of the first order and is by far the biggest stain on this Government. Either you are for justice or for avarice and they simply do not resolve. If people get an unlimited right to grab everything they can, someone must lose. Trickle-down is so debunked as a serious policy approach that following it is ridiculous. ‘Wealth-generators’ do not generate wealth, they appropriate it. In case this isn’t clear, did anyone buy more car tyres because of Tom Farmer or more training shoes because of Tom Hunter or did they just capture and expanding market for themselves, denuding local communities of the wealth that would otherwise have been generated there? So long as the SNP keeps up this lie, the rest of its achievements will always be at risk.
Labour, meanwhile, is shedding supporters like leaves in autumn. Brown is making a total mess of a situation which he and Blair created and which was an incredible mess to begin with. Labour will be out of power in London soon enough and Scotland doesn’t understand yet. Having lost the power base that was the Scottish Executive, then having lost its grip on local government, soon Jim Murphy will be seeking work with Israeli defence firms or the like and Scottish Labour in the Scottish Parliament will be on its own. This is a massive, massive opportunity. It’s just that they don’t have anyone capable of grasping it. Gray is an overrated politician, but only by the Labour establishment. No-one in the media, civic Scotland, even in most of his party, believes he will ever be First Minister. Right now he is there to toe the line with London and he has functionaries to try and do it – for example, Andy Kerr is trying to shore up PFI, Rhona Brankin appears to be working on reversing the Labour opposition to top-up fees in Scotland and Richard Baker is trying to make the justice position sound much more Blairite. Labour is trying in opposition to become the very thing it can’t be if it wants to survive in elected politics in Scotland. They are trying to be more like London. Then again, if these are your heavyweights you’re going to have to try and be more like someone. But when Brown goes so will this group. It’s just hard to see what next?
Meanwhile the Lib Dems are really quite daft. The old-style liberalism of Jim Wallace has been replaced with an utterly confused and utterly mistimed attempt by the young guard to become neoliberal shock-troops. Nicol Stephen was incredibly attracted to the ‘high-powered’ business types without really understanding their agenda but mouthing it anyway. His successor, Tavish Scott, is the last person in Britain to believe that sharp cuts in income tax are going to do anything positive in the middle of a recession. Their inability to find any sort of role is an incredibly damning indictment of the party. Really, what are they for? And bluntly, what are the Greens for? They have been a real disappointment and appear either unwilling or unable to play the role of a minority party playing the numbers game to achieve anything.
So has the totality moved left? Yes. But with caveats. There is just no chance now of the kind of loony-London ‘think-tank’ agenda which seems always to involve selling off or privatising or otherwise undermining the public sector. There is a faltering but real attempt to try some new things – Local Income Tax (which is more progressive), a PFI replacement, turning backs on the ‘jail the poor and desperate’ agenda. There is a real, liberating sense that now there is a mainstream, political Scottish response to the worst of the world’s problems; somehow we no longer feel like children in the face of war crimes and militarism. And solid, popular local politics is back, with issues such as hospital closures being take seriously by the Government again. At least this makes politics feel responsive locally.
But, and this is the big, big but, it’ll all be pulled apart if there continues to be a refusal to recognise the importance of the whole. Right now the SNP is still pretending to be the nice neoliberals. There is no such thing. Either they take on the dysfunctional remains of the neoliberal Scottish economy and attempt to do something different with it or it will, sooner rather than later, pull the rest down. The whole body of Scottish politicians are like rabbits in headlights. The politics they used to understand (with rules like ‘no-one will ever be heard criticising someone who is pro-busines’ and ‘people are so obsessed with wealth they take it and those who have it to be virtuous’) are over. But because they don’t know what comes next, they are frozen. What is unfortunate is how they are frozen. If they were sitting like statues and waiting to see what happened then at least no more damage would be done. Instead, they are like guillotined heads – the mouths are clearly still moving but it doesn’t make any sense.
For two more years it’s about the Scottish Government (there just is no-one in the Parlimanet who will hold them to account from their left flank). Let’s hope the SNP realises that you just can’t move left by steering right. The window of opportunity for the SNP realising this is closing fast. Soon they will have trapped themselves by their own actions. Surely they don’t want to be the new Gordon Browns?