Colin Fox says promises have been unfulfilled, challenges ducked and the poorest Scots failed
On this, the twentieth anniversary of the Scottish Parliament, I find myself reflecting on the lofty promises it made in 1999; politics would be done differently we were told, the world’s newest legislature would be a ‘People’s Parliament’ with a progressive policy agenda, powerful parliamentary committees would hold special interests to account and serve the interests of all Scots. Those promises, perhaps, predictably went awry.
Politics have not been ‘done differently’. The same ‘special interests’ dominate today as they always have. I recall the academic, Gerry Hassan, concluding after the first 10 years that the same privileged, elite who would have gained most had Holyrood not existed were the ones who had benefitted most from the Scottish Parliament’s establishment. That remains true today, only more so.
Holyrood may be more accessible than Westminster – its 400 miles closer after all – but Tony Blair ensured the powers devolved were little more than those held by the regional and district authorities of yesteryear. My most vivid memory as an MSP was being constantly told what I couldn’t discuss; the illegal war in Iraq, unjust employment practices, regressive taxation policies, punitive social security decisions – the very issues most of my constituents wanted me to raise on their behalf.
‘Power devolved is power retained’ Enoch Powell insisted and it is ironic then that this ‘power retained’ became the SNP’s ‘get out of jail card’. They use it to justify their own insipid record in Government claiming ‘if only Holyrood had more powers we would do so much more.’ Such sophistry cannot hide the fact that the ‘Lib-Lab’ managerialism of the first decade gave way to the SNP’s in the second.
Of course, the global ‘hegemony’, as Gramsci famously termed it, of finance capital and its apparently unchallengeable strength has dictated all the political rules throughout the world over this entire period. Its instructions were certainly never challenged by Holyrood. And yet until they are no real, meaningful progress can be made.
Fundamental changes have been few and far between in the last twenty years at the postal address of Edinburgh EH99. Free personal care for the elderly, free tuition for students, free prescriptions for the sick, free bus travel for senior citizens – leave aside the fact they are not, of course, ‘free’ at all but paid for out of our taxes, no more poindings and warrant sales humiliating the poor, the closure of coal fired power stations, the new railway line to the Borders and the Aberdeen bypass were all welcome. But the harsh truth is these improvements are not much to show for 20 years work by highly paid MSPs and their long and expensive deliberations!
Not when one in three children still lives in poverty and in the same working-class areas as twenty years ago. Not when inequalities have widened markedly. Not when slave wages and mass underemployment now stalk the land. Not when fuel poverty continues to scar one of the world’s energy rich nations. Not when hundreds of thousands of bright youngsters went to university and are materially no better off for it.
Five First Ministers took office without the slightest intention of challenging the forces that hold back progress in this country. Holyrood remains gripped by a deeply conservative middle-class ‘managerialism’, a philosophy never advocated in any democratic election.
Since 2007, the economically right of centre nationalists have kept loyally to the script, retaining, for example, the deeply unfair council tax they promised to scrap. They promised to eradicate fuel poverty in 2011 and abandoned that pledge too. They attacked Labour’s PFI privatisation programme in opposition only to introduce their own ‘Scottish Futures Trust’. They cosy up to rapacious capital just as ‘new’ Labour did before them because they too reckon anything else is futile.
Who can forget the ‘red carpet’ treatment Donald Trump and his billions received from Alex Salmond when a Site of Special Scientific Interest [SSSI] in Menie, Aberdeenshire was targeted for despoliation? The SNP refuse to take Scotrail back into public hands or ensure our energy industries again belong to the people because big business doesn’t approve of such notions. And their sycophantic attitude toward the EU today displays, above all, a party beholden to corporate capital.
‘The rainbow parliament of 2003-2007’ was unquestionably the progressive, democratic high point f the last twenty years. There was then a genuine political pluralism at Holyrood with free thinking SSP, Greens and independent MSPs challenging the stultifying status quo. Unfortunately, Holyrood today has no socialist voices within it. Its political ‘centre of gravity’ is more conservative than at any time in the last two decades. The challenge facing left-wing opinion remains considerable. And yet only we are likely to fulfil all those promises made in 1999.
Colin Fox is the national spokesman of the Scottish Socialist Party. He represented the SSP at Holyrood as MSP for the Lothians from 2003-2007.