New Scottish Government, New Mood – Column 1.9.07


JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 1.9.07

IT MUST BE A COUPLE of decades, now, since Scotland’s schools switched the beginning of their autumn term to the middle of August. But for me and thousands like me, this first weekend of September will always be the moment when summer ends; and the smell of autumn fills the air, along with that scary tang of new schoolbags and freshly-sharpened pencils.

So it seems appropriate, somehow, that this is the week when the Scottish Parliament returns to Holyrood; and returns, this time, to preside over the affairs of a nation subtly changed by the events of the last half-year. Ever since Alex Salmond emerged fromthe May elections as the leader of Holyrood’s largest party, the whole atmosphere of the nation seems to have shifted, in ways both sudden and surprising. In the world of culture and the arts, where I spend most of my working week, people seem energised, hopeful, even excited, as if some dead hand of cramped thinking and low expectation had been lifted at last; and it’s a mood that has spread across the whole field of Scottish public life, from politics and business to public service and the media. Almost before the new administration has had time to do anything at all, something about the shift of government has put a smile on the face of the nation, and a spring in its step; time to analyse why, and to consider where this change of mood might lead.

In the first place, then, what we’re seeing is probably, in part, a reflection of one of the oldest truths in the constitutional book; that no system of democratic government can be considered successful until it has achieved a peaceful transition of power. After a cautious start to the devolution project, the Scottish people have now demonstrated to themselves that they can change their government when they want to, regardless of who rules at Westminster; and that, for any nation not completely dead of soul, is bound to be a good, exhilarating and empowering feeling, strengthened, in this instance, by the fact that the SNP have formed a minority government, and are therefore in no position to ride roughshod over anyone.

Then secondly, there is the brute fact that after 50 years of uninterrupted dominance, the nation – whether it knew it or not – had had more than enough of the Scottish Labour Party in its current uninspiring form. The traditional values of the Labour Party of course remain dear to a majority of Scots; most of us are too sensible to make the shifting sand of national identity, rather than the moral imperative of social justice, the centre of our political lives. But organisationally, ideologically and morally, the Labour Party in Scotland has recently come to seem a completely spent force, scanty, dwindling, dull, defensive, and strangely hostile to its own most talented members; and it’s obvious to any honest observer that the the new crop of SNP ministers – bright, articulate, funny, energetic, and confident enough to be open to new ideas – fit the bill much better than Jack McConnell’s outgoing cabinet, and represent the modern nation much more accurately.

This is not to say, of course, that the SNP face no dangers, as they surf this national wave of relief at the end of Labour’s long dominance. Part of that relief, after all, reflects the sheer social spite and snobbery of a Tory Scotland that never could stand the Labour Party, for the worst possible reasons; we saw that social snobbery in full flood after the election of the first Parliament in 1999, and its venom against the voice of urban working-class Scotland was both shameful and frightening. And some of the relief, alas, comes from a small minority of genuine social reactionaries, who hope in vain that Alex Salmond will play along with their dream of Scotland as a religious backwater, where the rights of women and gay people can be returned to some pre-1960’s dark age.

Perhaps the greatest danger for the SNP, though, lies in their possible failure to understand the third reason for Scotland’s nnew feel-good factor. For what they are currently enjoying is not so much a surge of support for independence itself, as the first Scottish fruit of one of the oddest facts of modern European politics; that big national regions, inside old existing states, often thrive best when they are spoken for by moderate nationalist parties, even when most of the people are not nationalists themselves. Perhaps it takes the chutzpah and mild cultural arrogance of a nationalist party to stand up effectively to an old metropolitan power-centre like London or Madrid. Or perhaps there is something about being governed by a party that takes the nation’s cultural value for granted that simply gives people the confidence to be themselves, in or out of a larger superstate.

Whatever the reason, though it is observable that both Cataluna and Quebec have prospered under nationalist governments for many years, without actually ever reaching a point of separation from Spain or Canada; and at the moment, it feels as though Scotland, having got the measure of the devolution business, is heading down precisely the same path. We do not know, of course, whether London will put up indefinitely with playing Madrid to our Barcelona; we do not even know whether the SNP will be willing to put the old dream of absolute national sovereignty permanently on the back burner. But either way, these seems like far more interesting and creative times than we could have dared to predict, when Holyrood reconvened for the autumn term of 2006; and no-one who cares for the future of Scotland – or for the long-term richness and dynamism of the whole life of these islands – could honestly fail to welcome that.


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