JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 31.7.10
AS SOME OF YOU WILL KNOW, THE BBC THIS WEEK launched their new television version of Sherlock Holmes, cunningly updated to the present day. If the series is successful, I’m sure it will eventually include a dramatisation of the story called Silver Blaze, which features “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”; and if so, it will surely provide us with a powerful metaphor for our political times, here in Scotland.
For the curious thing about the incident of the dog in the night-time, according to Holmes, lay in the fact that the dog did not bark; even though barking was the very thing it was trained and expected to do. Here we are, after all, in the grip of a new Liberal-Conservative government which is proving to be more radically neo-liberal than Margaret Thatcher would ever have dared to be, back in the 1980’s. Among many other initiatives, it is implementing swingeing cuts in public spending, on the debatable presumption that it is somehow better to reduce the UK’s deficit by savaging public sector services and employment, than by raising taxes; and it famously believes that we should retreat from the world of social security provided to citizens as of right, to a world where social help is once again more of a charitable and voluntary affair.
Yet in the face of this blizzard of right-wing reform – implemented by the most patrician and male-dominated government for decades – opposition seems almost absent. In the case of the Liberal Democrat Party, the silence has obviously been bought with ministerial office, and the empty promise of a referendum on the Alternative Vote, an electoral system which no-one wants, and few will choose. In the case of Labour, it does not much matter whether they are silent or not; they are in shocking intellectual and political disarray, and in any case the Westminster village is in mid-honeymoon wth David Cameron, and will pay no attention to anything Labour says for at least the next two years.
How, though, are we to account for the silence of Scotland’s own government, put in place, back in 1999, precisely to protect us against such a radical programme of right-wing domestic policy, imposed against our electoral will? Of course – as the SNP is never slow to point out – the Scottish Government as presently constituted has no power over the macroeconomic decisions of the UK administration. And of course, it will be able to protect Scottish services from some of the more radical and abrupt reforms being proposed for England.
Yet the SNP, as a party committed to Scottish independence, should surely have a little more than that to say about a programme of change so radical, and so little sought by the electorate. If the UK is setting off down a path that most Scots disapprove, towards a balance between public and private spending that does not accord with our broadly Nordic vision of a decent and well-balanced society, then surely the SNP should be seizing a heaven-sent opportunity to explain to us exactly how its strategy would differ from that of Clegg and Cameron, if Scotland were independent. What balance between public and private sector activity would they seek, in the new Scotland? In what proportion would they use spending cuts and tax hikes to pay down the present deficit? What is their considered response to David Cameron’s Big Society rhetoric? And how would they approach the task of making the public sector work efficiently for the people, rather than simply defending it without question, or assaulting it as some kind of national vice?
All of these questions urgently need answers, as Scots consider how to vote in next year’s Scottish Parliament election; and yet all of them remain desperately under-discussed, not only by Iain Gray’s half-baked Labour Opposition, but also – bizarrely, in the circumstances – by the governing party itself, which seems too frightened even to mention the possibility that Scotland could protect some essential services by using its power to vary income tax.
Perhaps the SNP is genuinely fearful of what the Cameron government will do to its block grant, if it mounts too clear an ideological opposition to the Lib-Con programme. Perhaps it is too viscerally thrilled by David Cameron’s success in humiliating the old enemy, the Labour Party, to be able to see just how right-wing this new government is. Perhaps the SNP’s famously charismatic leader is tired and bored again, and ready for another political disappearing-act.
Or perhaps, when the chips are down, Scotland’s governing party is just fundamentally confused about whether it is a social-democratic party, or just a modern lounge-suit nationalist grouping, touting itself around the global market as business-friendly first, and people-friendly only much later. For decades now, the SNP has somehow contrived to ride both horses at once, picking up votes both from influential ex-Tories who hated Labour’s Scottish hegemony, and from left-wingers disgusted by the Labour Party’s long history of compromise with the British establishment.
Now, though, the SNP is not a rainbow opposition, but a party in power; and the new UK government is taking steps that will, once again, divide British society for decades between those who simply rolled over and acquiesced in their policies, and those who took a stand against them, and pledged themselves – however difficult it may prove – to the 21st century reinvention of the best ideals of social democracy. I would like to think that the SNP government would lead the Scottish people into the second camp, with brilliance, passion, and real intellectual conviction; that is, when all’s said and done, our settled electoral will. So far, though, I see little sign of it, or of any other clear decision. And in that silence, Scotland’s new democracy loses both its dignity and its purpose; which is to allow the people of Scotland to shape the governance of their own internal affairs according to the reasonable values they hold, and which they are not likely to abandon, any time soon.