JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 5.8.11
IT IS A STRANGE thing, about national cultures in the northern hemisphere, that they always seem to consider themselves a shade more rugged, honest, democratic, egalitarian and incorruptible than the ones that lie directly to the south of them. A quick glance at the plays of Shakespeare is enough to show how firmly Englishmen of the late 16th century believed that they were more honest, virile and true than the French, who were plainly a devious bunch, perfumed, self-indulgent and a bit effete. And as for the Scots – well, we often cast ourselves as more rugged, honest and direct of speech than inhabitants of the “soft south” of England; indeed some surveys of Scotland’s global image suggest that we have succeeded, to some extent, in persuading the entire world that our nation has exceptional qualities of rugged integrity and virility.
And it’s because of the pervasiveness of these old stereotypes, and the ease with which we can still fall into them, that the recent crisis in British political life – surrounding the complex relationship between Westminster, the Metropolitan Police, and Ruperd Murdoch’s Newscorp Empire – represents a dangerous moment for Scottish politics; a time when it has been all too easy to view events in London as a kind of spectator sport, while congratulating ourselves on the 400 miles, and the new devolved institutions, that separate us from the worst of the ongoings at Westminster.
Say what you like about Alex and Moira Salmond, after all, they are not members of the Chipping Norton set; nor are they likely to have been invited to many cosy drinks parties at the home of Rebekah Brooks. Scotland is small in population, our political controversies are often of little interest even to ourselves, and we tend to sell ourselves for sums that fall far short of the seven-figure bonuses and high six-figure salaries that fuel the shared social life of the Home Counties elites.
So confronted by the mess of influence-peddling that seems to have been driving UK policy in many key areas for the last two decades, many Scots naturally leap to the conclusion that independence is the answer; if UK institutions are corrupt and failing, then the thing to do is to get out, to start afresh, and to found a new Scottish state, on more sustainable principles.
The truth is, though, that no serious student of the current Scottish political scene could possibly sustain that argument for long, without detecting serious problems ahead. To begin with, there is the matter of our current ruling party, the SNP, and its ambiguous position in all this. For decades, the party has enjoyed the advantage of looking relatively fresh, vigorous and untouched by corruption, by comparison with Scottish Conservative and Labour parties which were both – one after the other – tainted by the battle for Westminster power in the age of Murdoch politics.
The problem is, though, that now the perspective at Westminster has shifted, and the bubble of Newscorp’s power has been pricked, the SNP can be seen more clearly for the party it is; a nationalist grouping that certainly stands at a little distance from the big power-play of Westminster politics, but that has still been shaped by an age when all parties in the UK have struggled to fund themselves without resort to wealthy donors, and have lived in fear of negative coverage in the popular press. All the signs are that Alex Salmond has been as keen as the next politician to win the support of the Scottish Sun in his election campaigns. And from the Donald Trump affair to the SNP’s long sweetheart relationship with millionaire donor Brian Soutar, there is precious little sign that the SNP – given a chance – has ever shown much serious resistance to the blandishments of big money, or to a post-1970’s political culture full of an instinctive reverence for wealth, whatever its source.
There is no guarantee, in other words, that political independence brought to us by Alex Salmond and his party would necessarily provide the kind of fresh start for which many Scots now yearn; and no evidence at all that the other main Scottish political parties – the demoralised Liberals, the marginalised Tories, a shattered and desperately confused Scottish Labour – could even begin to provide the kind of radical, vigorous and forward-looking scrutiny on which the success of any independence process would depend.
For all our characteristic mood-swings between complacent self-congratulation (“best little nation in the world) and deep self-disgust (“worst dump in the universei”), Scotland is, after all, a pretty average post-industrial nation somewhere in northern Europe; and if it is to have good government, it needs to work at that process like any other nation. Twelve years into the age of devolution, our Scottish Parliament clearly needs to begin a rigorous cycle of self-updating and reform, getting abreast of recent radical changes at Westminster, improving its systems of accountability, and creating formats for debate which put government ministers under serious scrutiny, rather than simply allowing them to display their skills at stand-up comedy. Whether MSP’s will have the resources – political, intellectual, personal – to carry out this work themselves, or whether the whole process will require another 1990’s-style massive heave from Scottish civil society, remains to be seen.
Without that kind of basic democratic work, though, independence in the 21st century will be little more than a shibboleth, a constitutional gesture that has little impact on the real centres of power. For decades, in opposition, the SNP did a decent job of keeping other Scottish poltical parties up to the mark, forcing them to change, and sometimes even compelling them to be creative, in their response to new times. Now that the SNP is in government, we urgently need an alliance of political forces that can exert the same kind of pressure on them. And until that alliance emerges, it seems likely that Scottish politics will continue to deal in a mixture of myth, image, and numbing legislative detail; rather than the nitty-gritty of power recently exposed in some sessions at Westminster, not by many MP’s, but by a shining few.