JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 4.11.11.
LAST WEEKEND, thousands of people in Scotland and beyond were saddened to hear of the death of Campbell Christie, the former General Secretary of the Scottish TUC, and one of the key leaders of the 1990’s campaign for a Scottish Parliament. His last piece of work for the people of Scotland was his chairmanship of the Christie Commission, appointed in 2010 by the SNP Government to consider the future of Scotland’s public services; the commission produced a subtle, thoughtful and imaginative report, published in June of this year.
At this moment of his death, though, what seems most memorable about Campbell Christie was his extraordinary breadth of political vision, and his refusal to be bound by the normal partisan rules of Scottish politics. He became General Secretary of the STUC in 1986, just a year before the third consecutive Tory election victory that triggered the formation of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, as a broadly-based civil society campaign for Scottish home rule that embraced all the opposition political parties except the SNP (who withdrew at an early stage), as well as a huge range of religious, environmental and community organisations, trade unions, local authorities, and women’s groups.
And right at the heart of the Convention and its Civic Assembly – forming new alliances, promoting new commitments to equality, working across parties, drawing in new voices from civic groups, and generating whole strands of debate on new approaches to social and economic issues – stood Campbell Christie, a lifelong Labour Party member, but also the living embodiment of the kind of new politics that was necessary, if Scotland was to build a coalition strong enough deliver home rule. In 1997, when the devolution scheme devised by the Convention was put to a referendum, he worked happily alongside SNP members to achieve a double “yes” vote; and his reward was the near-universal respect of activists and polticians across the political spectrum, reflected in the many warm tributes paid to him this week.
Yet twelve years on from the restoration of the Scottish Parliament, the political world we inhabit could hardly be more distant from the new age of cross-party co-operation once envisaged by civic activists like Christie; simply because, through no fault of their own, the Scottish National Party now find themselves in a uniquely dominant position in the nation’s politics. The main Labour opposition is dead in the water, the Liberal Democrats have paid a fierce electoral price for their Westminster coalition with the Conservatives, the Scottish Conservatives cannot even decide whether they still wish to be known by that name; and so Alex Salmond’s SNP has increasingly become the only show in town, the only coherent governing party left to us, and the only hope – vague though it sometimes is – of a Scotland with the kind of social-democratic future to which most Scottish voters clearly aspire.
What has happened, in other words, is that Scotland has gradually drifted towards the condition of a one-party state; not in the old totalitarian sense that other parties are forbidden, but in the practical sense that no other major party currently has a substantial membership on the ground, and a viable project to offer to the people. And it seems to me, as a graduate of the Constitutional Convention period in Scottish politics, that it’s time for the people of Scotland to begin to wake up to the dangers of this largely unforeseen situation; and perhaps to start developing some new and imaginative mechanisms for challenging the SNP’s dominance, forcing it to clarify its ideas, and holding it to account.
There is, though, a profound structural difficulty in trying to recreate the kind of civic movement that existed in Scotland in the 1990’s; and that lies in the faultline between those who see independence as their primary goal, and those who see it only as part of a wider project aimed at developing a just, free and sustainable society for the 21st century. Despite the SNP’s current dominant position in the Scottish Parliament – and its stunning achievement in winning around 45% of the vote in this year’s election – its core policy of independence, and withdrawal from the United Kingdom, still attracts the support of only around a third of Scots, while around a half remain explicitly opposed to it.
Yet in the triumph of their electoral victory, and the absence of any strong opposition, the SNP seem increasingly indifferent to – or almost unaware of – that majority of Scots who have never voted for them, and who regard the goal of independence as secondary to a series of much more significant political principles; and increasingly inclined to retreat into a culture of complacent Labour-bashing and easy self-congratulation. In power or not, in other words, the SNP would do well to remember that for all their recent success, a majority of Scots have yet to be persuaded of their core argument; and that they exclude that majority from debate about Scotland’s future at their peril.
In the end, though, the responsibility for arresting Scotland’s drift towards one-party statehood – or finding ways of modifying that drift, with new structures of participation and accountability – falls on those who are not members of the SNP, and who have let their political representation decay into near-impotence over recent years. If Campbell Christie had still been alive, in his prime, and in charge of the STUC, my guess is that he would have begun to step into that gap sometime soon, forming a new Civic Assembly, engaging in debate with the SNP and other parties, trying to heal the toxic Labour-SNP split that disfigures our mainstream politics. For as the late, great Polish politician Tadeusz Mazowiecki once said about the possible break-up of nations once unified under Soviet rule, if the outcome is a continuing union, then we will need a strong civil society, to make sure that what emerges is a free, just, diverse, and respectful society. And if the outcome is separation – well then, we will need a strong civil society; for exactly the same reasons, and to ensure exactly the same ends.