JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 3.5.13.
IT’S MONDAY MORNING in Edinburgh, and a very serious Norwegian – one of a group of theatre leaders, on a visit to Scotland – is asking me questions about Scottish politics. “In most European countries,” he says, “the idea of a nationalist party would not have a very good image. So the SNP, where does it sit on the political spectrum? Is it a right-wing party?”
It’s an easy question to answer, of course. No, the SNP is not a party of the far right; it is not like the Norwegian Progress Party, which wants to cap immigration at 1000 people a year, nor is it like Nigel Farage’s UKIP, currently dominating coverage of this week’s local elections in England. Its attitude to immigration is positive, its tone is internationalist, its leadership’s view of Scotland’s cultural life is inclusive rather than exclusive. And at the moment, in the slightly blasted landscape of post-crash British politics, it positions itself clearly to the social democratic left of centre, defending elements of the British post-war settlement – from the NHS to universal benefits – that have largely fallen out of fashion at Westminster; it therefore sits slightly to the left of Ed Milliband’s Labour Party, still struggling to find a workable new balance, after its long Blairite lurch to the right.
Yet somehow, as a social democrat living in Scotland, I feel a shade uneasy about the current political landscape; as if the view of a good society embraced by a majority of Scots was about to be unexpectedly orphaned, despite the lip-service routinely paid to it. That Scottish opinion remains strongly attached to the social-democratic model was spectacularly confirmed, this week, by the publication of an Ipsos Mori Scotland poll which records how strongly most Scots favour public provision of public services over any privatised model. 58% of Scots, for example, believe they will get better and more professional services from the public sector than from private providers, compared with only 30% of people in England and Wales; it seems that the British right’s 30-year campaign to equate “reform” with privatisation has simply failed to persuade Scottish voters, and will need to be replaced with more convincing 21st century alternatives.
It’s when it comes to the development of those alternatives, though, that a certain chill settles on the scene. It only takes a glance at the television coverage of this week’s elections in England to see why the Labour Party remains paralysed, when it comes to a substantial creative contribution to a new centre-left politics. The intervention of UKIP, and the agenda-setting influence of the right-wing press, has now pulled the English debate so far to the right that it seems to have lost all contact with reality, never mind with any actual issues facing local government; and the Labour Party still seems a long way from finding the kind of voice, energy and leadership that would begin to change the prevailing political weather, and challenge those reactionary terms of debate.
And in Scotland – well, the SNP has been sitting very comfortably, for many years now, in the centre-left space increasingly left vacant by a confused and weakened Labour Party. The SNP often says the right things about social justice and cohesion; it refuses to see healthcare, education or culture as mere tradeable commodities. Yet there’s a vagueness about how the party will achieve its ends – a reluctance to specify the means, to advance and strengthen the theory, to form serious alliances, and to confront the tremendously powerful opponents of any social democratic settlement – which suggets that the blowtorch scrutiny of an ever more bitter referendum campaign may expose, in Scotland’s governing party, a frighteningly soft ideological underbelly, and dangerous levels of political and intellectual laziness.
If the party wants to commit itself to universal benefits, for example, and to resist the decline in solidarity that tends to come with targeting and means-testing, then it needs to be clearer about the thinking behind that commitment, and about the kind of tax system that would ensure that it made sense. If it wants, as Fiona Hyslop suggested last week, to run a cultural policy that has no truck with the grim economic instrumentalism recently outlined by the English culture minister Maria Miller, then it cannot stand by, as it did in 2010-11, and watch its new cultural agency turn into a monster of market-driven jargon and thinking.
If it is interested in empowering the people of Scotland, then it urgently needs to rethink it attitude to local government; it is nonsense for a party that came to power talking about localism to impose a long-term council tax freeze that undermines local democracy, and benefits the well-off far more than the poor. And if it wants to maintain a publicly-delivered health service – following the gradual sell-off of the English NHS – then it will have to develop a resistance to high-powered private-sector lobbying of which it has shown few signs in the past; along with the stomach for a mighty, and perhaps historic, political fight.
For there is no doubt, for those who care to look beyond the daily dog-fight at Westminster and Holyrood, that Scotland’s independence referendum coincides with a crucial turning-point in western politics. Despite the continuing arrogance of those who think themselves the masters of our universe, the crash of 2008 marked the end of a generation of belief in the deregulated market as the answer to all things; eventually, new thinking is bound to emerge to fill that ideological vacuum.
And the paradox about the SNP and the Labour Party is that, for all their fierce mutual hatred, they are finally both caught in a similar part of that shifting political landscape. For both parties stand somewhere between the boom years when centre-left politicians could be all things to all men – schmoozing the rich while spending on the poor – and these hard new times, when even a basic defence of social decency and equality places politicians on the far left of the political spectrum; and demands that they reinvent the language, change the game, and put up the intellectual and organisational fight of their lives, for the right to offer people a better, fairer and more sustainable future, whether in an independent Scotland, in the UK, or beyond.