Are a ‘liberal elite’ really running Scotland?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, December 6th 2017

Is Scotland run by a ‘liberal junta’ or a ‘social junta’? This might seem a far-fetched notion but this is the charge made by Observer and Herald columnist Kevin McKenna (‘social junta’) and backed up by Iain Macwhirter (‘liberal junta’). I have enormous respect for both Kevin and Iain and value their many contributions to public life, but do think that on this they have got it badly wrong.

The argument put by McKenna in The Observer is that the Scottish Parliament is more focused on areas like tightening the ban on fox hunting, outlawing smacking on kids, and even minimum pricing on alcohol, than waging war on poverty and trying to support and change the lives of the poor.

This is in McKenna’s words ‘further proof of Holyrood’s obsession with the way ordinary people manage their families.’ In sweeping language he disses Scotland’s Parliament as a ‘collection of political confidence-tricksters’ who want to disguise ‘their wholesale betrayal of our poorest communities while blaming it all on the Tories.’

This rush of rhetoric is on the back of moves by Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone to introduce a parliamentary bill to tighten the ban on fox hunting. This is as a result of Lord Bonomy’s review that found that approximately 800 foxes were killed by hunts each year – with 160 killed by hunt hounds.

The original bill – the Protection of Wild Mammals Act (Scotland) 2002 – was introduced by Mike Watson, then Labour MSP for Cathcart (and now Baron Watson of Invergowie) and passed as one of the first private members’ bills of the Scottish Parliament.

McKenna makes light that Watson was MSP for Cathcart, which included Castlemilk, and that this bill did little for his constituents. But what he glosses over is the legislation’s bigger backstory. First of all, it was atrociously drafted to the extent that it was symbolic, doing little to enhance the welfare of foxes – and didn’t abolish fox hunting. Instead it allowed everyone to pretend that something had been done, whether pro or anti-fox – something known at the time but which was kept schtum. Parliamentary draftsmanship isn’t what it used to be (whether in Scotland or Westminster) but that’s another subject many don’t want to talk about.

Secondly is the interesting – and as yet fully untold – story of why Parliament ended up early on prioritising fox hunting rather, than say a number of, more pressing issues. When Mike Watson gained the right to promote one of the first private members’ bills he went to then First Minister Donald Dewar to discuss his ideas for legislation.

Watson had no intention of steering a bill on fox hunting onto the statute bill. He wanted to champion a bill which would abolish the iniquitous and inhumane warrant sales – which had been used to sell or ‘poind’ in public people’s goods when they failed to pay their poll tax arrears. When Watson put this to Dewar, knowing he needed the backing of his Labour colleagues to get it through the legislative process, he was told in no uncertain terms that there was no need to do so, it was too difficult, and it would be easier to do something else.

Dewar suggested to Watson that a bill on fox hunting would be more appropriate. The combined forces of Dewar and Watson’s political judgement gave the abolition of warrant sales to one Tommy Sheridan and contributed to him becoming even more of a political folk hero in certain circles – at least for a while. And that Watson would promote a bill he had no real interest in, never having previously shown any passion for the welfare of foxes.

McKenna’s article may just be an ill-advised piece in which, as well as the fox-hunting ban, he takes aim at minimum pricing of alcohol despite our chronicled problem with booze. He describes the devolution era he dismisses as ‘nearly 20 years of continuous left-wing governments’ – one minute our parliamentarians are crazed politically correct dogmatists, the next they are part of a left-wing elite. If we had 20 years of left governments as he states, wouldn’t we have lots of left-wing legislation? Clearly he hasn’t connected the two ends of his argument.

This became part of a wider argument when Iain Macwhirter praised The Observer piece saying: ‘The excellent Kevin McKenna bravely takes on the ‘liberal junta’ in Holyrood and their preoccupation with pointless social change.’ Think of those last three words: ‘pointless social change’ which scoopes up a whole pile of legislative achievements and dismisses them. Minimum pricing on alcohol as ‘pointless social change’? Maybe in the fashionable wine bars of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but not across the nation where the scourge of supermarket discount pricing has encouraged a culture of bingeing on cheap alcohol.

The article and Macwhirter’s intervention led to both getting pelters on social media. Jane Carnall, Edinburgh blogger, said of McKenna: ‘I notice that McKenna carefully didn’t mention his opposition to abortion and same sex marriage’; academic Norrie MacQueen commented that the piece was ‘tired old easy pop’; another called it ‘an unhinged rant’.

The argument that Scotland is under the cosh of a liberal elite promoting banning fox hunting rather than helping the poor is a little simple. There is no need to make such a choice as several critics said. Iain Reekie asked: ‘Is it not possible to pursue more radical policies addressing poverty etc. without dismissing necessary social change?’ Patty Boak said that ‘Holyrood should be able to protect animal rights and LGBT rights ‘and’ tackle poverty’. Instead, McKenna poses fox hunting and aiding the poor as an either/or.

There is a much bigger debate to be had about the degree of political change under devolution in Scotland. That would involve substance and detail. It would address the nature of Scotland’s supposedly ‘left-wing’ parties who have been running the place for twenty years, the absence of redistribution, the power of the middle class vested interests which have meant so many substantive policies which shift monies from the affluent to the poor haven’t happened (no rates revaluation since early 1990s; council tax freeze for nearly a decade), the lack of voice of the poor and materially disadvantaged in corridors of power, and the thin progressive character of Scottish nationalism and social democracy in policies.

Then there is the subject of ‘ virtue signalling’ – a phrase invented by James Bartholomew – that describes how in an age of public noise, clutter and conjecture it is easier for everybody, politicians included, to just signal that they believe in something rather than doing it. Hence, there has been a propensity under devolution for Labour and SNP to champion values of social justice, but to do little on it, apart from the Nationalists blocking some of the worst aspects of Westminster social policy. But I guess for pro-independence commentators such as McKenna and Macwhirter it is more comfortable to ignore this and invent paper tigers such as Scotland’s propensity to PC. And while you are at it McKenna can bring out the age-old hoary myth of controlling how we celebrate Christmas because of the tyranny of liberalism.

Some of this reads like the sort of stuff you get in the ‘Daily Mail’ or ‘Spiked’, where there is a permanent rage against the modern world and lefties. McKenna has already this year written of a war of attrition against Catholic values and practices in Scotland led by ‘an illiberal and feral anti-religious movement’ which aims by challenging faith schools to bring about a ‘new moral totalitarianism’. This is hyperbole in the extreme and a bit rich considering the authoritarianism the Catholic Church has inflicted on so many Scots: it isn’t so long ago Cardinal Winning was talking of homosexuality as ‘a perversion’!

While the Scottish Parliament and its politicians make mistakes and sometimes show timidity, it doesn’t foster a culture of maturity and boldness to just dismiss our entire class of elected politicians as ‘confidence-tricksters’. That’s the sort of language used by hucksters like Nigel Farage and Arron Banks which aids cynicism and demagoguery and contributes to the rise of the faux populism of Brexit and Trump.

It doesn’t help anyone poor or disadvantaged, and nor does railing against some militant secularism and yearning for the days when tub thumbing overbearing religion ruled the land. It is all a displacement activity and doesn’t address what it claims to be concerned by: how we come up with ideas, policies and practical solutions to reduce poverty and inequality and transform lives in our country. That’s a bit more challenging than yearning for a past when the state controlled women’s bodies, marriage was between a man and a woman, and no one talked about homosexuality in public. Not exactly the good old days, and not ones many of us would want to return too.