Is Scotland really a social democratic country?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, October 18th 2017

At last week’s SNP conference in the middle of her keynote speech, Nicola Sturgeon asked: ‘What kind of country do we want to be?’ She wasn’t expecting an answer, and seemed surprised when a member of the party faithful shouted out ‘an independent one.’

Behind Sturgeon’s non-question is the belief in Scottish difference, the efficacy of our values, and the link of both of these to the idea of Scotland as a social democratic country. Thus, around the conference chatter and commentary, Lesley Riddoch on Sky News spoke of ‘a social democratic consensus’ in Scotland, while Iain Macwhirter on the BBC talked of ‘a social democratic politics.’

Scotland as a land of social democracy has become the lexicon of our politics. It has accelerated under devolution, contributing to the mood music of the political environment and institutions. This has become even more pronounced under SNP rule, for obvious reasons, as the difference between Scotland and England politically is emphasised – Scotland social democratic good; England neo-liberal bad.

This means that, despite the ubiquitous nature of social democracy, cited all over the place in Scotland, the reality is seldom critically examined or its characteristics made explicit. To take an obvious example, it is rare for the question of what social democracy in Scotland is to be answered in any systematic way, beyond its use as a rhetorical device. Its political philosophy, values and practice are left unstated and unaddressed.

Raymond Plant, who has written many books on socialism and equality, identified three main strands of the left: Marxism, democratic socialism and social democracy, and described the latter as:

… social democracy shares the democratic socialist’s commitment to democracy, but rejects the primacy of ownership which both the Marxist and democratic socialist hold as central, and defines socialism largely in terms of redistribution and greater equality within the context of the mixed economy.

There is scant comparable expression of what social democracy in Scotland means. Stephen Maxwell is a rare exception to this, writing that social democracy rests on ‘five tenets – political liberalism, the mixed economy, the welfare state, Keynesian economic and a belief in equality.’

What we have instead is assertion and faith. First, a shopping list of policies is often trundled out – free care for the elderly, no student tuition fees, free prescriptions – to show the extent of our universalism (and hence social democracy). No evidence is engaged with that shows that all these policies redistribute up the income ladder and hence are inherently ill-disposed to the basic tenets of social democracy.

Second, when it was in office Scottish Labour used to believe it was naturally the party of social justice. It never offered a definition, but had the arrogance to believe it self-evident that it was informed by such ideals. The SNP have rather bizarrely, adopted this approach as their own – believing that they innately champion the values of social justice while being suitably vague about what this means. In both cases, this is about a politics of conceit, complacency and caution: and an inherent conservatism masking itself as centre-left.

Third, any vibrant social democracy would, by making its values and ideals explicit, engage in political argument and debate with other political ideologies. This doesn’t happen here because what passes for our social democracy is not made explicit and therefore doesn’t have a firm set of foundations to engage with other perspectives. Hence, in Scotland in the last two generations, there has been an absence of new left and new right currents, whether it be home grown Thatcherism in the 1980s, or Corbynism in Scottish Labour in the present.

Scotland’s social democracy is actually administrative managerialism. It is mistaken as social democratic in part because it proved its anti-Thatcherite credentials under successive Tory Governments. But anti-Toryism doesn’t automatically equate with being centre-left. All of this is made more obvious by the Corbyn phenomenon and the socialist prospectus offered by the current British Labour Party which not only outflanks the SNP on the left, but also for now, Scottish Labour.

Some blame this lack of dynamism and choice on the supposed salience of the constitutional question. But politics have been like this in Scotland for decades, and indeed, for most of the post-war era. It was like this before the independence debate got serious, and even before the devolution issue became a major issue in the 1960s and 1970s.

Beyond the independence issue Scotland has long had a problem with consensus and with a restricted narrow bandwidth version of political debate. The Scottish Parliament at the outset was seen by many of its architects, such as leading figures in the Constitutional Convention, to be about a consensual way of doing things unlike adversarial Westminster, and giving form to what was called ‘a new politics’.

A social democratic Scotland wouldn’t have the seismic health inequalities divide we have, the educational apartheid which stifles the chances of working class children, and it would not be such a bleak, inhospitable place to be poor or disadvantaged. It would not have the huge concentrations of power and privilege in land ownership, and nor would it have such huge inequities in public sector Scotland in pay and renumeration which hasn’t got any better despite nearly two decades of devolution.

Of course some of these divisions are not the product of recent decisions. Some are deep seated with long historical roots as in the examples of land ownership and health inequalities. But even on these deciding the direction of travel we take would give a powerful signal of a nation wanting change.

There are areas where we have influence and as a society can take a stand. The highest paid university principal is Jim McDonald at Strathclyde University who has a salary of £360,000, various pension options, had a city centre townhouse for his use bought costing £1,180,000, and then refurbished to the tune of £300,000 – all at our expense. This isn’t an isolated example: the University of the West of Scotland’s principal Craig Mahoney has to make do with a £227,000 salary, and complained that his lack of a publically funded townhouse restricted how effectively he could do his job.

This is as far from social democracy as you could imagine. This is a pampered insider class rewarding themselves with sizeable salaries and where a fully equipped luxurious townhouse becomes one of the calling cards for the job. This is the sort of pay arms race that if we were serious about equality and redistribution we could put a stop to now. Of course, existing contracts would have to be honoured, but a Scottish Government that was proudly social democratic could phase such deals out, introduce maximum pay levels and ratios between highest and lowest paid, in the public sector and publically funded bodies.

The affirmation of social democracy in Scotland has occurred at the time it has retreated and lost its sense of purpose across most of the West, including the much-cited Nordics. While some still see it as the answer, more radical currents see the future elsewhere, something Stephen Maxwell pre-figured when he wrote in 1976 that social democracy had a ‘tattered record’ which meant that it ‘will prove an unreliable and even dangerous guide for Scottish legislators’ and hence for the SNP and Scottish independence.

Scotland’s social democracy is really not just about difference, but an expression of exceptionalism. As it has globally retreated people here cite the example of the SNP in office as an example that bucks the trend. This was always an illusion. The SNP aren’t first and foremost a social democratic party; they are a party driven by the dream of Scottish statehood. Social democracy is a means to that end, while our politics and society aren’t immune to the same constraints such a politics faces elsewhere: limits to tax and spend, constraints on redistribution, and questions of legitimacy about government and the state.

The dominant version of Scotland’s future and independence on offer from the SNP is a continuation of the Scotland of the present, but with more of the same and more autonomous. This is a kind of devo max version of independence and a politics of linear optimism that believes that the best future we have on offer is a better version of today. This is the inherent pessimism and conservatism in a country defined by a faux social democracy – which until now has aided the continued dominance of institutional opinion and vested interests.

It isn’t a very edifying or uplifting version of Scotland. It is as far from a social democratic politics as you could imagine. If people want a radical, more red and inclusive Scotland it doesn’t come about by elite capture or osmosis. It has to be made explicit, nurtured, and the forces of privilege, inequality and conservatism defeated. It would entail answering Sturgeon’s question: ‘What kind of country do we want to be?’ with more of an answer than ‘an independent one.’