A Scottish and British Conversation: A Reply to Nick Pearce
Open Democracy. February 16th 2011
Many thanks for your thoughtful response.
1. Devolution was not just a ‘unionist project’. That is much too simple – just as it was never a Labour project on its own. The midwives of the Scottish Parliament are many: a Labour story, a nationalist (or accurately a Nationalist and nationalist) story, and the account of what for better words we can call ‘civic Scotland’. Its parentage and its point is a pluralist, contested one.
2. The primary account of devolution became a version of ‘legitimising the Labour state and nomemklatura who run Scotland’. This is about a politics and mindset which goes beyond party colours, and is about identification, preferment and attachment.
Labour ‘losing control’ of the Scottish Parliament via its electoral system does not defeat this argument. The only reason the case for electoral reform for the Scottish Parliament was won inside Labour is because it was a new institution and there were not Labour MSPs in place to act as roadblocks to reform. PR for local government is a different matter – an exception to how Labour ran Scotland: showing leadership, courage and principle, not words associated with Scottish Labour. It was the only major occasion in eight years of Lib-Lab devolved government where Labour stood up to the worst instincts of its party members.
3. Sadly you misrepresent one of my arguments – claiming that I place ‘the main problem [of devolution] as one of ‘the patronage, preferment and clientism of Scottish Labour’’. This is a huge problem, but I specifically list five problems:
- The strange nature of Scottish Labour;
- The caution and timidity of the SNP;
- The nature of ‘civic Scotland’;
- The absence of resources and dynamism in the policy community;
- The character of devolution itself.
And put the greatest emphasis on the latter. This is a position I have held consistently from pre-devolution in a Fabian Society study of the potential of devolution (1) to the present day (2). I would have preferred to have been proven wrong by events.
4. Then there is ‘the gravitational pull of independence’ which Pearce does not address at all. He does not seem to recognise that using such language takes IPPR into partisan politics and small minded Labour unionist terrain – which is counter-productive to everyone in the long run.
This is the world of Wendy Alexander, fourth Scottish Labour leader, lecturing the Nationalists on the need ‘to park the constitutional question’. We cannot do this as a political community and nation without debating and engaging with these issues first. Asking an entire political tradition to ‘park’ its views or have its ‘gravitational pull’ resisted is just plain partisan politics. And is located in the deep Labour lack of understanding or any empathy for the Nationalist tradition; this has to eventually change for Labour’s good and for the betterment of Scottish politics. As Robert McNamara says in ‘The Fog of War’ the first rule of conflict is to ‘empathise with your enemy’.
5. I more than agree with you on the seriousness of the challenges Scotland faces: as a society, public services, economy and democracy. Scotland tells itself a comforting story of itself as a social democratic country; the Parliament, our politicians and public life are all meant to be an expression of this.
It has become a cliché to talk about ‘Scotland’s social democratic consensus’, but that doesn’t mean it is a reality. How could Scotland be a social democratic country with our inequalities, poverty, exclusion and public health record: the last being the worst in Western Europe? Instead, what Scotland is in its public life is a place with an institutionalised, ossified, authority dominated society where the professional classes claim to speak and act in the name of the people and talk the social democratic talk. A brief examination of our health and education outcomes – fully devolved areas – would tell you Scotland isn’t a social democratic country.
Of course Scottish people in numerous surveys identify with social democratic values, but so did England in the 1980s. And we can’t claim that England then or now is a social democratic nation. A start to the Scottish debate would be recognising that we are not a social democratic political community and the power and reach of the professional classes.
6. Briefly to conclude: where do we want to go? I think Scotland has to break out of the union/independence bind and have a debate about the kind of Scotland and society we want to live in. And from this then engage in the pluses and minuses of Scotland’s constitutional status and whether we want to be independent or not.
It is also strange that many unionists don’t understand Scottish nationalism – given there are many common characteristics between parts of them. Both have in places a belief in absolutist sovereignty and of course unionism is a form of nationalism – British nationalism. This is the worldview of Labour politicians such as Douglas Alexander and Gordon Brown, but is a little unfair on a large part of the SNP who are perfectly comfortable in the world of post-nationalism and shared sovereignty. In fact, the old-fashioned nationalists of Scottish politics are generally Labour unionists, not the SNP.
As crucial is how we understand the UK. How can we aid the British political discourse and that of its classes away from the unitary state mantra of Britain? In this I don’t think we have been helped by many of the senior constitutional commentators who help shape this debate. People such as Vernon Bogdanor, Anthony King and Peter Kellner have almost become part of the ancient British constitution, and are peddling a view of Britain that is triumphalist, partial and part of the problem. Bogdanor calls the SNP ‘separatists’, Kellner that the British ‘invented liberty’, while King dismisses the need for any further substantial constitutional reform.
Stein Ringen provides one of the best accounts and starting points for what has happened to British government and society in recent times, analysing the Blair-Brown style of ‘command and control’ from Whitehall and Downing Street; there is a direct relationship between this kind of politics and what he calls the ‘society of entrenched inequality’ which Britain was in 1997 and which a decade on was ‘a yet more unequal one’ (3).
All of this is the culmination of three decades of Thatcherism and New Labour and now the Cameroon Conservatives. The political establishment account of Britain is a major part of our problem, and the legitimisation of the bastardisation of the British political centre and transformation of the British state into a neo-liberal state. We need to shift the Scottish debate, but we urgently need a different British perspective and counter-story.
We have also just had the sensation of an IPSOS Mori opinion poll in the Scottish version of The Times which has shown the SNP ahead of Labour in both the constituency and regional list votes: by 37% to 36% on the first and 35% to 33% on the second (4). This is after several months of double digit Labour leads and many of us assuming that Labour were odds-on favourites to return to office. It may be a rogue poll or it may be indicative of a new trend, but it is absolutely going to shake things up a bit!
1. Gerry Hassan, The New Scotland, Fabian Society 1998.
2. Gerry Hassan and Rosie Ilett, ‘After Devolution: The Search for Radical Scotland’, in Gerry Hassan and Rosie Ilett (eds), Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination, Luath Press 2011, http://www.luath.co.uk/acatalog/Radical_Scotland.html
3. Stein Ringen, The Economic Consequences of Mr. Brown: How a Strong Government was Defeated by a Weak System of Governance, Bardwell Press 2009.
4. Angus Macleod, ‘Salmond surges into Hollywood poll lead’, The Times Scottish edition, February 16th 2011.