Celebration and a Politics of Collective Joy is central to making Scotland’s Future

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, June 13th 2018

The sunshine has been out a lot in Scotland recently and in more ways than just the weather. It seems us Scots are feeling happier about things and more optimistic about the future – 36% look to the future with hope, whereas 29% of us feel that Scotland’s best days are behind us. Comparative English figures show that 17% feel optimistic about the future and 49% think that England’s best days are in the past.

The above figures tell us something about the state of Scotland and the state of England, of which Brexit is only a small part. This was part of the background to Nicola Sturgeon’s keynote speech to the SNP conference at Aberdeen where she had to deal with Brexit, independence stalled, and that the Growth Commission has annoyed a large section of her own supporters. It was a decent, well written and delivered speech with some good lines and three distinct parts: the record of the Scottish Government, Brexit and independence.

On the first part, Sturgeon listed an impressive range of Scottish Government achievements and actions which went beyond the usual shopping list. Instead, she cited minimum pricing for alcohol, a National Investment Bank, a transitional fund for businesses, a new Social Security Act with no rape clause, new support for carers, and an above cost of living pay increase for NHS staff. All in a tight corner and delivered by a devolved SNP Government in its eleventh year.

There was even wider political philosophy in the speech with Sturgeon unusually for a SNP politician admitting that social democracy – the family the SNP places itself in – was not in the greatest of health across the developed world but in ‘retreat’.

The sections of Sturgeon’s speech on Brexit and independence were less powerful and compelling, because the First Minister and Scottish Government are not fully in control of either. She made some good points on Brexit, but even more on independence, shifting ground by saying that the SNP should concentrate more on the ‘why’ argument as opposed to the ‘when’. This was uncoded enough to annoy some of the independence now brigade who read it rightly that there isn’t going to be a vote in the immediate next couple of years, irrespective of what Sturgeon says in October when the Brexit detail is meant to be clearer, which of course it might not.

The following day Sturgeon toured the TV studios and was even more explicit saying that people had to ‘stop obsessing all of the time about when we might get the chance to vote on independence again’. It was clear she was not chastising herself on national TV, but it was unclear if she meant the SNP hordes, Ruth Davidson, or both.

What seems certain is that Sturgeon is trying to shift the focus off the process – the idea of an indyref and its timing – and on to the substance and the sunlit uplands of what an independent Scotland would look like. That seems sensible.

One problem though is that Sturgeon will have to navigate her way round the SNP Growth Commission, chaired by Andrew Wilson – and set up by herself. This report has certainly cleared and filled the air in the last week and a bit, dividing and differentiating the independence community.

Wilson’s report, apart from its technocratic and slightly out of fashion belief that GDP growth is the answer (with qualifications to this getting a whole one paragraph: para. 3.16), offers some hostages to fortune. Much of this revolves around its stand on currency and whether it is pro or anti-austerity, but it is clear on the report’s own words that it embraces fiscal tightening. Thus the Commission assumes real GDP growth of 1.5% and real public spending growth of a mere 0.5% in the first decade of independence, which is very low and means that if growth fell we would experience sizeable cuts in public spending in real terms. And just to underline the fact a decade of 0.5% isn’t going to feel like a picnic; the first decade of devolution saw public spending rise in real terms by 4.0% per annum.

The SNP leadership have not yet found a way of squaring this with their message, with senior figures repeating the mantra that the Commission proposes to cut the deficit and increase public spending. It does nothing of the kind in the real world and only proposes to increase public spending in the disingenuous way Tory politicians present Westminster austerity and financial constraints. That isn’t any way to build trust and respect, but is the politics of spin.

None of this bothers what we should by now call ‘National-ism’ – that is the simplistic and continually calling in the pro-independence ‘The National’ to make sure a shrinking part of the base continues to buy the afore-mentioned paper. The ‘Morning Star’ used to ply the same tactic with the Communist Party and that didn’t end very well for either. On the morning of Sturgeon’s speech ‘The National’ ran a front page proclaiming ‘Get Ready for Indyref2’. They then ran a piece with the headline: ‘Sturgeon: indyref2 will happen while I am First Minister’ and spun it with the following: ‘There could be a new vote within the current parliamentary term – which ends in 2021’; Sturgeon had of course said nothing of the kind.

There is across parts of Scotland a tangible feeling of some people feeling exhausted and losing patience, as four years of constant agitation and being in permanent campaigning mode takes its toll. We have seen Common Weal’s Robin McAlpine damn the Growth Commission saying it is comparable to ‘walking off a cliff’. Pat Kane continues his 24 hour Twitter watch waging constant war for independence. Meanwhile, Kevin McKenna has been mining the argument that a liberal elite is waging war on Catholicism in the here and now. And in the last couple of weeks, expanded this thesis to the Irish abortion vote which did not end well, publically being offensive to Ruth Wishart.

Still, there are thoughtful voices saying interesting things. People such as Jonathon Shafi of the Radical Independence Campaign have been systematically critiquing the Growth Commission and agreeing with the irrepressible and impressive Kevin Hague in his forensic taking apart of the Commission’s figures; Angela Haggerty has been following the detail and nuance of the SNP debate; Rory Scothorne of ‘Roch Winds’ has continued to burst the conceits of Scottish centre-left complacencies. There is a welcome generational changing of the guard in this, with people prepared to break from the old trench lines. And if that is too simple a reading, there are the likes of economist Katherine Trebeck and former MP George Kerevan challenging the limits of conventional economics.

The SNP are going to have a long hot summer with three National Assemblies on the Growth Commission to which non-SNP members are cordially invited. This isn’t where the action or decisions are going to be made. Instead, the SNP are in a very strange place: dominant and seemingly powerful at home, but hemmed in and constrained.

The recent SNP depute leadership contest won narrowly by Keith Brown had the results announced in percentage terms, hence avoiding revealing how many people actually voted: this being a trick Scottish Labour used to use to conceal how few members it had. The previous SNP contest two years ago won by Angus Robertson had a 34% turnout, and all the evidence this time points to a turnout even lower – in the twenty percent range. That tells us something.

On the other hand there are the party’s poll ratings. Into its eleventh year at Holyrood, the party is on 41% at Westminster and 40% at the Scottish Parliament constituency vote in the most recent YouGov poll and would win back seats at Westminster and see Scottish Labour reduced again to a mere one seat. This is aided by the party’s main opponents: the glass ceiling for the Scottish Tory vote despite Ruth Davidson’s popularity and Richard Leonard, Scottish Labour leader, being unable to get up off the floor and get noticed – with a mere 13% of Scots having a positive opinion of him and 54% having no opinion. The problem is, as some congratulate the SNP on the resilience of their vote, that there is a weakness to the SNP’s Scottish Parliament regional vote, which at 32% is ten points down on two years ago. That would result in the party winning 54 seats in the 129 seat Parliament, nine down on the present, and even with the Scottish Greens (predicted to win nine, up from the current six), short of a pro-independence majority.

These dilemmas are foremost in the First Minister’s mind and contribute to some demanding an indyref before 2021, even if it is lost, because they worry about what will happen post-2021. This seems to let passion rule your head and pessimistic, falling into the trap of believing that future opportunities will not avail themselves. The Britain of the next few years is going to be a land convulsed in Brexit chaos and the best course for the SNP is to have an element of calmness, sure nerves and trying to chart a course away from the rocks. That does not mean an indyref now, apart from the obvious point that Theresa May isn’t going to honour Nicola Sturgeon’s 2016 mandate before 2021. The bad news for the independence now community is that Scotland isn’t going to have a referendum before 2021; the unpalatable news for pro-union opinion is that with Brexit and the political trajectory of the UK a second indyref is more than likely and has a high chance of producing an independence majority. After 2021 and maybe further down the line.

This brings us back to the sunshine, optimism and unlikely things such as Scotland beating England at cricket. This past weekend saw the marking of 100 years since women first won the vote in the UK with marches up and down the land and in the four capitals: Edinburgh, London, Cardiff and Belfast. Here was politics at its best – under the banner Processions 2018. This was equality, liberty and freedom looking beautiful, filled with colour, creativity and joy. In all the marches there were striking banners, slogans, colours, symbols and costumes, handmade for the occasion – remembering and celebrating the past, honoring past campaigns and campaigners, and making statements about the present.

There is a lesson in this for all of us: women, men, pro and anti-independence. Rather than fill rallies with phrases like ‘Are You Yes Yet?’ with its hint of impatience, or worse, ‘Tory Scum Out’, alongside lots of saltires and Yes Bikers, the future of Scotland and indeed the UK would be better served by the politics seen in our streets last weekend.

The future of Scotland was always going to be more female and feminine. That is no bad thing when you consider where we have come from. And in these dark times of Brexit, Trump and worse, we have to hold onto the best of what it is to be human and dare to imagine a future that is celebratory, inclusive, filled with hope and the politics of equality.