Ten Years on the SNP and Scottish nationalism require a different politics for the future

Gerry Hassan

Bella Caledonia, March 24th 2017

The SNP have been a breath of fresh air to Scotland. Fifty years ago this year the modern SNP emerged with the talismanic victory of Winnie Ewing at the Hamilton by-election, and Scotland was never quite the same again.

If you doubt this, think of a Scotland without the SNP. The only way Scots would be able to show their dissatisfaction with Westminster and difference from the rest of the UK would be to remain loyal to Labour. That would work (to an extent) under Tory UK Governments, but not quite when Labour was in power at Westminster.

The SNP in opposition and then in office have changed the parameters of Scottish politics. They have literally changed the name on the door to that of the Scottish Government – marking a profound shift from the dull administration of the previous titled Scottish Executive. They have altered the nature of the role of First Minister to being the national leader of the country. They have brought statecraft and competence to government. And they brought Scotland onto the international stage – first, with the release of al-Megrahi, and then more substantially, in the long campaign of the first indyref.

Ten years into office and with another indyref looking inevitable, this is an appropriate time to reflect, analyse and take stock on the record of the SNP and of wider Scottish nationalism. The former will be the focus of the forthcoming ‘A Nation Changed? The SNP and Scotland Ten Years On’, edited by myself and Simon Barrow, head of the think tank Ekklesia, which will be published in June.

The SNP’s decade long dominance of politics also comes with costs. There are obvious signs of the beginning of complacency in places, of inertia in government, and problems accumulated with a record in office to defend. Then there are the downsides that come with the lack of credible opposition, with the main parties for long periods weak, divided or both.

  1. The Scottish Government is different, but not that different

The early days of SNP administration marked a sharp break with Labour. This was confident, aspirational government that didn’t exist in the shadow of Westminster. The Scottish Government, while much more important and high profile than the previous incarnation the Scottish Executive, has many continuities with it. These include that it is technocratic, administrative rather than strategic, and accrues powers to itself.

It has on the plus side not bought into aggressive neo-liberalism in the way the UK state has via privatisation and contracting out, but it is shaped by the compromises between a more passive neo-liberalism and defensive social democracy which isn’t suited to imaginative policy or the challenges of an independent Scotland.

  1. The Absence of Progressive Policy Innovation

The SNP immediately made a difference upon winning office. However, beyond the big-ticket items – abolishing student tuition fees, prescription charges and road bridge tolls, introducing baby boxes and the impressive climate change targets – the SNP policy cupboard has been relatively bare considering they have been a decade in office. There have been lots of small-scale progressive announcements and good intentions in numerous areas, such as reversing Westminster’s punitive welfare cuts and beginning to mark out the outline of a different social security system, but it has always been cautious and piecemeal, rather than so far daring in an area to be transformational.

There has been over ten years a lack of legislative achievements. Indeed, several of the high profile bills of majority government turned out to be majorly problematic: the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act and the named person’s scheme in the Children and Young People Act. These have fed into a critique of the SNP as increasing state powers, being insensitive to civil liberties’ concerns, and charged of growing authoritarianism from political opponents (and many Yes supporters).

One place to start would be to consider what it takes to make a good law in Scotland. What kind of principles and practice do we need to let power go from the centre, and to set a template which gives people the power and capabilities to become self-governing? Such a debate would flesh out a vision of self-determination, which wasn’t just about powers coming from London to Edinburgh, but about dispersing them across the country and making independence something real and practical in everyday life.

  1. The SNP and Social Democracy

The SNP stands as a centre-left party that proclaims its social democratic credentials. This is absolutely genuine, but it also warrants further investigation and scrutiny. What kind of social democracy is the SNP’s variant, and how has it informed their politics and policies?

In ten years of office, the SNP has assumed that social democracy is a set of ideas they can freely borrow from and reference without ever significantly adding to. There is over this period not one example of an intervention originating in the SNP which has seriously added to social democratic thinking.

This matters two-fold. First, social democracy across the West is in crisis, retreat and decline. This is true electorally, philosophically and in how such ideas relate to social constituencies and who such ideas claim to give voice to. Second, without adding to this body of work, SNP politicians are referencing a very superficial, thin idea of social democracy – not that far removed from the clichés of New Labour of ‘economic prosperity and social justice’. That wasn’t good enough then and it isn’t today.

Ben Jackson, academic and editor of ‘Political Quarterly’, puts this succinctly in his chapter in ‘A Nation Changed?’ exploring the SNP’s relationship with social democracy and the choices before the party. This concerns whether the party advances social democracy as an instrumental means of mobilising support for independence, or the pursuit of independence as the means of making a more social democratic Scotland? Jackson rightly judges that on the evidence the SNP has embraced the former, which means that the making of a social democracy in the here and now takes second place to independence. It is a profound difference and one with big consequences.

  1. The SNP, Scottish nationalism, ideas and ‘the third Scotland’

Modern Scottish nationalism has a long rich lineage and tradition of intellectual ideas. When the SNP broke through in 1970s Westminster politics there was an impressive culture of debating of ideas, concepts and the statecraft of a self-governing nation. Central to this were the writings of Tom Nairn, Neal Ascherson and Christopher Harvie – none of whom had then, or subsequently had, an easy relationship with the party (even when Harvie was briefly a SNP MSP). That’s not surprising for genuine public intellectuals should never have a smooth, harmonious relationship with party politics.

Yet, when the SNP entered the electoral doldrums in the 1980s, the wider cause of Scottish nationalism could draw upon this impressive tapestry. This gave the party and movement a sense of ballast in what were pretty grim times. And it meant that when the Scottish dimension re-emerged in the latter half of the decade, under the grotesque injustices of the poll tax and the imposition of high Thatcherism, there was a body of work and thinkers on hand to draw from.

Fast forward to contemporary Scotland. We do have a febrile culture of debate, discussion and ideas. We have some impressive public intellectuals – such as Michael Keating, James Mitchell, Neil Davidson, Lindsay Paterson and David McCrone (whose 700 page tome ‘The New Sociology of Scotland’ is published next month). There are a whole host of established and emerging historical voices and experts engaging in a comprehensive archaeological reclamation of once neglected areas of our past. Then there is a rich array of cultural figures, practitioners and intelligentsia who have played a significant part in the re-imagination of modern Scotland in recent decades, challenging age old stereotypes, and creating new stories.

Finally, there are the policy and ideas entrepreneurs who have contributed so much to shaping debates in the last few years such as Lesley Riddoch (Nordic Horizons), Robin McAlpine (Common Weal), Andy Wightman (land ownership), Katherine Trebeck (Oxfam Humankind Index) and Eleanor Yule (cultural miserablism), which has been added to by the new voices who came to the fore in the indyref. The above isn’t meant as exhaustive, but merely meant as an indicative list.

Pivotal to this kaleidoscope of ideas and debate has been the creation of an ecology of new spaces, places and platforms, such as Bella Caledonia’s role over the last decade, CommonSpace more recently and a host of blogs, podcasts and interventions. I called this ‘the third Scotland’ during the indyref: a self-organising, self-determinist cultural politics which springs from dissatisfaction with mainstream institutions, from politics and the media, to bureaucratised academia and financial and organisational constraints across the public sphere.

There are huge positives in the above – and big shifts in how authority and voice emerge – of gender, generation and geography (three G Scotland). The older Scotland of the 1970s and 1980s was one of middle class, middle aged white men – in politics, ideas and society who assumed the right to speak for everyone and exclude others.

Yet with that leap forward there is also a discernable negative now compared to the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the energies and best intentions of all of the above and many more individuals over the last few years, no thinkers and perspectives have emerged of the scale and durability of the likes of Nairn, Ascherson and Harvie and their interventions.

The likes of Nairn et al fed into the intellectual body of Scottish nationalism – in and outside the SNP. They engaged with and were engaged by the party in serious debates. Ascherson and others such as William McIlvanney gave prestigious lectures to the party in the 1980s. Nairn who has long had the most problematic relationship with the party even had a Lothian Lecture in 2008 upon the invitation of then First Minister Alex Salmond – one which seemed more a reflection on past achievements rather than present and future influence.

Today, there is an obvious gap between the ferment of ideas and the SNP and Scottish nationalism. Part of this is the perils of success. The SNP has in many ways become a conventional political party. But any party that becomes disconnected from ideas – from small policy ones to big intellectual narratives – eventually withers. The battle of ideas is always in the long run as important as the electoral battle. The former feeds into the latter.

  1. Don’t Believe the Hype of the Insider Class

Most clever people eventually believe their own myths. That they got there and have achieved what they have through their own wisdom and intelligence. This was the insight of Michael Young’s ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ published in 1958 and the original meaning of the word ‘meritocracy’ which he invented. The SNP leadership now believe that the winds of change are behind their sails and that the ultimate victory is tantalisingly within their grasp if they hold their nerves. There are admittedly other feelings: of anxiety and nervousness about the high stakes involved in any second indyref.

Yet, the current dominance of the SNP is a product not just of Nationalist genius, but opposition incompetence and that critical factor in all politics: luck. The SNP narrowly won in 2007 aided by the implosion of Tommy Sheridan’s SSP. They then formed a minority administration when the Lib Dems refused to enter coalition because of independence.

In the run-in to 2011 Labour under Iain Gray’s inept leadership managed to lose a 16% opinion poll lead over the SNP in a matter of a couple of months as the SNP won the election by 14% producing majority government. And in the indyref, Better Together fought a pragmatic, defensive campaign that grinded out a victory in the vote, but lost the bigger argument. Since then, Labour has blown itself up repeatedly, while the re-emergence of the Scottish Tories as the main opposition and viable force, suits SNP strategists.

There are of course bigger forces behind the rise of the SNP and the new confidence of the Scottish Tories after years as a pariah party. But party strategists always claim they know what is going on when often they don’t. Anyone thinking insiders have some divine insight into how politics operate should take note of Andrew Cooper, Tory pollster and co-founder of Populus pollsters, who called the EU referendum 55:45 for Remain on the morning of the vote (advising Cameron and Downing Street of this). He played a role in the last indyref, and is rumoured to being prepared for a big role in the next: which is good news for the independence side.

The SNP was as surprised as anyone by the scale of its victory in 2011 and the post-indyref surge to it. Likewise, the contours of a future indyref and dynamics of Scottish politics aren’t pre-ordained and completely predictable.

  1. The Need for Independent Authority and Expertise

Scottish politics and governance needs new sources of authority and expertise. The SNP may have an element of self-interest in not changing this pre-indyref2. But if they don’t do anything then it is more than likely the next conflict will be like the last (or indeed at its worst, Brexit). Namely, a contest which is fact-lite and if not fact-free, contested between different interpretations of facts and figures traded past each other with no agreed common ground.

A big signal of a different politics and a campaign would be pre-indyref2 to set up the Scottish equivalent of the Office of Budget Responsibility or Institute for Fiscal Studies. This would be a powerful statement of intent, show to everyone that a future campaign would be very different, and also begin shaping the contours of an independent Scotland in the present.

  1. Recognising economic realities while challenging neo-liberalism

An independent Scotland isn’t going to be a land of milk and honey, and in its early years will have difficult choices and trade-offs to make. One aspect of SNP economic thinking that needs to be faced up to is its continued embrace of conventional (and discredited) neo-liberal economics.

The SNP’s Growth Commission chaired by Andrew Wilson is, so reports suggest, going to recommend that an independent Scotland goes for growth by luring English and Welsh firms north under the climate of instability engendered by Brexit. There is a powerful logic in this: reversing as it does the dynamic of the last indyref where lots of big corporates intervened saying they would consider relocating their headquarters in the advent of an independent Scotland.

One magnet being considered is reducing business taxes in Scotland to give the economy a competitive advantage. Basically despite everything, coming up for ten years since the crash, the same economic zombie thinking has a gridlock on policy development, with an independent Scotland aspiring to be little more than a new version of ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland. There will be constraints in Scottish economic policy in a nation of five million people sitting next to an England of 55 million, but we have to aspire to more progressive and sustainable economics than merely undercutting rUK.

David Clark, former adviser to Robin Cook at the Foreign Office, said this week that a ‘consequence of Brexit is that it transforms the debate about Scotland’s economic future’ and that ‘Scotland can think big’ in such circumstances. Then why cling to an outdated, discredited economic model?

  1. The connection between the big picture and detail

The SNP have painted a hopeful big picture of Scotland. Where they have fallen short has been in detail and policy. There is a glaring need to connect these two up: to have a big picture as ambitious and uplifting as possible, but which acknowledges priorities and hard choices, and detail, which connects to this wider canvas.

We do not need a 650-page prospectus on independence again. Next time the Scottish Government would be better served by a policy prospectus which has totemic policies and a direction of travel on wealth creation and distribution, public services, education, health, democracy, culture and internationalism. That’s a minimum seven areas – which could be fitted onto seven indicative policies on an independence pledge card.

Relevant in this is Winston Churchill’s timeless observation that what fundamentally matters in politics is ‘a lighthouse not a shop window’. That’s what independence has to be – a beacon of hope, honesty and radical intent, whose messages and rays of light shine out and inspire parts of Scotland it didn’t reach out to last time.

This means a politics that doesn’t simply repeat what worked before, but is intelligent and wise enough to know that when the stakes change you change too and up your game. Kenny Farquharson writing this week in ‘The Times’ noted that the camber and tilt of Scottish politics had moved decisively in favour of independence: ‘Those who want to save the UK are facing an adverse camber. The tilt of the campaign ahead favours the Nationalists’.

The above is true. A watershed has occurred in Scottish politics post-Brexit, following on from the previous watershed of the indyref. The case for Britain is in deep crisis, as are the politics, institutions and political classes of the UK, personified by Theresa May’s inflexible unionism.

We need to get more serious, strategic and honest. We have to call out unacceptable behaviour and diversions, and start creating the culture of an independent Scotland now. We have to stop telling ourselves comforting stories which serve no purpose other than to make us feel better. A Scotland of self-determination is about more than independence, and if that future is to mean more than statehood, that substantive shift has to begin now, not wait until Independence Day.

Scotland needs change, but it also needs an independence movement and future debate which recognises the historic decision we are about to take. We have to live up to the history we are making.


Gerry Hassan is author of Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back published by Freight Books, £9.99..