What happens to the Spirit of 2014?
Sunday Mail, December 21st 2014
It has been an action packed 2014.
Scotland’s year has witnessed drama, theatre and spectacle: the Commonwealth Games, First World War anniversaries, the Ryder Cup, and of course, the Big Day in September – the independence referendum.
Scotland voted to stay in the union for now, but changed in the process, became more self-confident and more sure in its capacity to self-govern itself. The UK political classes seemed less sure-footed by the day.
The spirit of 2014 witnessed the greatest democratic expression of Scots ever seen in history. This was bigger, more important and vibrant than anything previously seen in our politics and society.
High politics tried to understand this. There was the last minute panic of ‘the Vow’ which led to the Smith Commission: decent greater devolution, but dull stuff which isn’t about democracy. Then there was Cameron playing with combustible materials: raising the spectre of English Votes for English Laws and reducing Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs to second class representatives.
Scottish politics and society still reverberates with the afterwaves of the indyref. The SNP post-vote have enjoyed a surge in popularity and members. But Nicola Sturgeon faces the challenge of managing expectations in the Westminster 2015 contest with an absence of many Labour-SNP marginals (there are only three Labour seats the SNP are within 20% of). There is for the moment, in places, an air of SNP triumphalism, and of continuing to give the impression that they can sweep all before them.
Scottish Labour is not in a great state and while Jim Murphy is an impressive campaigner he has, as of yet, no clear strategy or resources. So far he has revisited his previous greatest moments (a Clause Four for Scottish Labour) and reshuffled everyone. But he has given a commitment that the SNP will remember – to hold every single one of Labour’s 41 Westminster seats.
As much as politicians try to define that politics is about themselves: who is up and down, party actions and announcements, and commissions and task forces, the spirit of 2014 lives on beyond their world.
It is in the Scotland where people found the voice and confidence to self-organise and take authority and power to do things for themselves. This, at its best, is a self-education movement. Whether it is the success of Women for Independence or the Radical Independence Campaign, they signal a very different politics from that of Westminster or the Scottish Parliament: grass roots, very humane and localised and loosely organised.
It can be seen in the thousands of people supporting and organising food banks, people putting together community land buy-outs, and resisting the punitive Westminster coalition welfare cuts. This is a DIY Scotland in front of our very eyes.
There is a generational and cultural shift in all this: of people not trusting big institutions whether government or business, and believing that the best option is self-government. That is at odds with much of what has happened in Scotland over the years, devolution and Westminster.
Then there is the ongoing agenda of Westminster cuts which will continue irrespective of who wins the 2015 UK election. George Osborne’s 2015 Autumn Statement proposed taking the UK state back to the 1930s, with a 35% share of GDP taken by public spending: a level not seen since 1938. That opens up a political choice between the two main Westminster parties, and provides Labour with a window of attack.
Another big story was the revelation that the Queen’s seemingly impromptu comments at Crathie Church during the indyref – ‘Well, I hope people will think very carefully about the future’ – were scripted by Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Permanent Secretary and Christopher Giedt, the Queen’s Private Secretary.
Revealingly, the SNP choose this week when the authorship of the Queen’s words came out, to not make any political capital from them. Alex Salmond in the past week articulated his gushing pro-monarchism, not just praising the Queen, but the Prince of Wales, and even defended the wisdom of his numerous interventions lobbying UK government ministers.
Britain has always been a fragile place for democracy, and is even more so today. Scotland’s democratic impulse and expression is about so much more than the Yes/No independence debate, and which party or politician is making their mark in the media stakes.
Scotland’s people this year seized control of their own political and national destiny, and changed the contours of what it is to be political and what is publically talked about. In so doing, they have pushed against the boundaries and no go areas of large swathes of society. And no matter what the politicians and institutions try to do to attempt to control it, things will never return to how they were in the Scotland before the spirit of 2014 took hold.