Where is Radical Scotland and does it really exist?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, December 12th 2018

As the United Kingdom seemingly collapses and its political class shows unprecedented incompetence, where stands Scotland? Where is that much talked about sentiment that we are radical, different, and more left-wing than the rest of the UK?

For some all that matters in the above is difference and the elixir of sovereignty; ‘Take Back Control’ and don’t worry about detail and all the other stuff until we are on the other side of independence. This is rather reminiscent of the version of Brexit as presented by Leave in the 2016 referendum – which did not present any practical offer and just invited people to luxuriate in the warm sunny uplands of the freedom of Brexit Britain. That has not exactly worked to plan as this vague fantasy has hit the cold winds of reality: a warning for any future politics planning similar exercises here or anywhere.

Radical Scotland and its claims centre on a series of different Scottish political choices – that we do universalism more, that we have more humanity and compassion on welfare, and that we have a more progressive set of values as a political community.

One problem in this is that all of the policies usually cited about universalism – free care for the elderly, no student tuition fees, council tax freeze (now abetted), no prescription charges – redistribute money up the income scale. Their radicalism is really about including the middle classes in state benefits.

Then there is the radical rhetoric of much of our politics that emphasises the undoubted difference there is with the rest of the UK. The SNP have proven particularly adept at this in recent years, but they did not originate this approach – it was perfected by Labour when it was the largest party in Scotland getting more monies out of Westminster.

The SNP take great care to position themselves unashamedly on the centre-left, to champion the cause of social democracy, and to adopt the mantle once worn by Scottish Labour from ‘Red Clydeside’ onwards.

But the SNP’s articulation of its radicalism is a very constrained and truncated one. It does not inform in a clear way their actions as a devolved government now over a decade into office. Instead, their unqualified radicalism is more often than not found in such issues as being against Trident and nuclear weapons on the Clyde, illegal foreign wars such as Iraq and military adventures such as Libya and Syria, and of course, austerity. Any criticism of the SNP in office in Holyrood is often met by a reciting of the above list and the retort: ‘how can you say the SNP isn’t radical when it is against Trident, against illegal wars and austerity?’

SNP radicalism is directly related to how little power the party has on any given policy – such as nuclear weapons, foreign policy, and macro-economic policy – and is less radical the more say and power the party has in an area.

Maybe this is not by chance because this is exactly how Scottish Labour used to behave. It used to do respectable, administrative politics where it had power and direct control, when it ran local councils the length and breadth of the country.

While Labour did that it also simultaneously pointed in the opposite direction. It engaged in flights of fantasy and rebellion – kicking out against those with power and privilege and standing up for the dispossessed not close to home but in far-flung lands. Hence, Labour in the 1970s and 1980s championed a host of causes such as Palestine, anti-apartheid and international solidarity.

I remember my first encounter with this strange mindset. I was a young idealist in my late teens who had just joined Dundee Labour Party. This was when George Galloway was local Secretary-Organiser in the mid-1980s and the council had made UK headlines by twinning with the Palestinian West Bank city of Nablus. I suggested to Galloway and other left-wingers that the Labour council could do something imaginative on housing policy by embracing decentralisation that various English councils were doing. I was met with incredulity for such a brazen suggestion and open scorn, with Galloway saying to me ‘we will have none of that Hillhead middle class crap here’. Funny he went on to be MP for Hillhead, but that is another story that didn’t end well.

Conservatism at home, radicalism further afield

This twin track attitude – respectability, even conservatism at home, radicalism and idealism further afield – clearly have a relationship with each other. But it is fascinating how the Labour approach that disguised a deeply conservative machine politics whereby the party had become the political establishment, but still wanted to present themselves as the inheritors of earlier pioneers, has some echoes in the SNP today.

There are of course numerous differences between Labour and the SNP here. Labour’s local fiefdom politics were rooted in what increasingly became a Tammany Hall local politics based on running large parts of the West of Scotland over decades. The SNP on the other hand have focused their power base in the Scottish Parliament, and while there has been an absence of political imagination or innovation, so far it has not become so patronage driven and clientist as Labour, although time will tell. But what is illuminating is the common ground between the two – and their mutual denial of this.

Of course, the Labour Party and the SNP have lots of similar characteristics. They have shared common roots in the early years of both, shared some of the same personnel, and even outlook on Scotland and the wider world. They both have laid exclusive claim to the politics of the centre-left, social democracy, standing up for Scotland, and of championing Scotland’s Parliament.

Yet, perhaps something deeper is going on the seemingly eternal Labour-SNP dispute. Perhaps it suits those who lay claim to the altar of a radical Scotland to make the case on detached and semi-detached issues because it allows for a politics of principle and posture – and striking an idealistic position without having to compromise. This has allowed both parties at their peak to be in office and opposition at the same time, be an establishment, while showing anti-establishment credentials, and have one foot in the system and one foot outside.

This is the politics of virtue signaling – and while some might like to lament this situation, it is possible that it reads the mood of Scotland accurately. Scotland is not really the radical nation often invoked, but a land with deep-seated caution and even conservatism through the ages and recent decades. A corollary to this has been a reluctance to embrace the bold, the brave and the innovative in substance and beyond the rhetorical.

So, what if Labour, and then subsequently the SNP, have read Scotland right? Where does that leave room for big debates and big decisions in Scotland? And what consequences does it have in an age where, with Brexit and independence, big choices are coming our way whether we like it or not?

What it shows is that human beings have a propensity to being told things that comfort them and that make them feel they are special, and many Scottish politicians of all persuasions have done that in spades. Labour and SNP politicians have told us we are different, compassionate, idealistic, even moral. What they have failed to do is tell us some difficult home truths, and confront us with complex choices about public spending, taxation, the limits of redistribution, wealth creation, the costs of an aging society, and lots more. And yet, all of these pressures are coming down the line whether we like them or not.

We really need to find a politics and politicians who have the courage to start talking about these issues, because hard choices are coming, irrespective of Brexit and independence, and it would be helpful if we could make them through having informed debate. Otherwise, we could see the politics of populism, fear and xenophobia find a home and audience here – because such sentiment grows when mainstream politics fails. Look around the world and we can see warning signs everywhere of failed politics and the reaction to them. We really do have no room for complacency and self-congratulation.