It’s Time for a Radical SNP Vision for Scotland
The Scotsman, September 3rd 2011
It was a strange summer. A few months ago the SNP won a landslide victory which challenged many of the assumptions about Scotland and Scottish politics. The SNP Government had then, and still has, enormous goodwill and support behind it.
Immediately after the election, the SNP got embroiled in the spat over the Supreme Court, an important issue, but one where its tone and language was all wrong. Then came the mess of the Sectarian Bill, tackling one of Scotland’s biggest issues in too much hurry and alienating almost everyone.
Now it just happens that at the moment the SNP’s opponents are a bit distracted – Labour waiting for their review and something to turn up, Tories having a leadership contest, and Lib Dems post-self-destruction. It won’t always be thus.
In the lead up to, and the aftermath of the Comprehensive Spending Review due in a couple of weeks the SNP needs to move away from the discordant sounds of the summer. Here are five suggestions for the SNP Government to move onto new ground and begin to flesh out a different future.
1. A Different Kind of Economy
We do need to talk about the economy. Scotland’s economy is not heading for some ‘Third World’ (so late 20th century that phrase!) basket case in the near-future as Douglas McWilliams of the Centre for Economics and Business Research claimed. This was ‘research’ done on a weekend, invoking the Edinburgh trams fiasco, the Holyrood Building disaster, and getting stuck in Edinburgh Festival traffic jams!
We have to resist tales of oblivion from wherever they come, but at the same time we have to recognise that the account of ‘Fantasy Island Scotland’, our own financial version of the UK Bubble blew up and isn’t viable any longer.
Instead, we should be thinking about how Scottish businesses and companies can express different values and practices from the short-term shareholder capitalism of these isles. A different Scottish entrepreneurial ethic, rather than just dreaming of restoration to life before the crash. And that while the health and well-being brigade (Layard et al) over do it, ignoring the economy, we know there is more to life than economic growth and classical economics.
2. What Do We Do About Glasgow and the West of Scotland?
Glasgow and the West of Scotland have many positives, but are also the site of many of Scotland’s most enduring problems: ill-health, male violence, economic inactivity and social dislocation. Doing something about the city region and ‘the Glasgow effect’ would dramatically change the nature of Scotland. We know that money on its own isn’t the answer, which is just as well given the straightened times. Why don’t we do something different such as give greater self-government to Glasgow, not the council or public bodies, but to its people?
3. Health and Education, not Hospitals and Teachers
Most of our political and public conversations about health and education are nothing of the kind, but about institutional capture and the obsessions of politicians and public with hospitals and teachers.
Instead, we need ministers (and others) to stand up and break the spell and talk about health and education. What is the Scots road back from the poor health of so many of our people? What are the appropriate values of Scots education that would give young people the best start possible? The new mantra around early years intervention is welcome, but we need to address all the years and encourage empathy and self-esteem. And an approach which didn’t just swallow whatever the EIS or BMA are saying would be helpful.
When I suggested to the Scottish Government last year that they set up a Public Sector Commission I also advocated that they set up a Fairness Commission. I am not so sure now we need another commission, but we do need to define what we mean by fairness.
Scottish society, our economy and culture, are just as disfigured as elsewhere in the West by inequality, insecurity and anxiety about the future. This has in many senses become part of the conventional wisdom of our times across Europe, North America and Japan, but given our belief in our egalitarian credentials, shouldn’t we take time to address how we are doing?
If we stopped and looked long enough we would find plenty to worry us. There is ‘the forgotten Scotland’ illustrated in the BBC Scotland series ‘The Scheme’, the voices of a dispossessed, disenfranchised community without political or economic power. We have a struggling middle, and equally like most places, increasingly narrow definitions of what ‘success’ and ‘intelligence’ mean usually centred on excessive material reward. As a small nation we are ideally placed to do something about this, addressing those who have fallen off the radar, and those who earn astronomic amounts.
5. Shifting Power: Land Reform
This isn’t just a teuchter issue, but fundamental to all Scotland, city and country, Highlands and Central Belt. The first Scottish administration’s land reform legislation was welcome, but the impetus has gone after the early Eigg and Gia community buy-outs.
Land reform has to be part of a wider debate about redistributing power and resources in Scotland, and nearly all that needs to be done can be done under devolution and doesn’t need to wait until independence. A positive sign that the SNP has ‘got’ land reform would be stopping the stealing of common land and giving children the legal right of inheritance which would aid the creation of a more open, egalitarian Scotland.
The SNP has travelled so far as a catch-all party – one which is home to successful business people, former Tories, Red Clydeside radicals and socialists, but eventually it will have to make a choice about in whose interests it wants to govern.
If it doesn’t make the choice itself it will end up, by the pressures of events, coming down in the interests of the conservative order and inertia, and thus, the forces of power and privilege. It is in the SNP’s own self-interest to positively at the point of its greatest power to begin to flesh out a radical approach on its own terms.
If Scotland is on a journey towards greater independence we can only embrace it by being more daring, imaginative and bold. We won’t do it by a ‘Safety First’ bank manager approach to independence.
Fundamental change will require that people feel the risk and uncertainty inherent in independence is less than the risk of remaining in the UK, and that there is a real viable difference being offered.
That requires a careful balancing act by the SNP and other supporters of independence. It necessitates developing the narrative of difference into the potential of difference. And that requires radical action from the SNP Government and from the rest of us.