Scotland, the Return of ‘the Tories’ and the Politics of ‘No Mandate’
The Guardian Comment, May 19th 2010
The British political landscape has been dramatically altered by the arrival of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. All around Westminster, politicians, media and observers, are continuing to pinch themselves to check that what they are seeing in front of their eyes is actually happening and not some strange dream or illusion.
One part of the UK stands apart from this: Scotland. The prevalent tones of Scottish political debate – marked by David Cameron’s visit north to the Scottish Parliament last Friday – is that this is the return of a Conservative Government and ‘the bad old Tories’, with the raising of the time-honoured battle cries, ‘Tory cuts’ and ‘no mandate’.
In the 1980s the main Scottish opposition parties – Labour, Lib Dem and SNP – increasingly coalesced around a pro-home rule, centre left, anti-Tory agenda which marginalised the Conservatives. This associated the opposition parties with being ‘Scottish’ and defending Scottish interests, and the Conservatives as ‘anti-Scottish’, questioning the legitimacy of a UK mandate to govern Scotland on a minority of votes.
Despite the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, Scottish politics are still shaped by this formative period, with both Labour and SNP eager to define the Lib Dems by their alliance with the Tories, while challenging the Conservatives in a way which draws from and reinforces the mythologies of the 1980s and Scots views of Mrs. Thatcher and Thatcherism.
Part of this is Labour and SNP’s constant jockeying, positioning and struggle for the soul of centre-left Scotland. Pivotal to this is which party can position itself as the most ‘Scottish’ and the best defender of Scotland’s interests.
Connected to this is invoking the potency of ‘anti-Tory Scotland’ and questioning the Tories right to rule – the logical conclusion of which is the ‘no mandate’ position of the SNP and nationalists in Labour and elsewhere.
Scottish claims of ‘no mandate’ takes us into familiar territory which many Scots find comforting and reassuring: a world of reviving the 1980s, of Proclaimers’ records challenging ‘What do you when democracy fails you?’ and celebrating victimhood, and raising to the point of totemic such Tory policies as Ravenscraig and the poll tax, while ignoring the record public investment.
‘The Tories hate Scotland’, a politically informed taxi driver told me last week, ‘Mrs. Thatcher hated everything about Scotland’. This is both literally and metaphorically the taxi driver story of recent times in Scotland: a set of potent myths and falsehoods which have imprisoned the Tories, but prevented Scottish politics moving on.
Scottish politics should be less black and white now. There is a Scottish Parliament. Then the Con-Lib Dem alliance gives the government a base of 36% in the recent Westminster elections, which is only a little less than Labour (42%), and nearly twice the SNP (19.9%). The Con-Lib Dems may only have twelve MPs out of 59, but it is a lot more than the solitary Tory.
‘No mandate’ implies the continued primacy of the anti-Tory/Tory faultline in Scottish politics. This cannot be taken as read when the Conservatives and Lib Dems are in coalition, nor Labour and SNP in a bitter contest in next year’s devolved elections.
‘No mandate’ allows the continued bashing and ridiculing of the Tories (and to a lesser extent the Lib Dems), but also prevents positive thinking. If all that is needed to succeed is a politics of opposition and caricature, why bother to raise your game. The politics of ‘no mandate’ strengthened Scots institutional vested interests, which astutely played the political process and parties pre as well as post-devolution.
Then there is the question of England which most of Scotland seems to ignore. The English gave the Tories an overall majority of 61, and a lead over Labour of 106, a result that only became a hung Parliament due to Scots and Welsh votes. The English democratic deficit is one of the profound holes in the centre of the UK edifice, and one which impacts on Scots whether it be the emergence of ‘English votes for English laws’ or rising support for an English Parliament.
‘No mandate’ also implies that there is an explicit, positive Scottish mandate from the Westminster elections. This needs to be questioned. Whereas in the 1980s three-quarters of Scots backed the creation of a Parliament, parties supporting it, and a centre-left politics, no such assumptions can be made today.
This is reflected in the fragmented, multi-layered, multi-party Scottish political landscape, which is more nuanced and pluralist than either Scotland in the 1980s or the Westminster model of politics. The recent UK elections underlined the strength of Scottish Labour as the nation’s biggest minority, particularly when a contest is framed around the election of a UK government, and the possible return of the Tories.
Next year’s Scottish Parliament elections will be very different, closely fought by Labour and SNP to see who can be the leading party in votes and seats, but with crucial roles played by the Conservatives and Lib Dems (along with the possible influence in a smaller way by the Greens). Party competition will be shaped by all parties being both popular and parliamentary minorities, the latter due to the electoral system, and positioning themselves pre and post-election as a result.
The Con-Lib Dem government has promised early action in its first Queen’s Speech implementing the Calman Commission proposals, devolving fiscal powers to the Scottish Parliament, and this has to be seen as both the start of a process at a Scottish and UK level, and one which will dramatically change the dynamics of politics north of the border.
The first decade of devolution had many successes, but was overall characterised by a pork barrel politics of dolling out public largesse keeping the public sector and middle classes on board without thinking of hard choices or distributional consequences. Labour, Lib Dems and SNP were all guilty of this, and the biggest gainers of the first decade of devolution were Scotland’s vocal middle class (teacher pay, higher NHS pay, abolition of tuition fees, free care for the elderly).
This era is over, and a new one of more fiscal accountability and responsibility beckons, which will demand that all Scotland’s main parties become less opportunist, less wrapping themselves in a Saltire to disguise their lack of thinking, and more mature, and prepared to address tough choices and the need to prioritise.
The simple mantras of the 1980s, of ‘Tory cuts’ and ‘no mandate’ no longer suffice, and have been used too long to disguise the threadbare nature of much political thinking north of the border. All Scotland’s parties, and Labour and SNP in particular, are going to have to find new, more sophisticated slogans and themes.