Self-Government is about more than the Constitution
The Scotsman, June 4th 2011
The arrival of Scotland’s first majority government is a learning curve for all of us: for the institutions and processes of the Parliament, the political parties, civil servants and media.
This is a defining moment for the SNP, for the kind of politics and vision they represent, for how they express their mandate, and how they articulate their ideas of the Scotland of the future.
During the election campaign the SNP painted a believable, plausible vision of a different Scotland, a place of green jobs, renewables and making accountable the Crown Estate.
Since the election, with the exception of Alex Salmond laying out his vision as First Minister and pledging to address fairness, bigotry and Scotland’s drink culture, the SNP has at points seemed to predominately talk about constitutional issues: the Scotland Bill, corporation tax, more powers to the Scottish Parliament, and the recent stramash over the Supreme Court.
Scotland’s constitutional status is directly relevant to the kind of economy and society we inhabit, but it is important beyond Nationalist opinion how we make this connection explicit. This only happens by talking first about economic and social issues, and then making the case for self-government.
If we talk about the constitution too much we validate a narrow, insular conversation of politicians. Previously the SNP used to talk about political change as being about obtaining more powers for the Parliament. This was a restricted notion of change which excluded 99.9% of the population who are never going to be elected politicians. It also undersold the radical edge of self-government which is about cultural change and transformation as Scots as individuals and a society take more responsibility.
The SNP in recent years shifted from seeing the world in just these terms. Prior to the 2007 election victory it fundamentally altered its campaigning, message development, style of politics and the way it as a party, and even Alex Salmond, did politics. Out went the girning and carping at what was lacking in the state of Scotland.
Instead, the SNP embraced the politics of hope, optimism and possibilities. Part of this drew on the work of Martin Seligman and positive psychology, and in particular a study Seligman had undertaken which looked at the success of political parties which advanced a positive message.
This contributed to the SNP victory in 2007 and the way the party took to office up until the banker’s crash towards the end of 2008. This massive jolt challenged all the political orthodoxies in the UK and across the West, and it isn’t surprising that it threw the Nationalists as well. Gone went the alluring and safe image of the ‘arc of prosperity’ which became the ‘arc of insolvency’ to the SNP’s opponents.
What was interesting was that the SNP in the early part of this year refound their spirit, zest and positivity. And a plausible vision which articulated this. Again it played a huge part in their election victory and landside, and again as in 2007 this positive nationalism completely wrong-footed their Labour opponents who on both occasions developed a campaign against the old-fashioned, negative Nats.
It is from this place that many of us want and wish the Nationalists to govern and lead. To be imaginative, challenging and generous. To talk about the kind of Scotland we want to live in. To begin to nurture and create that kind of society which isn’t just about the Parliament and politicians, but a different kind of change.
The SNP’s long march to its current position has defined much of how it sees itself and society. The SNP has because of this and the institutionally top heavy nature of much of public life, seen itself as having a non-institutional, outsider view of Scottish society.
This is part of the Nationalists strength. Many of their members are more like the rest of Scotland than other party members, and in particular the narrow bandwidth which Scottish Labour now draws from.
What the SNP don’t like is the Scots entitlement culture in public life, whether it is the public, private or voluntary sectors, or in business bodies. This can be summarised as the problem with the tone, style and content of CBI Scotland. They are an organisation who think they have got an automatic right to be heard, and who endlessly promote their own special pleading. CBI Scotland and many others need to take a leaf out of Martin Seligman’s book and accentuate the positive!
The SNP has to tap its positive vision, draw from its outsider ethos, and challenge the doomsayers who inhabit parts of public Scotland. And to do this entails not getting into the default position of just talking about the constitution.
Scottish self-government and self-determination is about more than the constitution. It is about a society which challenges the elites, professional interests and numerous gatekeepers of the extended Labour state. And which links this to sharing power more diffusely and encouraging the creation of new centres of power, knowledge and expertise in the economy and society.
We cannot get stuck in endless Edinburgh-London slagging matches which part of the Supreme Court episode seems to be, while raising serious issues about justice in the multi-jurisdictional state of the UK. There will I imagine over the next five years be enough substantial disagreements.
Part of the Supreme Court debate was more about emotions than reasoning, psychology rather than power and justice. That’s not to be dismissive of such motivations. We have to recognise the power of such factors both in Scotland and in the deepest recesses of the British state.
Already we have seen within weeks of the Scottish election a number of respected British experts trying to define the parameters of the debate on key constitutional positions. Both Robert Hazell of the think tank, the Constitution Unit, and Vernon Bogdanor, of Oxford University, the former, tutor of David Cameron, have tried to stress as inarguable that Scotland has to have two independence referendums, despite the fact that not one country in the world has done so. If we are to have a more edifying and honest debate, a more straight dealing and positive unionism would be helpful.
We have to recognise that we need to dream, imagine and be creative in the new Scotland unfolding. That necessitates ideas, research and analysis, but it also calls for hope, optimism, and acknowledging the role of emotions and psychology. We will need all of this in the task of mapping the outline of Scottish statehood, how we achieve it, and the kind of society it entails.