The Myth of ‘Red Scotland’
The Scotsman, May 6th 2010
This general election looks set to confirm some of the characteristics of modern Scotland, and in particular that this is a centre-left country, defined by parties of the centre-left, and in which the Tories only play a bit part.
This is one of the many findings from the fascinating Scotsman/YouGov poll published yesterday. On policy issue after issue – unemployment, health, education – Labour easily leads the Conservatives by wide margins as the favoured party, the one exception being immigration.
David Cameron is not yet unpopular in Scotland with 32% viewing him favourably and 34% unfavourably. Gordon Brown has 43% of people thinking he is doing a good job as Prime Minister versus 39% who disagree, which is significant given how disastrous his UK ratings have been. Nick Clegg has an impressive 53% positive rating, and Alex Salmond 38%. None of the four party leaders are hugely unpopular in Scotland at the moment.
Two different trends need to be disentangled here: one is the centre-left consensus of Scottish public life and politics, and the other is the anti-Tory sentiment and mindset. These have tended to reinforce each other, but they are not the same thing.
Scotland’s centre-left consensus has increasingly become one of the defining characteristics of our nation since the late 1950s. We have increasingly tended to emphasise our egalitarian, compassionate and inclusive qualities, and link this into a longer and wider story. Part of this is stressing our Scottishness, and posing this in opposition to an English identity seen as synonymous with individualism and selfishness.
From the arrival of Mrs. Thatcher, Scottish identity became associated with a sense of feeling morally superior: ‘we’ didn’t vote Tory and or just think of ourselves, even if we bought our council houses, took tax cuts and bought privatised shares in equal number to those south of the border.
All of this became enmeshed in an anti-Tory consensus which portrayed the Scots Tories as ‘alien’ and ‘unScottish’, and was at points blinkered and unthinking. Being anti-Tory meant you didn’t need to think about what you positively stood for. You were for a Scottish Parliament, while New Labour could be seen as a mostly English creation.
This has become the taxi driver and barstool story of modern Scotland. Thatcher, many people will earnestly tell you shut industry after industry. Even as high profile a project as the BBC recent ‘History of Scotland’ commented that, ‘Moribund dinosaurs like shipbuilding, coalmining and steel, living on state finance, starved to death in no time’. It even claimed that Thatcher shut Ravenscraig, ignoring that it closed under the Major Government as a private enterprise.
What anti-Toryism did was give a sense of strength and validation to Scotland’s centre-left consensus. This consensus has many positive elements: its concern for social justice, priority of public health, and a more comprehensive education system. Yet, there is also a deeply cautious, conservative strand, which has seen the Scots professional, middle classes, mainly but not entirely in the public sector, position themselves as the self-appointed tribunes of the people.
There has always been a duty of care and a sense of calling amongst many of Scotland’s professional classes, but under the Tories, these groups increasingly felt not just unloved, but undermined and attacked, and responded by positioning themselves as the guardians of a popular and national conscience.
Much of this has become problematic. Across area after area of public life, education, health, local government, the quangocracy, there is an institutional establishment which act as gatekeepers defining what is possible, from the EIS to the BMA and COSLA.
These groups have prevented Scotland going down the marketising of public services we have seen in England, but they have also prevented a much-needed debate about how we reform and renew public services. How do we deal with ‘bad teachers’ and underperforming schools? How can we develop a public health approach which is not controlled by medical consultants? How can we genuinely engage the public in what is sometimes called ‘co-production’ of public services?
Too much of the Scottish consensus is shaped by the instinctual dismissal of all of the above and more. How can ‘ordinary people’, they scoff, really get involved in making complex decisions about public services? Such things should be left to the experts.
This is aided by the conservative, institutional nature of the centre-left consensus which has never been of a radical character, never been new left, nor even New Labour. Instead, its main advocates, Labour, SNP and Lib Dems, have all shown themselves to be part of this paradoxical consensus, stressing its centre-left values, while defending the status quo of the establishment.
This brings us to Gordon Brown, who is still much more popular in Scotland than the rest of the UK. Brown’s odyssey is a wider story about the journey of the British left from its ‘Red’ posturing in the 1970s to moderating and repositioning in the 1980s to trying to make an accommodation with globalisation in the last decade, ultimately being compromised and diminished in the process.
Then there is Brown’s Scottish story, his mission, purpose, sense of first principle and belief in community. Much of this comes from his ‘son of a preacher’ upbringing and values which represent a very traditional, Scots version of Christianity, whereas Tony Blair embodied a very English, contemporary idea of the Church of England.
Brown’s long journey tells us that the British mainstream left and Labour in particular have boxed themselves into a cul-de-sac which it will be difficult to get out of, irrespective of Thursday’s election result. It also shows that there is still a bedrock of support for such a centre-left politics in Scotland.
Change is inevitable in both. Brown’s style and kind of politics will have little place in the future, with its mix of religious metaphor, imagery and idealism which more often than not has no relationship to his record in office.
Scotland’s centre-left consensus is going to have to change as well. People are increasingly not going to automatically defer to doctors, teachers and local government officials, and instead demand a voice, a say and treated with respect, even more so given the cuts which are coming.
There is an argument that Scotland’s experience in the union saw it historically governed by the great and the good via committees: a culture which informed the Scottish Office. The arrival of the Scottish Parliament was always going to throw open this system of old boys patronage to public scrutiny, and raise the prospect, that belatedly, democracy will come to Scotland. Better late than never. Which of our parties are going to dare to begin speaking for the people and not the professionals?