The Second Moment of Devolution
The Scotsman, June 28th 2010
Scottish politics are on the move: the Calman/fiscal autonomy debate, the implications of the Budget and forthcoming cuts, and Alex Salmond’s repositioning of the SNP on independence.
Salmond has stated in an interview in ‘The Times’, ‘The centre of gravity in Scottish politics currently is clearly not independence. You must campaign for what is good for Scotland as well as campaigning for independence.’
This is seismic stuff in an age of epic change where old assumptions are going to be ripped up. Salmond has surveyed the political landscape of Scotland and the storm clouds gathering, and decided it is time to remake the political weather.
In the interview he restates the case for full fiscal autonomy, ‘It is really important, in my view, to be able to say to people how we can change the circumstances and increase revenue as well as decreasing expenditure.’ He then, in a fascinating passage, shows the degree to which he has become a national leader, stating, ‘It is my job to come up with some answers, along with others. If you jump up and down nihilistically saying ‘dreadful dreadful, dreadful, cuts, cuts, cuts’, then I would be failing in my duty to the people.’
We can reflect here on the transition from Salmond the young turk who let such phrases pass his lips to Salmond the statesman. It is a phase many a senior, successful politician has to go through as they mature from the rebellion of their youth.
The scale of this change is massive. The SNP’s entire raison d’etre is about independence and expression of Scottish statehood. We now know from James Mitchell’s research that the SNP membership is very flexible and relaxed about the route towards this and happy to take the long road to what they see as their ultimate destination.
An SNP which embraces explicitly post-nationalism was always meant to be the dream of thoughtful Labour politicians like Wendy Alexander and Susan Deacon. It was their dream because it would break the 40-year focus on the constitutional question, and allow us to concentrate on the economic and social challenges facing Scotland.
Yet this would also pose difficult questions for Labour as an SNP that moves off the ground of simply being labelled as ‘separatist’ will remove one of the last bogeys Labour has about the Nationalists.
What is Labour about apart from detesting the Scottish Nationalists? Yes, they can wax lyrically about the Con-Dem cuts, but we all know in their bones they hate the Nats with a visceral passion. Without this common vision – even admittedly a negative one – Scottish Labour would have to find a reason for its existence.
There are tough challenges facing the SNP too. Next year’s Scottish Parliament election pose problems for the Nationalists. It is not a very attractive agenda for Salmond to be standing on a platform of opposing cuts in the block grant when either he or an alternative incoming administration is going to preside over a programme of cuts like we have never seen before.
Salmond is putting himself ahead of the curve, and asking difficult questions of his opponents, as well as his own party. He is asking his rivals and in particular, Labour, to address what they would do in his position.
This is opening up the debate on fiscal autonomy, the middle class welfare state which devolution has spawned, and the scale of exclusion and ‘forgotten Scotland’ in a nation which is meant to pride itself on its social democracy and compassion.
Can we chart a third road of public and private sector reform which isn’t about going back to the future and seeing our salvation in privatising Scottish Water and what’s left of the family silver? Could Scotland begin to pioneer an approach which does not go down the weary route of the dogmatic marketeers and at the same time addresses the limits and self-interest of large parts of the public sector?
The first decade of devolution – Labour-Lib Dem dominated – was an age of distributing goodies and largesse to those with the loudest voices who knew how to work the system. Strangely enough this turned out to be the same groups who knew how to work the old system: the self-preservation society of middle class Scotland.
In many respects devolution continued the pattern of how Scotland was run before the Parliament: a managed system of rule by committees, experts and professionals which amounted to a kind of benign pre-democracy.
This era is now coming to an end and we have to use this moment to open the debate about what we want the Parliament, devolution and Scotland to be about. The answer lies in shifting the focus from self-government as a political concept – about the Parliament, processes and politicians – which by its nature is a minority exercise excluding most of us – to self-determination as a society – economically, socially and culturally, which then feeds into a real, meaningful idea of self-government.
This kind of politics, less about the constitution, and more about society and the civic fabric of our nation, would take us back to the early, generous, open visions of Labour and the SNP, and inspire anew social democrats, nationalists, greens and radicals across all the parties and in none.
This would offer us the prospect of challenging the institutional vested interests which have build up in Scotland, and so dominate our public life and landscape, a world filled by numerous bodies, gatekeepers and turf wars, including piles of bodies which have outlived their usefulness. This is not just a point about the public sector; why in a country with such an issue about its lack of an enterprise culture do we have five national business organizations?
Scotland has an institutional establishment who are mostly the same people and bodies which ran Scotland pre-devolution, then under Labour and now under the SNP. We have to have a wide-ranging debate about the nature of that establishment.
The main change under devolution has been the rise of a pro-business mindset across our politics, parties and media, and this needs to come under scrutiny as well. It seems more a faux pro-business groupthink than something genuinely interested in the diverse interests of business and enterprise. Is the summation of modern Scotland really a debate between various business bodies and bankers which is a Dutch auction about how we reduce business taxes and regulations?
Alex Salmond has begun to move the furniture across Scotland which can only be good news for the future. It is up to the rest of us to rise to this occasion, and educate, agitate, organize and imagine a different Scotland, one which faces itself, unpleasant truths and is prepared to make difficult choices, which will entail standing up to the ‘old’ conservatives of paternalist Scotland and the ‘new’ conservatives of neo-liberalism.