We may be anti-Tory but the ideas of conservatism are everywhere
The Scotsman, April 6th 2013
Two laments have been constant in Scotland in the last decade. One is that our politics are not what they used to be; while another is that our media isn’t up to the task it once was (along with that our football is going down the pan!).
This yearning for the past and an unspecified ‘golden era’ in public life which never was has become a sort of national pastime. It is wrong, dangerous and debilitating, and the reasons for so many of us thinking this way need to be put in historical context.
The characteristics of public life go back at least to the Acts of Union agreed between a pre-democratic Scotland and England which defined and protected an autonomous Scots civil society. This centred Scots identity in the union around ‘the holy trinity’ of education, law and the kirk, prioritising institutional dominance of public life and institutional identities as our main mark of difference.
This background has informed much of the public life and institutions of Scotland from the growth of the state and public administration from late Victorian times onward, the ‘brave new world’ of post-war hopes, and the nature of ‘civic Scotland’.
It is not surprising then that this backstory and environment has been one of the main influences on the Scottish Parliament and devolution so far – a project which has brought an element of limited democratic input on top of the layers of this managed, ordered society.
One perspective in this is to write that all Scotland’s mainstream political traditions have colluded in this. Conservative paternalism pre-Thatcher, Labour statism, and SNP safety-first incrementalism. But all of these are a product of the longer, deeper trends of institutional conservatism in society.
Since devolution what have the two dominant ideologies left standing: social democracy and Scottish nationalism contributed in ideas? Wendy Alexander famously said a decade ago that Labour had not had an original idea since 1906., whereas at least Scottish nationalism has been able to draw upon the intellectual contributions of Neil MacCormick and Tom Nairn.
The big picture is clear: social democracy and Scottish nationalism have offered no great policy prospectuses or original ideas. Where we can ask is the great legislation and important legacies from these traditions? Pre-devolution the last great reformist legislation was the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 which set up children’s hearings.
What can we say then have been their great achievements? Well they did massively contribute to the winning over of opinion to the idea of the Scottish Parliament, which is important. But as for what that body should do in legislation or advance in practice, they have proven remarkably silent.
Where have been over the last decade and before, radical ideas on education, health and other public services? Nicola Sturgeon recently said that an independent Scotland could commit itself to the goal of abolishing child poverty.
This would be a worthy aim for us to commit ourselves to but it brought ridicule from some. More seriously, it invoked the ghost of New Labour and all its shortcomings as they once tried to do the same at a UK level and fell short. This has provided valuable lessons: that such a goal isn’t possible without a powerful coalition of the public and professionals, and that it cannot be done solely by ministerial stealth.
The lack of radical action and thinking along with widespread cynicism of change isn’t just about those obvious villains: politicians and the media, but the longer story of how we got here and the failure of large parts of the professional classes to contribute positive ideas and suggestions to overcome the challenges we face as a society.
Despite over a decade of devolution, the Scottish political environment has failed to produce a commensurate culture of think tanks, research bodies and campaigning groups. Instead, there is a series of disconnects even in professional groups, with most academics divorced from policy thinking, or content to go along with the groupthink in their policy area.
Where are the movements or even groups of radical academics, teachers, GPs, health professionals and lawyers prepared to say the status quo isn’t good enough? There is a silence on elite Scotland, the collective groupthink of public life, and the collusion of our public policy and politics with pseudo-free marketism and consultancy talk.
Devolution has been the continuation of how Scotland has been run for decades, and it is possible that the independence debate could easily follow in its footsteps and not challenge these assumptions.
There are some small signs of hope and movement: the success of the Radical Independence Conference in reach if not ideas, the work of the Poverty Alliance’s Poverty Assemblies, and the recent Citizen’s Assembly. All of these play or invoke the notion of different ideas of power and sit outside the system, not looking for approval or conventional forms of change.
What is missing is more substantive, long-term gatherings which make institutional power sit up and take notice, and challenge elite opinion. Successful examples of this in the UK include Compass, the centre-left pressure group which has challenged the grip of neo-liberalism on Labour and the Westminster classes, and London Citizens, born from faith groups and unions, which has given weight to the campaign for a living wage in the capital.
It is revealing that no such similar initiatives have taken root in Scotland; this seems to suggest that we like to invoke radicalism and popular sovereignty, but don’t like acting upon them. That we like to have both faith in our politicians and carp about them – making the best or worst of all worlds depending on your view.
An independence debate left to the elites and the selectorate of a few insider and motivated groups will be a restricted conversation, and one which the politicians and media will articulate a limited agenda in. Our politics and media are products of the wider context and ideological malaise; it is the latter we have to change to remake our politics and media.
The last few days have offered a reminder that most Scots may not want to be ruled by David Cameron and the Tories, but that does not mean the majority do not acquiesce in conservative rule in ideas by another name. By now we should have learned not to confuse anti-Toryism and radicalism.