A different radical Scotland: limits of Scottish nationalism and social democracy

Gerry Hassan sees the 2021 election in a longer lens to assess the current state of Scottish democracy and point up some ways forward.

Scottish politics are defined by many factors – fourteen years of SNP dominance, seven years of Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister, and the arrogance of Westminster. But underlying these factors at home is the sense of autonomy and difference, and contributing to these is the reach of Scottish nationalism and sentiment of Scottish social democracy. Yet with these latter two forces, things are not quite as simple and straightforward as they first appear. And, they throw up big issues which warrant further investigation for the sake of politics and self-government.

The establishment of the Scottish Parliament has changed our politics and become part of the everyday fabric of public life. But while it has as an idea become the new normal compared to pre-1999, it has also articulated a form of politics of institutional and system capture – under Labour and now the SNP. With the latter as with the former, incumbency always comes at a cost, irrespective of what headline figures say. Away from the SNP’s impressive record in winning four Holyrood elections in a row, the party’s political antennas – internal and external – are increasingly becoming desensitised by the length of its period of office and dominance of the political landscape.

Take the state of social democracy. It has become a cliché through the devolution era to refer to Scotland as a country defined by social democracy. But if this has any truth, then it is a very thin kind of political philosophy and outlook. One which has a lack of intellectual ballast as well as a vagueness about its values and what it stands for – as opposed to what it is against, namely, Blairism and ‘new’ Labour on the centrist-left and obviously Thatcherism of any kind. These rhetorical devices allow it to appear radical while actually being conservative and defensive.

These characteristics have been reinforced by years of Labour and now SNP dominance, parties which have seen it as in their self-interest to define social democracy in the manner of how UK Labour governments used to define socialism, namely, as what they do in office. This gives these parties room for manoeuvre and sense of morality while allowing them to be uber-pragmatic.

All of this has contributed to the record of 22 years of the Scottish Parliament. There has been much progressive rhetoric, initiatives and some intent, but across area after area there has been an absence of urgency, honesty and prioritisation. Take the 2021 SNP manifesto. In a difficult fiscal context, it makes all sorts of new offers to voters: free dentistry, and all sorts of small pots of money for this and that. What it does not do is promise to affect real change in many of the areas it is offering new monies, rather being content to be seen to do something. And scandalously, it does all this with no sense of priority: presiding over the atrophying of any local democracy and local services, while not daring to progress anything but the mildest redistribution of resources.

Similarly, Scottish nationalism might mostly be benign and cosmopolitan but it is also banal – which has contributed to its ubiquity. Scottish nationalism is not the ownership or property of the SNP – but rather can be found across the political spectrum – a point hard Labour unionists now ignore at their peril. In a public debate I did with Donald Dewar just before the establishment of the Parliament, he said in a typical Dewarism – ‘I am a Scottish nationalist with a small S’ – by which in his misspeaking he meant the distinction between nationalism with a capital ‘N’ and smaller ‘n’.

It is obviously a nationalism – different from the majority nationalism of the UK state. The Irish writer, Fintan O’Toole, has powerfully expressed the limits of nationalism in our or any debate, commenting that ‘it is like a rocket ship fuel’ in that ‘it can get you into orbit, but burns up quickly and offers no guidance for in terms of direction of travel or what to do once in orbit.’ That is a pithy summary of the characteristics of Scottish nationalism which have contributed extensively to our sense of nationhood and difference but, ultimately, does not provide a road map for governing Scotland, whether devolved or independent.

Scottish nationalism and the SNP alone will not be enough to win any independence referendum on their own. They don’t have the range of appeal or votes. This is true numerically of the SNP which has never won a majority of the popular vote – in 2015 when it won 49.97% of the vote and in 2021 when it won 47.7% of the constituency vote.

There is a similarity here between the SNP and Labour at their peaks. Scottish Labour never ever won a majority of the popular vote, hitting a high of 49.9% in 1966 heralding Harold Wilson’s second term. Hence, this meant that non-Labour Scotland was always a majoritarian force compared to Labour, with fears of majority Labour rule a critical fear factor among non-Labour voters. This was a critical issue in the 1979 devolution referendum when Labour’s plans for a 145-150 seat ‘first-past-the-post’ Scottish Assembly were seen as deeply unattractive by non-Labour voters who preferred the existing status quo of Westminster rule compared to one party rule by Labour on a minority of votes.

Fast forward through eighteen years of Tory Government to the 1997 devolution referendum and by then Labour had learnt the lessons from 1979. It had realised it could not win on its own. It had recognised the limited appeal of Labour one party rule and agreed to a 129 seat Parliament elected by proportional representation – and hence the likelihood that parties, Labour included, would be minorities. Of fundamental relevance to the present day, Labour recognised that it could not convincingly win a devolution referendum just with Labour and Lib Dem voters, but needed the votes of SNP supporters too. This led to a choreography of events leading up to the 1997 referendum to make sure that Labour, Lib Dems and SNP would officially take part in a genuine cross-party campaign to aid an emphatic majority for a Parliament – which is what happened.

A future independence referendum cannot be won by the SNP alone; nor can it won convincingly by just SNP and Green voters. Rather, it will require Labour and even Lib Dem voters and those of no party. This will require the creation of a genuine cross-party campaign unlike 2014 and more like 1997: less ‘Yes Scotland’ and more ‘Scotland Forward’. The 2014 ‘Yes’ campaign body was not a genuine cross-party independent organisation, not having enough autonomy and distance from the SNP, whereas the 1997 campaign was.

One constant running through politics is that dominant parties find it difficult to cede a degree of control and power to others, regarding all their competitors as not equals and somehow less than they are. This is how Labour viewed Scotland in the 1979 vote; only learning from the sum of its mistakes by 1997. Similarly, the SNP in 2014 went through the pretence of being cross-party but retained control. For any future vote, it will to have to understand what it gains by having the insight and intelligence to let go, loosen up and give up a degree of control.

This brings us to the defining political credos of a future Scotland. Perhaps, the politics of a future referendum can offer a prefigurative shape of the best of a post-independence country. As Scottish nationalism and the SNP on their own cannot win, any coalition of support has to draw ecumenically from Scotland’s other political traditions: from Labour and the union movement; from the social democratic and communitarian traditions; from democratic socialists, radical leftists, Greens, feminists, anti-statists, liberals and those who simply believe in democracy and Scotland’s right to decide. This should well-handled, be a strength not a weakness, but it will require an awareness from those in the SNP of the limits of their appeal and politics.

One political authority who understood the above was the late Nigel Smith, the organiser of the 1997 devolution referendum campaign who created the body which brought SNP, Labour and Lib Dems together to make the case for the Parliament. He was anti-independence in 2014, but in early 2020, just before he died, he recognised that the issue was not settled, telling me: ‘This is not a settled issue, but rather a live one which has to be concluded one way or another by at some point having another independence referendum.’

As someone who was an authority on referendums, he told me at the time that ‘Yes’ had to avoid hubris next time, believing its own hype and that it was automatically going to win. Since 2014, there has been an absence of heavy lifting in terms of rethinking independence, its offer and how it is presented, and understanding how it lost in 2014. This is not to say there has not been some exemplary work by the likes of Voices for Scotland on campaigning and messaging. More that, it has just been nowhere enough. Smith put it powerfully: ‘There is a lack of understanding and analysis of 2014 by the SNP. If they don’t fully know why they lost, how do they make a new case?’ It is that simple: understanding electoral defeat is a key to catharsis and renewal and it has been until now mostly missing.

Seven years after the first independence referendum, we have seen little serious work by the SNP to remake the independence offer or an awareness that next time the offer – process, tone, campaign and its structure – will have to be completely different. It cannot offer the Panglossian, bright shiny continuity and insistence that everything will be just fine under independence of last time. Rather, there has to be a profound understanding of the nature of risk, and accepting that there is risk inherent in independence – with the central question being who manages it and in whose interests.

This entails the wider independence movement finding a different path than the binary choice between SNP caution and the impatient voices wanting an instant referendum as soon as possible. That means recognising the different constituencies who will contribute to making a convincing majority and recognising the many strands of those who have yet to be convinced of independence.

Alongside this, the fundamental inadequacy of status quo – a ‘steady as she goes Scotland’ on offer from the SNP and Scottish Government – needs to be challenged by serious, detailed work and politics, coming up with ideas and proposals for changing and healing our society. But more than that, in an age where the political philosophies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are exhausted, compromised and hollowed out, we need to come up with notions of what our defining credos and political values should be.

After the failure of neo-liberalism and collapse of social democracy, how do we put together a political project and philosophy which champions redistributing power, resources and opportunities, and then links it to the cause of greater self-government? We should at least be asking the question – because Scottish nationalism is an inadequate guide for the future and the conservative character of what passes for social democracy here is not up to the challenges we will face.

Dr Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and academic, and author and editor of over a dozen books on Scottish and UK politics, including ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ and the recently published ‘Scotland after the Virus’. His writing can be found at: www.gerryhassan.com