Oh, if only the complex philosophical questions in politics were as decisively answered as are elections. Almost two months on and it is not all that hard to find two people who will describe themselves as ‘on the left’ disagreeing profoundly about whether the Scottish Election saw Scotland move to the progressive left or lurch to the populist right. It seems like such a simple question – tremble in fear or rejoice? Where is our simple answer?
There are some things we should dispose of quickly. It is to be hoped that anyone of the left (or indeed of the mainstream) will be quick to dismiss some of the wilder and frankly vile and distasteful contributions from some – the SNP is simply not a neo-fascist party and Scotland is not moving in a fascist-nationalist direction. Not only is it not true, it demeans a term which to some is all-too-real and all-too-threatening.
But still, there are some who hold the perfectly legitimate view that if the problems of ordinary people are to be resolved then it cannot be through the divisions imposed by artificial national borders. There remains suspicion on some parts of the left that nationalism (lower-case or capital ‘N’) lies in opposition to socialism, and that if Scotland is to choose a way forward based on national identity then it is choosing a dangerous path.
And yet, it is harder and harder to see what is the alternative. If it wasn’t for the choices that Scotland has made over the last 12 years which are about Scotland and for Scotland then it is hard to see how things would not be much, much worse. Had it not been for the Scottish Labour Party’s ability to quietly overlook some of Blair’s more doctrinaire crusades in favour of a Scottish alternative we would be charging students for their education, we would have a health service peppered with commercially-driven private sector companies, faith schools and privately-backed ‘academies’ would be proliferating and more. More recently, if it wasn’t for the ability of the SNP to flat-out reject Cameron’s tawdry vision for a Britain as devised by the Daily Mail and the Telegraph then heaven help us all.
And then, above all, there is the relationship between this government and corporate power. For the left, this is the real challenge; will the 2011 SNP generation choose to keep going down the ‘neoliberal with a social democratic underbelly’ path of the 2007 generation or will Salmond’s talk of “Merit in grace and kindness which far outweighs careers and profit” and his promise that “The poor won’t be made to pick up the bill for the rich” come to anything
That Scotland should be able to do things differently – and that Scotland really must do things differently – is accepted throughout the left. So whether or not we agree with full independence it is hard to see how the proposition that Scotland should make all its decisions for itself taints its proponent. Frankly, it is hard to see how support for major constitutional change can be seen as inherently threatening. Support for independence does not automatically make you a narrow-minded right-wing nationalist any more than support for the union makes you an international socialist.
As a nation, and one way or another, Scotland is about to be thrown into a major debate about independence. We will all have different views on this, but the suggestion that we must be suspicious of the left credentials of someone who falls on the other side of the debate from each of us is a smokescreen. Independence is one issue; the way Scotland is run in the meantime is another.
So what else can we draw on to help us decide whether we should view 5 May 2011 as a threat or an opportunity? We can look at the behaviour of the Scottish Government and how it has responded to the power of an overall majority. Certainly some initial moves might suggest that it is proving just a little too quick to exert the power it has accrued. Some will feel that it would have been a positive message to have allowed the Presiding Officer to have been elected from outside the Government party. Others may feel that the distribution of Committee Conveners could have been more even-handed. These things are probably true, but they are no less true than they are of any other government with an overall majority – not least the Labour-Lib Dem coalition which governed Scotland for the first eight years of devolution and which was not known for its generosity to the SNP, the SSP or the Greens. Parties win power, parties exert that power – c’est la guerre. There do not yet seem the signs some have asserted that authoritarianism is particularly a mark of this administration.
Then there is language, tone and philosophy. Of course talk is cheap, but then if it is so easy to be idealistic without following through, why aren’t we hearing more of it around the world? Salmond’s speech to Parliament on 26 May was perhaps not exactly a landmark declaration of social revolution, but it is worth a closer look. It sets out a vision of a Scotland built on cooperation and sharing before competition. It is filled with social values and big ideals like freedom of thought and expression. It makes an explicit attack on consumerism and acquisitiveness and instead promotes social justice and the importance of equality. And it makes what in the British context is a pretty surprisingly strong defence of the concept of universalism. This is not Jimmy Reid’s rectorial address, but there must be many on the Labour left who would wish this had been delivered by one of their own.
On policy, from the options we have, it is a little more straightforward. In policy terms the SNP has proved to be to the left of the other main parties. The main political arguments deployed against them (other than the constitutional ones) are telling: too weak on crime, too inured to universalism, too interested in some civil liberties, ‘naïve’ on defence and nuclear power and so on. Where other parties have attacked, they have tended to attack from the right.
But most of this is based around a comparison with the other mainstream political options in Scotland. There is still much the left would want to see different. There are issues on which the SNP seems simply to want to avoid an uncomfortable fight with vested interests. For example, for the sole reason of not wanting to offend the Catholic Church, the Scottish Government continues to support religious segregation in the state school system, even at the same time as it wants to tackle sectarianism in wider society. Similarly, in trying to defuse a potential dog-whistle issue around independence it has simply accepted the right of an unelected monarch to remain as the head of state of an independent Scotland.
Then there is the SNP attitude to conventional defence. OK, in today’s fervent atmosphere it would be a brave politician who did not sign-up to the ‘our soldiers are heroes, protect our regiments and bases, give us warships to build’ narrative. And yet it is not wrong to hope for a braver politician who will question the political function of our military.
There are open questions about the SNP attitude to tax and spend. The responses to the serious problems of the ‘spend’ part of the equation can be debated at great length – sustain wages at the expense of jobs or sustain jobs at the expense of wages is a difficult call. But why is this the only question being asked? What about the ‘tax’ part of the equation? There may be hesitation to use the limited tax-raising powers of the Parliament since they are barely progressive, but they are there to be used. And there is nothing stopping the early introduction of a more radically-redistributionist local tax. Meanwhile, why the obsession with talking about cutting corporation tax and where is a renewed and even bolder call for a ‘Tesco tax’?
As with all parties that get close to power there is the phalanx of unsavoury ‘friends’ one develops. An endorsement from Murdoch, money from Souter… It may be hard to turn down these endorsements but that does not mean we have to like them.
And then, above all, there is the relationship between this government and corporate power. For the left, this is the real challenge; will the 2011 SNP generation choose to keep going down the ‘neoliberal with a social democratic underbelly’ path of the 2007 generation or will Salmond’s talk of “Merit in grace and kindness which far outweighs careers and profit” and his promise that “The poor won’t be made to pick up the bill for the rich” come to anything? He has the chance to prove that he has an economic vision for Scotland that is genuinely different from that of David Cameron and Ed Milliband, not simply one which smoothes out the sharp edges more elegantly.
So it might be fair to conclude that we have got the best of the available options but that there is much to do if this Government wants to prove that it really does want to reform Scotland and break with the Thatcherite/Blarite politics of Britain.
And one final reason for some optimism – the likelihood of any political party in Britain breaking away from this neoliberal model for society seems disappearingly small if it needs to clear it with London first. London is one of the world’s great ideological centres of neoliberalism and it does not tolerate dissent. To this at least the left can cling – it’ll be a hard enough job to try to persuade this Government to face down the corporate power that scars our society, but at least we don’t need to seek the City of London’s permission to try.