The concurrent Scottish, British and European debates go on as mostly separate, but interconnected conversations; political and economic parallel universes often seeming oblivious to the existence of each other.
The British state sovereigntists wax lyrically as if their moment has come, the Tory Party, in David Cameron’s once revealing remarks, returning to its comfort zone of ‘banging on about Europe’, while Labour slowly shift away from two decades of pro-Europeanism, and the Lib Dems and SNP fall nervously silent.
The Scottish political environment finds itself in an uneasy place in all this. There is the aftermath of the SNP landslide victory and its sense of elation, uplift and opening, which has been followed by a strange sensation of uncertainty about what happens next and for some disappointment.
Some see a profound uncertainty in the SNP about what to do next. No one expected this election result, no matter what some SNP advisers say. The all-pervasive strategy of Salmond is steady as she goes, cautious, safety-first, big tentism: the approach which benefited the party so well in minority government. This does not recognise that the political landscape has been fundamentally and possibly irreversibly changed by the election.
There is in parts of Scotland doubts about how to deal with a majority SNP Government; elements of institutional Scotland have started talking in nationalist tones: the self-preservation society of the Labour state showing its well-honed survival techniques. In other parts there is a wariness about what the spectrum of debate and criticism is in this new environment: of engaging with and dissenting with the new dominant party.
Kenny Farquharson in ‘Scotland on Sunday’ commented that ‘the SNP is better at politics than it is at policy’. Acknowledging the success of their minimum pricing proposals on alcohol, he went on, ‘Isn’t it time the First Minister showed even the slightest interest in tackling some of Scotland’s other chronic ills, such as poverty, illiteracy or welfare dependency?’ (1).
Alex Massie has questioned whether the SNP strategy post-election amounts to anything more than relying on the potency of anti-Tory Scotland. He argued that by ‘hyping the threat posed to Scotland by Conservatism, the SNP rather ironically falls into line with the depressingly negative view of Scotland as a weak and troubled place’, and in so doing is following the disastrous strategy of Labour’s 2011 Scottish Parliament election campaign (2).
Some Scottish Nationalist supporters have also shown signs of disquiet. Lallands Peat Worrier has described the SNP in office since May as ‘despairing, girning, partisan, vacuous and dreary. What a squandering of possibilities: what a waste, what folly!’ (3).
Whatever we think of the accuracy or helpfulness (or not) of these comments they reveal an anxiety. The SNP reflects many of the characteristics of Scottish society: cautious, conservative, incremental, looking to win independence while making as few enemies as possible in institutional Scotland. This begs numerous questions. Is there a radical agenda at the heart of the SNP beyond the abstract vision of ‘independence’? Is there an emerging vision of Scottish statehood? And is there alongside a nation-state building project, a complimentary one for Scottish society? Such questions cannot be left as some claim to that watershed moment: Independence Day plus one.
The Scottish Debate and the Wider Economic Crisis
The relationship between the Scottish debate, the SNP Government and the wider economic crisis, and the thinking which flows from it is seldom examined.
Despite the economic crisis being brought about by turbo charged, socially irresponsible capitalism, the crisis has now moved from the idea of ‘restoration’, getting ‘the Great British Fantasy Bubble’ back on the road to the notion of ‘acceleration’, further extending marketisation, supply-side assaults on economic and social rights, and pampering and playing up to the super-rich.
This can be seen in how we portray business and economics in mainstream politics, media and public discussions; a lack of comprehension that the two are different as well as inter-connected; the world of ‘economics’ has become conflated with a ‘business’ perspective, with the city traders, banks and hedge funds who produced the crisis presiding over the defining commentary. Witness the practice of the mainstream media with BBC Scotland having what is called a ‘Business and Economics Editor’; even ‘The Guardian’ of all places conflates ‘business’ and ‘economics’.
Thirty years of market fundamentalism, the politics and philosophy which has produced this mess, has led to an influential, vocal UK agenda comprising the Taxpayers’ Alliance, ‘Spectator’, ‘Daily Telegraph’ and right-wing think tanks calling for a ‘Hong Kong Future’ for the UK: deregulation, outsourcing, flat taxes and sitting offshore of the European Union. This warped political and economic view, more Ayn Rand than Adam Smith, is based on a distorted, simplistic economic literacy and yet at the same time it springs from a British version of political economy, business and corporate governance.
Conventions No More, Commissions No More
This powerful worldview relates to the debate on Scotland’s future but is rarely explored. The ongoing British market fundamentalist revolution is a direct threat to Scotland’s nascent centre-left political values. The debate about Scotland’s future is influenced by what kind of society people want. More fundamentally, this touches on where Scotland as a nation sits geo-politically and the huge unexplored issue of what kind of difference Scotland is posing economically and socially from Anglo-American hunter gather capitalism?
Kenny Farquharson in his recent piece concluded by calling for ‘ a new Constitutional Convention’, coming to the view, ‘That is what this moment requires’. The Convention mattered because there was in the late 1980s a profound, widening democratic deficit with the majority Scottish political establishment excluded from influence and power.
This has led to the ‘myth’ of the Convention, namely that the Scottish Constitutional Convention established the Scottish Parliament. It did not; it was one amongst many midwives, the most important of which was not Labour (‘we delivered a Scottish Parliament’), SNP (‘we began modern Scottish politics’) or that nebulous creation ‘Scots civic society’. All played a part, but the biggest factor was the conscious voting and views of the Scottish public.
Bringing about a different future entails not continually revisiting past supposed triumphs which reveal a certain paucity of imagination; instead it involves looking at how we can aid democratising the future.
This I would suggest involves affirming: no more Conventions, no more Commissions, no vague, romantic references to ‘civic society’, and no more initiatives which just narrowly address Scotland’s constitutional future from Calman to devo max and independence.
My recent experience in this area includes making the recommendation to the Scottish Government that they set up the Christie Commission; in my submission I suggested it take back the idea of ‘public sector reform’ from the consultancy classes, involve deliberative discussions and forums, be free of the ‘usual suspects’, and invite in the wider labour and trade union movement. What we got was a civil service controlled exercise and political window dressing. The Scottish political system knows how to maintain the status quo, to draw narrowly from received wisdom, and then write the story up how it wishes; we shouldn’t find that surprising. But just as democrats down south have mostly given up on public inquiries ever holding power to account after the whitewashes of Hutton and Butler, so we in Scotland should call a moratorium on Conventions and Commissions (4).
Imagining and Creating a Different Future
There are two different approaches on offer. The first entails the idea of a Scottish Citizens, creating a body similar to London Citizens which would be community led, have a significant local, grass roots focus, occupy a genuine, distinct space, not be owned by public or corporate funding, or act as a pseudo-third sector agency. Is such a body possible in Scotland given the institutional inertia and layering? That is a question many of us would like to answer; there is clearly a gap, an interest and willingness on the part of some of the committed socially conscious voices in Scotland to look at this.
What a Scottish Citizens-like initiative would address is the strange environment in which we find ourselves, in a centre-left political consensus where we can’t feel completely confident in any of our political parties all of which have compromised and bent themselves at the altar of market power. Scotland’s social democratic credentials have become lazy and complacent without challenge from radical ideas from left or right and have grown into a comfortable establishment culture which has made devolution work for large parts of our middle class.
The second is to develop an independent initiative, not a Convention or Commission, but perhaps an Independent Assembly on Scotland’s Future. This would draw on the lessons of numerous deliberative, iterative processes such as the Scotland 2020 and Glasgow 2020 futures projects I founded. This initiative would pose Scotland’s future as not just being about the constitution, but about wider economic, social and even philosophical questions.
Not being a Convention or Commission would not just be about a name, it would be about not being packed with the great and good of public Scotland and using different processes. And being independent would be about ownership and intent. It would not be owned by the Scottish Government, although there is a detailed discussion to be had about whether it should be legitimised and mandated by the Parliament. This would be a sign of faith and confidence in Scotland’s collective future; a sign the new Government knew unlike Labour ‘how to let go’ and draw from comparable examples around the world such as ‘Mission for Finland 2030’ which was initiated by the Finnish authorities, but mostly sat in its activities actioned by forces outside government such as Demos Finland (5).
These two roads could if they happened be defining for the debate on Scotland’s future and have relevance and influence beyond our shores; one is explicitly about voice and power, the other our collective future, while both touch implicitly on all of these.
Where this takes us is two-fold. The first is the common assumption of mainstream politics across the West that people are uninterested in politics, disconnected and apathetic. This is the spin world of New Labour, Cameron et al, of ‘politics as show’ which believes that people are fundamentally stupid, controllable and malleable; the late Philip Gould’s concept of what politics is about: marketing, packaging and positioning political ‘products’: an ultimately alienating, depowering process (6).
Yet from numerous examples we know that people are not so easily categorised and dismissed. When people feel confidence that processes are not tokenistic, or that they are in a genuine engagement where their voices matter, they react in very different ways from standardised consultation. People show an innate capacity to debate the most complex issues across ages and classes, to understand public policy priorities and even more fundamentally, to question and debate the underlying philosophies of public life.
Second, what flows from this is that people have an understanding of the power of forces which face governments and public bodies. They recognise that there is a deep discrepancy between the values governments and other institutions proclaim influence and shape them and the real factors which move and define them. This is the world people have to make sense of and constantly interpret: the world of globalisation as an almost elemental force and the all-pervasive nature of ‘the official future’; for all its power and reach many people don’t buy into it in their hearts and souls and yearn for an alternative narrative.
This brings me back to the public conversation on Scotland’s future. Scotland has defined itself in recent decades by a host of stories, a mix of ‘elite narratives’ and ‘myths’ which have told us an account of difference, egalitarianism and collectivism (7). These have played an important part in defining who we are in the last thirty years, but some of these have involved part wish-fulfilment and hiding from uncomfortable truths, about the narrowness and complacencies of Scotland’s supposed social democratic consensus which does not work like that for hundred of thousands of Scots in poverty, excluded, without voice or influence.
Scotland’s elite narratives have told us a comforting story about ourselves we have chosen to believe; one that both the Labour and SNP, centre-left parties, have shown no inclination to challenge despite their professed championing of social justice.
This is the crucial faultline over Scotland’s political future and one that may well shape and decide the constitutional debate: who speaks most plausibly for social justice. This is the terrain Labour has to attempt to find an authentic Labour voice which speaks to its past, present and future values; and it is the agenda an SNP which is convincingly and passionately centre-left would talk to. More crucially, a social justice agenda, talking about poverty, educational disadvantage, health inequalities, the problems young boys face becoming men, would begin to fashion a very different set of stories and solutions about Scotland than the elite narratives we have grown up with.
This has to be connected to the constitutional question to make it real to most Scots. Mitchell et al’s survey of the SNP leadership and members found a pragmatic interpretation of independence, an open mind on shared services and what is called ‘the DVLA Question’; several senior members suggested that there was ‘no such thing as independence’, only to quickly add ‘as sometimes/usually understood’. What was missing was a view of independence defined in non-constitutional terms and economic and social ideas (8).
Scottish self-government should aspire to use the crisis of the British state to challenge the Westminster sovereigntists, develop a language of political, economic and social philosophy which breaks with Anglo-American market determinism, and engage and comment on the currently unravelling European project. That’s a demanding list, but these are extraordinary times in Scotland, the UK and continent.
If we put the current debate of Scotland in historical context we have for centuries been governed by a limited, manipulated version of democracy, a kind of undemocracy where our politics and public life have been run by and for the great and good; they have run our elites, told our narratives and chosen our stories.
It is time, if this historic moment is to mean anything, to shake this up and challenge such complacencies. We have to begin democratising the future as the first step in beginning a wholesale democratisation of public life. What that will look like will be very different from today: more disputatious, pluralist and unpredictable. Central to this is the idea of imagining and creating Scotland’s future and statehood. And having the confidence to create spaces and resources different from how the old elites did things, and learning to let go.
1. Kenny Farquharson, ‘At crisis point for St Andrew’s Day’, Scotland on Sunday, November 27th 2011.
2. Alex Massie, ‘Why are the SNP Talking Scotland Down?’, Spectator Coffee House, November 16th 2011, http://www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie/7397009/why-are-the-snp-talking-scotland-down.thtml
3. Lallands Peat Worrier, ‘No Parliament for all Seasons’, November 26th 2011, http://lallandspeatworrier.blogspot.com/2011/11/no-parliament-for-all-seasons.html
4. This general critique of Conventions and Commissions also acknowledges that occasionally they draw together a body of expertise and come up with useful recommendations; the Scottish Broadcasting Commission would be a recent example of this.
5. Mission for Finland 2030, Finnish Government 2010. Available as a download at: 5000plus.net.au/asset/e255/1150
6. Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Classes, Nation Books 2010.
7. Murray Stewart Leith and Daniel P.J. Soule, Political Discourse and National identity in Scotland, Edinburgh University Press 2011.
8. James Mitchell, Lynn Bennie and Rob Johns, The Scottish National Party: Transition to Power, Oxford University Press 2011, pp. 120-123.