For as long anyone could remember, politics in Scotland was an extension of Westminster and British politics; same parties, same policies, same debates. ‘Putting a kilt’ on a story simply meant having a Scottish slant on a miners’ strike or industry investment. Some may have believed things changed in the seventies but Thatcher soon dispelled any such notion.
Then came the 1997 Tory comeuppance that was especially brutal for them in Scotland. Donnie Dewar’s provision of a Scottish Executive shifted the ground under any latent Tory aspiration to preserve a politically seamless union but the party has struggled to recover from the perception of an English-dominated pseudo-colonial attitude. They have yet to adjust to that first seminal shift in Scottish social attitudes.
From a northern poor relative in constant need of fiscal infusion for its ailing industries, the riches of the North Sea took two decades to infuse the Scottish psyche with a cultural renaissance that stretched from cinema (Trainspotting) through theatre (Black Watch), music (Franz Ferdinand), architecture (parliament) industry (renewables) media (BBC Alba) and a varied slew of creative writing from Kelman to MacCall Smith.
That could be considered the first phase. No longer was the ‘cringe’ a topic worth discussing; we had rediscovered our cultural identity—and it was secure enough to embrace the full-tilt self-mocking of Rab C. Nesbitt, Still Game or Billy Connolly. But, although the day the parliament was (in Winnie’s historic words) “reconvened” was full of colour and hope, it struggled for a while to find either its feet or its voice.
That came when the SNP grabbed power by a whisker in 2007 and swept away the many moribund council administrations to whom ‘aye been’ was justification for inertia. The minority administration was bold in its attempt to break fresh ground and were unabashed to do it in a populist manner. Many ‘freebies’, including free personal care, prescriptions, concessionary travel and eye checks were either preserved or implemented and council tax frozen acrtoss the country.
Although habitually criticised by all opposition parties, the SNP stuck to their guns and spent a solid four years proving competent in administration and adept at working with even the Tories to get their budget passed. That proof of competence paid off hadsomely in 2011 when they were swept back into power with an orverall majority and a stunned Labour party found itself with half its experienced team out on their ear while relative unknowns from list places were elected.
It cost Labour leader Iain Gray his job but his replacement Johann Lamont failed to ignite any stirring from what appeared to be a moribund party. It was clear they had lost track of Scots and wandering the political wilderness but this only became highlighted to the aoplitical majority when the SNP and oits allies made all the running in the leadup to the Referendum and that any Better Together initiative that rose above dire threats and warnings came from the Conservatives.
What didn’t help was a spillover from the English parties who are famously reluctant to sit in the same room as one another. Better Together campaigns were run jointly but only so far as what few street activists there were delivered pretty much the same literature. It was obvious to most that they made uneasy bedfellows, with Labout clearly the least comfortable.
A major party of the Better Together campaign was a serious distaste among its supporters—especially those with a Tory bent—tht they were having to deal with this issue at all. Many gave the impression of citizens confronted by a predicted tsunami or earthquake: deep concern lixed with varying levels of terror at their helplessness. Whereas the ‘Yes’ side seemed ebullient and keen to chat with anyone and everyone, there was no such sense from the ‘No’ side beyond a hope this would all just go away.
Decisive though the referendum was and clearly though the ‘Yes’ camp has said they accept the result, the tone of debate in the two months since has taken of in a direction few had forecast. Instead of the ‘losers’ dispersing dejectedly and the ‘winners’ being bouyed into carrying their idead further, the roles appear to have been almost diametrically reversed.
Despite some organised nastiness from ‘No’ extremists in George Square the day after, the debate has not faded but continued in more or less the same good humour that had characterised the run-up. Organisations like Radical Independence, Women for Independence and similar ad-hoc groups—as well as the parties involved—have seen a huge rise in interest and membership and the debate has taken on an even more elevated tone which the former Better Together colleagues seem to have gone back to their old interests on the assumption that the issue was settled and they could just walk away.
But, more than that and without the ‘No’ camp even seeming to recognise it, political debate has changed into something Scotland (and probably the UK and most of Europe) has never really seen before—a kind of evangelical, show-biz approach that would not be out of place in America. Somebody in the SNP—and it’s hard to believe that it’s self-effecing Peter Murrell, their long-standing Chief Executive—has realised the powerful alchemy that showbiz can bring to a campaign on a roll.
The SNP has always been good at staging enlivening conferences. Not only were debates held in public but showcasing good speeches and punctuating with PPBs or inspirational music interludes meant each SNP gathering had a ‘buzz’ that other parties never could replicate. That has been taken several stages further.
To attend Radical Scotland or Women for Independence meetings was to be struck by the amount of ‘fresh blood’ and dearth of ambitious politicos on had. Not only were postures heartfelt but most avoided the standard cliches expected from a conference rostrum as if the gathered faithful were the only ones who mattered.
This was brought to its apogee so far in the Roadshow that filled the new Glasgow Hydro with thousands of people, many of whom were members of no party. It was a night such as Scotland has only ever seen at T in the Park or similar mega-concerts—lots of music, amusement and atmosphere all stoked by a competent compere. While the politics were present, this was more entertainment and positive experience than anything else.
In fact, it may be that the former ‘No’ cumpadres are too deep in relief that they won to register how totally the political grounf is shifting under them. Because, unlike party conferences of old, dominated by a nomenklatura or old hands and officials, this was a born-again rally of mostly young people who had found interest in current affairs and were basking in the opportunity to participate, even as an audience member.
But what an audience. Political parties have been rightly criticised for being worlds unto themselves. What post-referendum Scotland seems to have done is galvanise huge formerly cynical and disengaged segments of the population into participating in a movement. It may not be subtle, there may not be the usual attention to policy details. But it is real, huge and seems to have been capitalised on by the ‘Yes’ camp to the exclusion of the ‘No’.
All three main unionist parties can be accused of sloping off after the deed was done on Sept 18th and regarding the job as done. But with the Tories still speaking largely to their own 15-20% with no traction on the rest and the Lib-Dems hurtling towards sub-5% oblivion, it falls to the Labour party to take up cudgels against the phenomenon. And if they can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Because Labour has relied on inertial loyalty at least one election too often. Once they come out of this debilitating hiatus of a leadership contest, they will have five months to understand how Scotland is now a civic hotbed that long-serving CLP officials are ill-equipped to understand, let alone harness. Not only have they held no rallies like the Hydro but no-one is trying to develop either their version or even their antidote.
And the 55% who voted ‘No’ will approach the May 2015 General Election faced with a choice between parties who have engaged the spirit and soul of Scotland—especially its young people—and those that think plodding inertia and absence of apple-cart-upsetting ideas is their road back to political health.
To deal with this politics in a new dimension, they need to ask themselves how many elastoplasts they think they need to cure a brain hemorrhage.