It’s a funny old world. Once Thatcherism so scunnered the Scottish electorate in the 1980’s they sent a phalanx of Labour MPs down to Westminster in protest. It was a vain effort to block the worst effect of Tory privatisation. But, though they were mocked by Alex Salmond as “the feeble fifty”, that phalanx was all we had to voice Scotland’s needs there for a quarter century. An objective assessment of their impact would be they were both invisible and ineffectual.
Labour’s watershed victory of 1997 changed nothing of this, nor did 1999 when the same stolid buggins-turn Labour stalwarts dominated the new Scottish Executive who behaved much like Strathclyde Region reborn—docile, partisan but rather less ambitious.
An observer of the subequent 2003 Scottish and 2005 UK elections could be forgiven for extrapolating such stasis into the far future. Loyal Labour activists were anointed (there is no other word for it) as councillors; if they voted right, they’d become committee chairs who, in turn, might be nodded into safe seats as MSPs and MPs. There were notable and capable exceptions like John Smith and Donnie Dewar. But the average member of either phalanx showed all the initiative of a spear-carrier in a 1950s Cecil B. de Mille sword-and-sandal epic.
And why should they kick against the traces? A conveyor belt to sinecure worked for the illuminati. It wasn’t broke, so why fix it? Though the Tories dwelt in the political wilderness north of the border, they still provided a convenient bogey man at Westminster; successive waves of effort by the SNP shattered on Labour’s monolithic West Central Scotland redoubt; all seemed well.
But the rot was evident to those paying attention. Labour’s Scottish vote was cultural more than political. As “the party of the working man“, as long as there were shipyards, steel mills, factories and mines to work in, all were instinctively Labour. Their workmates were all Labour. They lived in estates that were Labour. They socialised in Labour Clubs and Miners’ Welfares—or in pubs that might as well have been.
But the Proclaimers were singing about “Linwood no more” and significant numbers of such working men learned the words the hard way. And joined in. At first, it made little difference to voting. Dis-chuffed as they were, they weren’t going to betray former workmates, let alone drinking buddies and their own da’ and lodge a protest vote. After all, they counted Labour votes with a shovel, so what difference would one make?
But then Labour Clubs started to close. That loosened the social cohesion as such key melting pots disappeared. Then the SNP started winning council seats raising voices of effective opposition—even in monolithic Glasgow where irrepressible characters like Kenny Gibson and Billy Mcallister stood out against the norm of passive, faceless loyalty.
Scotland’s sprawling council estates once underpinned Labour’s base. But sale of those houses and floods of tract homes during the upwardly mobile 1990’s created residents with prospects and ambitions very different from the “aye-been” working class resignation on which much Labour support had been based. From Dunfermline East to Inshes/Milton of Leys in Inverness to Kirkintilloch/Lenzie to Tranent’s Windygoul, tracts of new homes were not cultivated and even the council houses sporting new doors drifted in loyalty with their new life.
So, while Labour heartlands started to wobble, the party stayed fixated on power at a UK level. Holyrood was regarded much like councils; a base of resources and patronage acting as a training ground for the real business of Westminster. So attention and venom was directed at Tories, even though they posed no threat in Scotland. As late as 2005, Blair swept them into power again; all was rosy.
But dwindling industry and clubs could not sustain working class consciousness. Gradually Labour in Scotland hollowed out. Its continued clout was sustained by still-plentiful MPs, MSPs, councillors. But the street-loads of loyal support were thinning out. Many regular voters stopped voting—a sure sign of anguish before changing their vote.
In parallel, the SNP’s relentless focus on Scottish matters, the obvious maturing of their front bench after eight years of Holyrood opposition and assiduous work by their 200+ councillors who didn’t see their office as a sinecure granted by the party, all paid off in 2007. It was a sea-change in results on a scale no-one predicted. Control of Holyrood and several councils passed to the SNP.
Because the SNP regard themselves as subservient to no-one, least of all London, they became adept at exercising control in a manner in which Labour had never dared. Labour in Scotland’s surly resentment at all this eased some in 2010. Even though they lost control at the Westminster heart of things, the Scottish phalanx continued intact; clearly little was wrong with the party; it was just a question of tholing this awkward interregnum and they would come into their own again.
That restored complacency received a second sharp shock in the 2011 election when serious constituency losses to the SNP unexpectedly catapulted a slew of untried faces into ranks so diminished their leader of the time fell on his sword. A behind-the-scenes panic finally broke out that resources to recover from this were thin and the cupboard of experienced talent to lead that was bare.
The run-up to and even the result of the Independence Referendum almost two years ago further frayed nerves. The SNP emerged from that defeat not only united but a magnet galvanising involvement by a whole new segment of the public in a way neither Tory nor Labour had managed in half a century.
Tories and Lib-Dems had already been humiliated. But going from 40 to 1 MPs was a body blow to what coherence Scottish Labour had left. As the transfer of the reins to Nicola Sturgeon was handled masterfully by an ever-more-professional SNP team, old hands disparaged the presidential rally style adopted as tacky and counter-productive. But SNP membership soared and a new sense of participation permeated the streets of Scotland that had not been seen since Labour had last galvanised the working class early in the 20th ©.
Since delivering that body blow to their one remaining opponent, the SNP have shown a steely focus on winning again. So dominant have they been that the media is reduced to whipping up flagging interest in what many now see as a done deal. Naturally, no party admits that in public. But when the only serious debate is on who’ll come second, this is not an election; it’s a foregone conclusion. It is entirely possible that voters will not bother to come out—but that usually hurts Labour more than any other party. That could even magnify the scale of defeat. Bookies have stopped taking bets against SNP candidates, never mind the party.
Which is a shame. Because in their urgency to seize full power for a second term, the SNP is actually doing damage to its main cause. It is true that a party must be in power to achieve its goals. But the goals set out in the SNP manifesto are shilpit things, full of reassurance, weak on facts, fluffy on the future. As a vehicle to discomfit Labour and stay in power, it is shrewd. But other commentators like Scott Macnab lambast its lack of vision and ambition. Even fairly even-handed political observers like Gerry Hassan are scathing on this:
“There is a paucity of ideas, of imagination and serious policy, combined with a lack of candour. Worse, there is a fundamental lack of ambition for our country.”
So, while media and politicians collude to give the impression that this is a real election about which we’re locked in real debate, it is in fact a coronation. Discussion whether the emperor has any clothes never makes the front page.
And, while it may stretch a point to describe it as a coronation, this presidential personality cult imported from the USA contributes to that sense. We are enjoined to “choose Ruth for a strong opposition” or “re-elect Nicola“. Every Labour tweet or blog is about Kezia.The actual candidates become as faceless as the delegates stacked up in each US primary.
It’s not quite the three-ring circus going on with the primaries in America just now. But huge coverage, massive spends, ill-tempered debates still say little about policy or how the country and the welfare of its citizens will be improved. That we are heading down a similarly unedifying road is a shame.
Even now, the SNP is focussing entirely on re-election. At this stage, that is taking a 12-bore to a bumble bee. They have already won. They should stop posturing and make an early start on the hard work of improving the country so that its people want them to lead us all to independence. Rather than squabbling over oil price and numbers of police or NHS budget, they should be leveraging oil and whisky and renewables and tourism to turn us into an economic powerhouse.
Once you have made Scotland the Singapore-esque powerhouse of Europe where our skilled workforce out-crafts the Germans, our whizzkid software engineers out-program the Indians, our tidal turbines in the St Lawrence and Straits of Johore and Straits of Gibraltar out-green the Danes, much becomes inevitable. Once the English are trailing sheepishly north across the Border to find the financial services and leading technology jobs they can’t find at home, then is the time to reward our retired hard workers with free bus passes and prescriptions. The more you dole out the seed corn, the less prosperous the future harvest.
That prosperous future harvest can only be reached by taking risks. So Nicola, be prepared to give half those cosy jobsworth bureaucrats dozing at Scottish Enterprise their jotters. You get there through world-class research, so hands off university budgets but hold on to every bright foreign postgrad we can. You get there by making best use of your money; ‘C’-class administrators blight the NHS—go through ’em like a dose of salts if they can’t show how blizzards of KPIs can lead to efficiency.
But, most of all, forget what campaign training has taught you, admit that you don’t have all the answers and that—whatever leadership you may show—you need to weld a far-flung team together to achieve ambitious goals for us all. That means
- not treating local councils like subserviant executors of your policy—they may need a shake-up to be competent partners but that is a separate matter.
- a bonfire of the quangos until they twig cosy remuneration for a few days a month needs to be earned by real experience, scrutiny and contributions.
- serious capital investment in strategic development that includes bringing public transport up to European standards and roads up to US standards.
- devolution of significant powers to at least city region level so that the major centres in Scotland can develop their own characteristic futures.
- Be England’s best friend by showing all the advantages its faltering dog-eat-dog economy could have through a nimble entrepôt economy sharing the same island
Or the SNP can slide back into the comfortable shapes their bums have already pressed into ministerial chairs and ca’ the haun’le in much the same manner as your Labour opponents were always happy to do. You’ll have at least two more parliament sessions while others pull themselves off the floor and finally hold you to account. Do what you’re doing and your nemesis starts around 2025.
Which is a shame. Because, unless the Cult of Ruth can bring the Tories back from the dead this side of the next Ice Age, Scottish Labour will be the one to bring the SNP to earth. And, as they may simply revive the same walking political dead as they’ve mass-produced throughout the last half-century next time around, nobody outside their nomeklatura will see this as progress.
Given how the SNP is bludgeoning this already-dead campaign to death, the runes are not good. But, more than Labour, there are still good people in the SNP for whom the shape of our future matters more than the cushiness of their chairs.