I don’t have much of a track record as a tipster – the horse I backed in last weekend’s Grand National exceeded my expectations simply by not dying – but even I feel emboldened to hazard that the SNP might do quite well in next month’s General Election.
The polls suggest the SNP will win a majority of Scottish votes and almost all available seats. On the face of it this looks like a deep political consensus, but in reality I don’t remember our political culture ever feeling so divided.
In this post I explore post-referendum polarisation and unpick some of the myths that have come to be accepted as reality by large swathes of the electorate.
There is less than one month to go until the 2015 General Election, and Scotland is a land of myths and legends.
Here are just a few of them:
- The SNP are wild extremists;
- The SNP are more left wing than the Labour Party;
- Alex Salmond is still controlling the SNP;
- The ‘unionist’ parties are engaging in Project Fear 2 when they warn against Full Fiscal Autonomy; and
- Everyone in Scotland is either a nationalist or a unionist.
Regular readers (hi mum) will recall that I voted enthusiastically for independence last September. I was excited by the prospect of democratic renewal. I didn’t know what the policy priorities of an independent Scotland would be any more than you, but the optimist in me was keen to find out. And if as a political community we opted to pursue a greener, nuclear-free and more equal line, than that would have suited me down to the ground.
Since the No vote, of course, the imagination and fun of the Yes campaign has calcified into something far less pleasant. I wrote about it around the time the National was launched and the SNP had its massive party in the Hydro in Glasgow. Kinda thought I was being harsh at the time, but some of it was probably fair enough. Alas.
But to listen to the #SNPout mob, you’d think the SNP were a bunch of fascists.
And so we have myth number one: the SNP are wild extremists.
The SNP? Really? I know I had a pop about the enormo-dome rallies, but I just thought the party leadership had got a bit over-excited. Clearly the leadership are otherwise entirely reasonable people.
Now, there has been a bit of recent coverage of the excesses of nationalist direct action. You’ll have probably seen this stuff – you know, the strange folk who film Margaret Curran when she’s out canvasing, or who compare Blair McDougall to Hitler, or who track down and abuse young voters who express admiration for Jim Murphy during televised debates. Or who paint a ‘Q’ for quisling on the door of a Tory campaign office. Or who go berzerk at Scottish journalists like James Cook for no reason at all, yet see no problem with telling Faisal Islam that Sky should really have sent someone Scottish to cover an SNP rally.
These people are, I think we can all agree, complete pricks. And there are far too many of them.
But the SNP as a party? To me the SNP has at its core an essential decency that you’d have to be hugely partisan to miss.
You only have to glance through the First Minister’s Twitter feed to realise how humane she is. And consider the Government’s gender-balanced cabinet, the party’s all-women shortlists, and the visible diversity of the membership. These things don’t necessarily prove anything, but 100,000 people from all walks of life have joined the SNP and seem very comfortable with how things are done within the party.
Judge the SNP by their actions. They’ve been in government for eight years now (of which more later – fear not, Labour people, I’ll give them a kicking in a bit) and I don’t remember too many radical policies. I certainly don’t recall any nasty policies (although policing policy has been a bit…assertive). You can call the SNP government many things, but extremists they are not.
Which leads me to myth number two: the SNP are more left wing than the Labour Party.
I’ll start with a counter-factual. If the SNP was actually a left wing party, surely at least someone from the Labour left would have defected? But no one has, because the Labour left doesn’t recognise the SNP as a leftist party. And I think they’re correct in their assessment.
But perhaps you don’t believe there are any leftists in the Labour Party. (You’re wrong). So let’s argue the point more positively.
What would a left wing party look like? Well, one might hope for a commitment to nationalisation of industry, for example. The Scottish Green and the Green Party of England & Wales are committed to renationalising the railways, while Labour have a manifesto commitment to supporting public sector franchising. Meanwhile the SNP has recently embraced state ownership of our railways by selling the Scotrail franchise to a company owned by the Dutch government.
But you won’t get too far looking for popular ownership of the means of production in any of the party manifestos. So how else might we characterise left wing politics today?
It seems reasonable to assume a left wing party will promote equality and wealth redistribution.
Let’s look at education spending in Scotland. That’s a devolved issue, and we might agree that a state education system funded out of general taxation represents a redistribution of wealth from the wealthy to the poor.
Under the Labour-led Holyrood administrations from 1999 to 2007, education and training accounted for between 12.5% and 13% of Scottish public spending every year. However, since the SNP came to power this has fallen to less than 11.5% of the Scottish budget. The actual amount of money in the education budget rose every year under Labour, whereas the 13/14 budget was basically the same as it was in 2008/09. (The figures are available in these General Expenditure and Revenue Scotland data tables – Table 5.5).
The Scottish Government has started to get some heat recently about the regionalisation of the college sector, which has resulted in huge job losses for staff and a shrinking number of available college places for students. This has coincided with the maintenance of around £1bn of funding each year for the university sector to support the government’s policy of not imposing tuition fees on any Scottish or EU-domiciled students. In my last post I noted how our no-fees position hasn’t made it more likely that working class people will go to university than their peers in the rest of the UK. I invite the reader to consider the impact on social mobility of a shrinking college sector alongside this. Regardless of your position on tuition fees, I’m not sure these SNP policies can be characterised as more left wing than Labour.
And tuition fee brings me to another flagship SNP policy, namely the removal of prescription charges. As the First Minister noted in one of the Scottish leaders debates, the administrative costs of managing prescription charges were apparently much the same as the income that came from them, so abolishing the charges was budget-neutral. As such, some people who previously paid for their prescriptions benefited, and no one was damaged. And that’s fair enough – I’d call it an excellent piece of public policy. But it’s not left wing: it’s pragmatic and populist.
There is one major policy difference between the SNP and Labour, however, which could reasonably be presented in leftist terms – the SNP’s opposition to Trident. I’m opposed to Trident too. However I want to point something out about the SNP position. The First Minister, whose conviction on the nuclear issue I admire very much, has carefully allowed herself and her party to be aligned with the Yes campaign’s ‘Bairns not Bombs’ slogan. At the anti-Trident rally in Glasgow a couple of weeks ago she said very clearly that the Trident bill should be spent on schools and hospitals instead.
Let’s think about this. The SNP, and the Scottish Government when it produced the independence White Paper, are committed to NATO membership, albeit without any nuclear presence on our shores. However NATO membership requires member states to commit 2% of GNP to defence spending. In 13/14 the Scottish Government spent just over £3bn on defence as part of the UK’s pooling and sharing arrangements. This amounts to about 2.2% of Scotland’s GNP including a per capita proportion of oil revenues, or 2.0% of GNP including Scotland’s geographical proportion of oil revenues. In other words, an independent Scotland in NATO would spend about the same proportion of the national budget on defence as it does now. (Table 1.4 in the GERS tables linked to above).
To be clear, an SNP-led independent Scotland would not have Trident, but the money saved on nuclear weapons would be spent on other military spending. For me the choice between money spent on Trident and money spent on pretty much anything else can only ever be a no-brainer. But let’s be clear – under an SNP government the choice isn’t between bairns and bombs – it’s between Trident and non-nuclear military spending.
None of the above is supposed to present Labour as socialist pioneers, of course, and the difference in policy on Trident is stark. But the idea that the SNP are a left wing alternative is objectively untrue. I invite the reader to speculate on the motives of activists and political figures who have jumped on the SNP bandwagon claiming otherwise.
But lest I sound like I’m over-harsh on the SNP, let’s give them some credit. To do so, I turn to myth number three: Salmond is still in charge of the SNP.
In fact, never mind myths: at the height of the indyref excitement, Salmond was elevated to the status of legend. A very specific legend – the legend of Prometheus. Prometheus, as you’ll be aware, stole fire from Olympus to offer it to mankind, much like Salmond extracted an independence referendum from the claws of WorstMonster (that’s an amusing way of writing Westminster).
Unfortunately he’s gone a bit funny since he left the First Minister’s official residence. His book was disowned by wise heads across the Yes movement, which was telling. His Sunday morning appearances on Andrew Marr’s couch made the SNP sound like deranged insurgents. And then there was his recent National article in which he claimed Full Fiscal Autonomy would be fine despite our present budget gap, because of the Barnett Formula. This article, which was shared triumphantly by many, many people, conveniently neglected to mention that a pithy definition of FFA would be ‘no longer having the Barnett Formula’.
But while Salmond has been getting up to his “mischief” (to quote an undenied bit of that leaked French memo), Sturgeon has been subtly redirecting the SNP in a new direction. Listen to her in the TV debates and she does something quite novel – she actually commits herself to positions. The Trident stuff is pretty clear, and she’s gone on the record with a promise not to support a Tory government. Can you imagine Salmond doing that? Aside from the fact that the Scottish Conservatives propped up his 2007 government, a fact curiously downplayed these days, our former FM would surely have spent this election campaign bobbing and weaving and playing the parties off each other.
With Salmond you could never be sure what he actually thought about anything, apart from his passion for independence. This may be unfair, but it always seemed to me that pretty much everything else was a basis for negotiation; a bargaining chip to bring independence closer. Sturgeon is clearly just as committed to independence as her predecessor, but the sincerity of her social democratic instincts are just as apparent. This perhaps makes her less fleet of foot, but more believable.
The two Scottish leaders debates were fascinating. The Scottish Labour leader tried to follow the lead of Kezia Dugdale back in the referendum debates by outflanking Sturgeon from the left. I’ve already argued that this is a plausible angle of attack. But where Salmond would have pushed Labour on their way to the left and plonked himself firmly in the political centre, Sturgeon took Murphy on from the left of centre. There are lots of votes to be had slightly to the right of Labour and the SNP, but Sturgeon clearly means this stuff.
Most intriguing of all is the hint that Sturgeon has decided to abandon the bizarre Full Fiscal Autonomy policy. Anyone with a shred of objectivity can see that FFA would be hugely damaging to the Scottish economy – it would eventually deliver most of the challenges of independence but with none of the exciting benefits. Salmond would have ridden it out, as his National article made clear. He would have blamed our financial ruin on Westminster, and manipulated FFA as a means to the end of achieving full independence. But Sturgeon seems to be embracing logic and putting the livelihoods of Scottish people before her party’s constitutional aims. And fair play to her.
I know no one with any sense thinks Salmond is still in charge, but the idea seems to have taken hold in certain quarters. It’s a myth.
But this brings me to myth number four: in their opposition to Full Fiscal Autonomy, the UK-wide parties have begun Project Fear 2.
This should be an easy one now that the First Minister herself is seeking wriggle room, but the #creepyjim contingent are convinced that anyone who opposes FFA is Talking Scotland Down.
And this is a problem. Project Fear was a real thing during the referendum, acknowledged as such by its architect Blair McDougall. But some of the arguments waged against independence were rational and soundly argued. I wrote excitedly about the case for Yes at the time, but I hope I made clear that I knew nothing about the economics of the matter. I voted Yes on democratic grounds, not economic grounds, because I flatter myself that I know a bit about the former but accept I know little about the latter (maybe a bit more now).
What I hope I never did was dismiss the analyses of objective economists who had no dog in the fight. But a consequence of Project Fear, and of the related stirring up of anti-Westminster feeling among the Yes movement, has been the assumption by many Yessers that any analysis that does not match their worldview is (a) wrong, and (b) malicious. Spend five minutes on Twitter reading the responses to literally anything that any Labour or Tory politician says and you’ll see this in action. Lies lies lies! It’s a little bit frightening. One marvels at the energy these people invest in being so furious all the time.
Equally (or at least nearly equally – the nationalists have the numbers on their side these days), many Labour activists and other #SNPout types spend all day on Twitter portraying the post-Yes movement as borderline fascistic. It’s all a bit unseemly.
I don’t think Murphy’s tone when he attacks the SNP is much of a vote-winner, and he’s associated forever in the minds of Yes voters with his 100 Towns campaign (although I hope he got a bit of respect for fronting up). But I don’t think the Yes movement does itself any favours by dismissing critique as Project Fear 2. FFA really was a terrible idea. It is possible to oppose independence without hating Scotland.
But I must turn to the fifth and final myth on my list: that in Scotland you’re either a nationalist or a unionist.
Here’s my pitch – I’m neither a nationalist nor a unionist. I wasn’t a nationalist when I voted Yes, nor will I be a unionist when I vote for a party other than the SNP on May 7th.
Peter Geoghegan wrote a brilliant piece a few weeks ago on the strange disappearance of the ‘I’m not a nationalist, but…’ contingent. There were definitely loads of us at the time, I remember it distinctly. I’ve never been a nationalist. For years I thought the SNP were really weird, and couldn’t understand for the life of me why people would vote on national rather than class lines. I’ve warmed to the SNP since then, but I still don’t understand the ‘Standing up for Scotland’ tendency in Scottish politics. Independence was never near the top of my list of political priorities until the referendum came along. When the question was on the table it was very exciting to answer it, but as soon as it was over I found independence dropping down my list again. It’s still on there, but nowhere near the top.
But I’ll tell you what’s never even been on the list: unionism. There clearly are some unionists in Scotland – and I wrote about this social stratum in my After No piece – but I think it’s a mistake to assume that anyone who doesn’t spend all day obsessing over the national question must be one. If it wasn’t for the incessant Twitter cacophony I wouldn’t think about Scotland’s constitutional status at all. And I’m sure I’m not alone.
But everything is now seen through this nationalist/ unionist lens. If you want to vote Labour to fight for equality, or vote Tory to push back the boundaries of the state, or vote Lib Dem to…sorry, I’ve got nothing, the assumption in Scotland is that you are supporting the unionist forces of Westminster. At the same time, if you want to vote SNP on the strength of their competence in office and plausible plan for humane deficit reduction, you must be a nationalist.
But this is to reduce the complexity of politics to the simplistic binaries of single issue campaigners.
I want to finish with a hypothetical scenario. Say you’re on the left of centre in Scotland. Say you don’t much care about Scotland’s constitutional status. Say you’re opposed to both Trident and NATO. Say you’re unimpressed by populist universalist policy give-aways, but also keen to see public spending protected as much as possible. Say you’ve noticed that the climate is actually the most important issue facing our generation. Who would you vote for?
That Patrick Harvie’s played a decent hand since the referendum, eh?