Why party-politics is failing Scotland

Picture by Martyn Gorman
The Scottish Parliament debating chamber

As an long-term independista, I wish I could get all excited, and party like it was 2007 again. With a new poll from Ipsos MORI putting the SNP slightly ahead of Labour in both constituency and regional votes, it seems that we have an electoral race again for Holyrood in May.

The controversial Brian Soutar and his hundreds of thousands are back in Salmond’s campaign money-box; new partisan online publications like Newsnet Scotland (and others in the blogosphere) are correcting Unionist weightings in the mainstream media; even the mother of my children is standing as an SNP candidate in the South of Scotland.

And I’ll be voting my usual constituency (SNP) and party list (Green) preferences. But after those duties are performed, I will revert to my current ho-hum attitude towards existing party politics in Scotland, and beyond.

Yes, I’m pleased to hear that Alex Salmond’s big idea for the Scottish election is that Scotland should become a “powerhouse of the world’s marine energy industry”. With the Royal Society commending Scottish education for its production of science students, our democratic intellect already seems set up to produce a generation of green-tinged engineers and scientists – would that we had the macro-powers to create a better business context for them.

I prefer this energy emphasis, certainly, than thumping on about coal and oil assets, which just staves off Scotland’s reckoning with the low-carbon future. (The operations of “Scottish business winners” like Cairn Energy, rampantly buccaneering for oil reserves in India and Greenland, are hardly suitable for any election manifesto.)

Having been part of the petro-problem over the last 40 years, Scotland seems extraordinarily lucky that it’s now poised to become part of the sustainable-solution. If top-down, big-picture Scottish nationalism justifies itself in any realm (other than the removal of Trident), it’s the argument for more regulatory and economic powers to support the green renaissance of Scottish manufacturing.

But no matter how attractive the policy horizon, we know this routine of existing politics. Capable leaders drill their messages through whatever media they can, to get to an electorate with a once-in-four-years chance of turning their citizens’ consciousness into a political act. This empowers an expertocracy of representatives, civil servants and advisors to get on with it, while we get on with our daily lives.

Many of us who were constitutionally active in the 1980s and 90s hoped that an achieved Scottish parliament would be better than this largely passive process. It would exist in a sea of energetic democracy – waves of petitioning and campaigns that would remind former activists sitting in the chamber of the ideals that put them there.

Hasn’t really happened, has it? The commentator Gerry Hassan has been relentless in his critique of the complacent “establishment” of devolution-era Scotland – and has found himself recently backed up by the head of a major Labour think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research. Where is Scotland’s salon society,  asks Hassan – the busy public sphere of idea-merchants and open meetings that keeps official politics on its toes?

Hassan adeptly analyses what currently squats in its place: a bureaucratic-Labourist complex of bought-over civil society groups, self-satisfied professional bodies, and constrained conventional media spaces. But other than a few bright spots in the blogosphere,  events like Changin’ Scotland and our burgeoning book festivals it’s difficult not to agree with Nick Pearce of the IPPR that the overall Scottish policy debate is a rather moribund culture.

Beyond the coming ding-dong of battling parties, how does the ideas dimension of the political debate become more vibrant in Scotland? To my memory, what typified the “Radical Scotland”  of the 1980s and 90s (the title of that era’s definitive political magazine) was a crucial alliance between the poverty-driven anger (both economic and spiritual poverty) of Scottish schemes and ruralities, and a constitutionally ambitious Central Belt middle-class.

With the implosion of the street-left in the vanitas of comrade Sheridan, a conduit was lost between these two forces – which, let’s not forget, had its opportunity to be part of the Scottish parliamentary process in 2003–07.

Maybe an articulation of the raw edge of need, despair and anger would inject some life into Scottish politics – and perhaps dynamise some of the bottom-up structures currently struggling.

What’s interesting about the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings is that a net-enabled generation examined their police-state adversaries and came up with a politics of protest that was genuinely imaginative. Young activists began to stage creative actions that subtly reclaimed the streets: flash mobbing in city centres to sing the national anthem, dressing in black to stand silently before the Nile.

And their street tactics for their initial “day of rage” on January 25  – in the words of activist Ahmed Salah, “we wanted to be multi-polar, fast-moving, and too mobile for the amin markazi [central security forces]” – sounds exactly like the kind of collaborative, lateral-thinking play that is celebrated in computer games.

Interactive culture of all kinds has shaped a new sense of civic confidence among Arab youth. But they had the brutal, often fatal experience of the police/state oppression of daily life in Egypt to contend with, giving their seriously-playful activisms some real urgency. Is life anywhere in Scotland as desperate as this?

Certainly some of the schemes that the Scottish Socialist Party traversed – in areas where drugs, crime, depression and gang violence dominated – provide daily experiences of peril (as I wrote about recently)  which wouldn’t be all that distinguishable from the world’s mega-slums. We are missing a politics of the poorest in Scotland at the moment. Whether it could be inspired by the brave, bold and innovative tactics of the Arab street movements is quite another question.

So enjoy the Punch-and-Judy show of Scottish party politics over the next few months. For those who have the mental resources to enjoy the high ground of grand policy, the game is worth the candle, performed across the usual media and High St outlets. But there are gaping holes in the thought process of the Scottish body politic, which all the posters and leaflets will not paper over.

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