Having sidelined centralism in pursuit of referendum success, failure to return to it will mean a loss of innocence for the SNP, writes George Kerevan
This weekend sees the SNP conference in elegant Perth. For activists, it is the high point of the political season. There is gossip to be exchanged, the leader to be applauded, and fringe meetings to be scrutinised for the availability of free drink. By and large, SNP conferences are companionable affairs with a notable absence of ideological bile or personal treachery. The only downside – a product of the party’s explosive growth – is that conference venues are now too small, too hot and lack adequate catering.
Yet gone are the fun days when Nats gathered to debate in eccentric detail their blueprints for running Scotland. Or for the party’s left and right to tear lumps out of each other on, say, whether to elect the monarch. The modern SNP conference has become a rally of the faithful – orchestrated, anodyne and repetitive. Only last year’s cracking, knife-edge debate on Nato membership has proved any exception to the dull, apple-pie resolutions that now serve as SNP conference fare.
I understand the need for such “professionalism”. The heat of a conference is not the best place to work out policy prescriptions that are going to be subject to ruthless scrutiny by a hostile London media. But this creates a problem: who is to hold the leadership to account?
The SNP has been in power at Holyrood for six years and has three more guaranteed, regardless of next year’s referendum. Unique in the experience of the Scottish Parliament, the Nats have been in a position to govern alone and not in coalition. Surely, the SNP collectively needs to take stock of how it has governed the nation it claims to represent in a unique way? And surely the annual conference is the place to do it?
Even a superficial scrutiny of how the SNP has approached government shows that it is a consistent centraliser. We now have a single police force and single fire service for Scotland. The SNP government has set its face against charter schools or decentralisation (as opposed to marketisation) of the NHS. Michael Russell has ordered the wholesale merger of further education colleges and mandated social composition of university places. John Swinney has nationalised adjudication of major planning applications.
In the local authority sphere, Swinney’s first instinct was to remove ring-fencing – the mandating of council spending by Holyrood. This was a good idea as it gave councils the freedom to meet local needs. However, in practice, ring-fencing has been replaced by annual agreements between councils and the Scottish Government on budget “outcomes”. Allied to savage cuts in funding (courtesy of Westminster), and a freeze on the council tax, local authorities have ended up more in thrall to Holyrood than ever.
While there has been some grumbling, SNP councillors have gone along with this reduction in authority in the interests of the referendum campaign. Meantime, the SNP’s commitment to a local income tax – the sine qua non of granting power to councils by devolving direct access to finance – has been quietly abandoned. Obviously this is to avoid political hostages to fortune during the final drive to independence. But one has to ask: will SNP ministers in an independent Scotland want to give up their new power to dictate to local councillors?
This represents a dramatic rupture in SNP thinking, which from the 1960s onwards was heavily influenced by ideas of industrial democracy and empowering local communities. The traditional “small is beautiful” stance was a clear reflection of the party’s critique of Westminster government but also of the hatred felt by SNP activists for the Stalinist Labour Party machine that used to dominate Scottish councils.
We should not be surprised by these developments. It is a historic truism that all revolutionaries – and the SNP is leading a constitutional revolution – end up being centralisers, regardless of their ideological starting point. Mrs Thatcher detested big government but in practice, to get her way against opposition, ended up a centraliser.
My head tells me that the SNP is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to centralising power. It faces massive budget cuts imposed by Westminster and a uniformly hostile media. It is a political miracle that the Nats won an outright Holyrood majority in 2011. Or that John Swinney has so finessed a declining budget that the SNP leads Labour by 40 per cent to 35 in the polls. Yet too often in history, revolutionaries have won their fight politically only to lose it morally. For centralism is a two-edged weapon. Yes, it can drive change. But centralisation of power can be addictive and result in bureaucratic conservatism, inhibiting all experiment and reform.
Here we have a contradiction. Independent Scotland is going to need a radical vision and a willingness to experiment in public policy. She will be a small nation in a big, capitalist world – one faced with earning a living while being handicapped by a rapidly ageing population and a big public debt. The last thing Scotland needs is a conservative (small “c”) approach to economic and social reform. Or the notion imbedded in government that the man (or woman) from Holyrood always knows best.
The SNP leadership believes that higher economic growth post-independence will provide the resources to sustain present expenditures without recourse to fundamental change. The social democratic left has fled to the nationalist camp in the hope independence will protect the status quo in the public sector. But higher growth is possible only by deferring consumption, while maintaining the public sector status quo risks pandering to producer interests. Missing here is any reflection on how we might do things differently and better. That is one side effect of the SNP’s newfound belief that the man (or woman) from Holyrood knows best. Few at Perth will mourn the SNP’s loss of political innocence. Success is its own justification.
But delegates should beware of what they wish for.