SCOTLAND’S Labour and Conservative parties have woken up to the importance of not following a nationalist agenda, writes John McTernan
When the Northern Ireland Executive was established, it was given a lot of support by the UK civil service and in particular the Scottish Executive. As part of that, I went to Belfast to discuss how to handle the politics of drawing up a programme for government.
I remember one senior civil servant reflecting on having to draw up a paper for Martin McGuinness, then education minister, on how to fulfil Sinn Fein’s pledge for providing computers in classrooms. After examining every route for funding, the minute concluded that the best option was a public-private partnership. The civil servant, knowing that Sinn Fein was purportedly a Marxist party as well as a nationalist one, nervously gave his advice. He needn’t have worried. Mr McGuinness – like most ministers – is supremely pragmatic in the pursuit of fulfilling election promises. As for the Marxism, well, closer observers of the Northern Ireland scene than me may disagree but that leftist posturing by Sinn Fein seems to have gone the way of the armed struggle.
The story, though, attests to a truth. Politics is about the allocation of resources, choosing priorities across time – current and future generations; across geography – urban or rural; between genders, age and class. The values of political parties will drive – and explain – the choices made. Public servants are there to fine-tune the choices, flesh out the policies. In the early years of the Northern Ireland Executive, they were flying blind. Everyone knew where the main parties – unionist or nationalist – stood in relation to the border but no-one had a clue about domestic policy issues. Concern about the constitution drives out all other policies.
We have had a similar experience in Scotland. At least since 2007 the political conversation in Scotland has been dominated by the constitution. There has been little or no debate about tackling failing schools, improving health, cutting crime or creating jobs. All discussions have been drowned out by our very own version of the border question. Even in the best of times this would have been unfortunate, and these aren’t the best of times. Our school system, for one, is not standing still. It is being vandalised.
It is understandable, though not forgivable, that the SNP would seek to subjugate the entire body politic to its revolutionary aim. What is truly alarming is the way that Labour and the Conservatives have colluded in this process. It comes ultimately from the folly of accepting the frame your opponents impose on politics and policy choices.
Chastened by defeat, both parties went through a process of diagnosing why they had been spurned by the voters. Both came to similar, but completely wrong, conclusions. First, they decided that they were not “Scottish” enough. Then they reasoned that the proof of Scottishness was how strong your support for the Scottish Parliament was. Finally, they concluded that they should make a pitch for giving more powers to the parliament – not specific powers to tackle real problems, just a general commitment to prove how Scottish they were. This was a demonstration of what Saul Bellow’s Herzog described as “potato love” – a lumpy, lazy, unshaped universal love.
When both parties adopted this sloppy, sentimental thinking the Nationalist trap snapped shut. Since then, we have been living in a politics whose contours are determined by the SNP. It’s a fight that only the Nationalists can win. If the frame is that the people who love Scotland the most are the ones who can offer the country the most new powers, then independence will always trump all other offers.
This year, however, there have been signs of hope – a Scottish Spring. Party conferences are normally the most forgettable part of the political year, and spring conferences even more so. But the Tory and Labour Scottish spring conferences were real political turning points. Ruth Davidson, rapidly turning into a leader who punches way above her party’s weight, used the Scottish Tory conference to set out a right-wing vision of Scotland. It’s one that embraces welfare reform and a cap on immigration – both popular everywhere in Scotland except among the chattering classes. And it tackles head-on the “free stuff” policy.
Pointing out that the pressure- point in the NHS was in the number of nurses and midwives, Davidson promised to scrap free prescriptions for those who could afford them and use the revenue released – some £57m – to fund new NHS staff. Proper politics, rooted in a conservative ideology – not mine, but one with a longer and more noble Scottish tradition than Nationalism. And making a long-term bet on the character of Scotland, that the sloppy policies the SNP offer up as popular and progressive are neither.
As if in counterpoint, Scottish Labour rediscovered politics this year too. Finally, they had the courage to define themselves first and foremost as social democrats. This is what has given their proposals to strengthen the powers of the Scottish Parliament real substance. Political parties achieve definition by saying what they won’t do, as much as by saying what they will. Labour has said that redistribution is fundamental to its vision for Scotland, so it will not devolve National Insurance as that is a way in which we all pool risk and share resources. And it has rejected the Tory and SNP vision of cutting corporation tax in a reckless race to the bottom. Anas Sarwar’s accompanying vision document “Together We Can” – rapidly dubbed a “red paper” – is the first piece of clear policy thinking by Scottish Labour for more than a decade.
More than any slight fluctuations in the opinion polls, these events are the signs of a rude health returning to Scottish politics. A coherent right- wing view of Scotland’s future and a sound social democratic vision. These provide a true contrast to the SNP – and a long overdue contest for them