THE SNP has proved flawed and prone to compromise, but Unionist parties are just the same, writes Joyce McMillan
On Sunday evening, along with more than a million people across the UK, I sat down to watch the first-ever television screening of Anthony Baxter’s award-winning documentary You’ve Been Trumped, about Donald Trump’s famous attempt to build a new golfing resort at Menie in Aberdeenshire. The coastline at Menie features a magnificent natural dune system, and is categorised as a site of special scientific interest; from the outset of the project, environmental organisations like the RSPB have been urging caution over any development there, despite the substantial support in the area for any initiative that might bring new jobs and prosperity.
Yet as the film shows, over a period of years Trump’s organisation was allowed to brush aside objections not only from environmental groups and local residents, but from Aberdeenshire Council itself, whose initial refusal of planning permission was called in and reversed, in 2008, by the Scottish Government.
Worse than that, local residents opposing the development were allegedly subjected to serious harassment; and Grampian Police, according to the protesters, seemed mainly concerned to facilitate the smooth progress of Donald Trump’s plans, at one point actually handcuffing and detaining the film-makers for trying to record interviews.
It’s a shocking film; and the broadcast came in the middle of a bruisingly bad week for Alex Salmond and his SNP government, following a series of negative poll results, a passionately divisive conference debate over Nato, and the growing storm over Salmond’s apparent suggestion that the Scottish Government had clear and positive legal advice on an independent Scotland’s EU membership, when no such advice had been formally sought.
In the aftermath of the showing of the film, many former SNP supporters took to social media to declare that they would never vote for the party again. And many others, of all persuasions, expressed a sense of shame that such a desperate capitulation to wealth and power could take place in Scotland; as if they had somehow managed to convince themselves that, in a world increasingly driven by the attitudes of capitalists like Trump, Scotland and its government were somehow categorically different and better, and more resistant to the blandishments of overweening power.
Well, that’s one political illusion that has been comprehensively shattered this week; and now, the parties of the Union are piling in, to take advantage of the First Minister’s sudden weakness. The new line of the Better Together campaign is that Alex Salmond is a born chancer, who will say anything to persuade people to vote for independence.
The clear implication is that his alleged prevarication over the EU legal advice, combined with his questionable relations with assorted plutocrats from Rupert Murdoch and Brian Souter to Trump himself, render him unfit to lead the nation; and that we had better revert to voting for the trusty old Unionist parties, on whose word we can depend.
Except that, of course, we can do nothing of the sort. Indeed, there is something infinitely ridiculous about the high moral tone now being taken by the UK parties whose betrayal of ordinary voters, over a whole range of issues, drove many Scots into the arms of the SNP in the first place. The Labour Party, after all, is the one that delivered its soul to Blairism, and sold to the nation the false prospectus on which we went to war in Iraq. The Liberal Democrats are the ones who attacked the Brown government from the Left during the 2010 election campaign, and then threw in their lot with one of the most right-wing Tory governments of the past century. And as for the Conservatives – well, the most serious of many charges against them is the increasingly well-documented allegation that their entire exaggerated narrative around the scale and causes of the British deficit is simply false, a kind of Shock Doctrine scam designed to bamboozle the British people into agreeing to a fresh round of lucrative privatisations, and a drastic shrinking of the state.
And it’s against this background of a near-universal collapse of trust in our political class that Salmond’s undoubted failures must be measured. The time may indeed be coming when the First Minister – a man approaching retirement age, and increasingly scarred by the compromises of office – has to think about whether his party, and the independence campaign, would fare better under the leadership of his increasingly formidable deputy, who had her work cut out covering for him this week. Yet we must still ask ourselves, when the chips are down, whether those who are interested in a more just and sustainable future for Scotland have any real reason to switch their political allegiance away from the SNP, this weekend.
The Unionist parties may be enjoying their moment in the sun, as they put the boot in to their old enemy; and there is certainly a high likelihood that their overwhelming chorus of negatives – no you can’t, you can’t afford it, stick to what you know – will win the day in 2014, with apprehensive and undecided voters.
Yet the truth is that the prospect they offer us, on the morning after their referendum victory, is an utterly miserable one; a farrago of scaremongering designed to crush hope, to reduce expectations, and to secure our compliance with a discredited neoliberal orthodoxy. What Scotland needs now – either from the SNP in Scotland, or from the Labour Party in London – is a radical reinvention of social democracy for the 21st century, one that moves on from the old paternalism of the 1945 settlement, but that is still willing to confront and control unaccountable economic power, as no major political party of the last generation has done.
At the moment, there is no sign of either party producing anything of the sort. And if they do not, then the choice we will face in 2014 will be a desperate one, between bad and worse: between a national party that has tried to give us social democracy, and been undermined by its own evasions and contradictions; and a gaggle of Unionist parties united only in their desire to preserve the status quo – however unjust, however reactionary, and however bereft of hope.