Salmond and his team are far from perfect, but they may be the only hope for social democracy
LESS THAN TWO months have passed since the beginning of the great wave of revolutions across the Arab world. Yet already, from Libya to Bahrain, the voices of cynicism and despair are beginning once again to overwhelm the life-changing drumbeat of hope; and here in Scotland, as the latest round of Scottish Parliament elections approaches, I am finding it difficult not to feel a sense of empathy - humble, distant, but distinct - with the freedom campaigners in those countries, as they live through exhilarating moments of revolt against a system that seems no longer tenable, and then watch in disbelief as it reassembles itself before their eyes.
Three years ago, after all, the ordinary citizens of the West watched the financial system under which they had been living for decades hurtle towards self-destruction, and survive only with the help of massive bailouts from the public purse. It was substantially discredited, both intellectually and morally; yet three years on, we find the power of this financial system not diminished, but if anything increased. Nothing has changed, except that ordinary British citizens are now being asked to foot the bill.
And in the meantime, the voters of Britain have chosen a government which turns out, in economic terms, to be perhaps the most doctrinaire pro-market administration seen in this country for a century. This is the surreal backdrop against which the Scottish election is being fought. And for the centre-left majority of Scottish voters it invites just one, simple question. Which of the two leading Holyrood parties, the SNP or the Labour Party, is best placed to protect us from the madness of a Westminster government bent on remedying market failure, by applying ever more drastic market solutions?
In a sense, of course, this is the same question that faced Scotland during the 1980s; but then, the answer was easier. Then, Scottish Labour was riding high, led by a formidable team of up-and-coming politicians, including Donald Dewar, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and Alistair Darling; only those with a strong doctrinaire belief in independence, as opposed to devolution, felt the need to vote nationalist.
Today, though, the situation is painfully different. Whatever we make of the Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray, and his contingent of MSPs at Holyrood - and there are few who would suggest that they have the same flair or firepower as the generation of the 1980s - the fact is that the party they represent has been largely undermined, as a serious and well-organised political force, by the errors and compromises of its 13 years in power at Westminster.Elected to restore some sense of social solidarity to British society after two decades of Thatcherism, it instead pursued progressive policies only by stealth, gave the bankers free rein, and finally blew all of its remaining political credit by entering into a lethal military alliance with George W Bush and his American neoconservatives.
That little of this is Iain Gray's fault is obvious. But it means that he stands for a party which is, at best, in need of a long period of self-examination and debate about how it actually advances genuine social democratic principles, under 21st-century conditions.
At the moment, it seems that the largest minority of Scottish people will vote Labour anyway, as a kind of automatic response to the presence of a Tory government at Westminster. Yet after recent changes of policy on council tax and university tuition fees, it seems likely that any new Labour-led administration at Holyrood will emerge as little more than a kind of SNP-lite, trying to implement very similar social policies with less flair, and - crucially - with less power to put the wind up the Westminster government.
All of which leaves social democrats in Scotland with just two choices; to vote for a small minority party - probably the Greens - or to bite the bullet, and to accept the likelihood that Alex Salmond and his Cabinet offer the best chance of survival for some kind of Scottish social democracy, in these tough times. Like hundreds of thousands of bred-in-the-bone Labour voters, I have never been able to bring myself to vote for the SNP; in my heart, I think social justice a far more important political principle than national identity, and I can never quite trust politicians who have given their lives to a nationalist party. And on policies from social justice to Scotland's green future - hardly compatible with the imminent second Forth road crossing - the SNP itself is hardly a model of ideological consistency and common sense.
What faces us over the next ten years, though, is not a tea-party or an academic debate, but a herculean struggle to turn the tide of extreme market ideology that has already done so much damage to our societies; and to create a credible, working alternative.
Any devolved Scottish Government taking that path will face a barrage of negative comment, all implying - quite falsely, in terms of the evidence - that market "reforms" are the way of the future, and that Scotland, in resisting them, is a pathetic dinosaur nation dependent on Westminster subsidy; indeed the barrage has already started, in respect of this week's announcement on tuition fees.
And the question we face is just this: when the flak begins to fly, and Scotland's free prescriptions and university fees need to be defended, and the vision of society that underpins them needs to be articulated with energy and pride and a touch of poetry - then who do we seriously think is going to face the world with the strongest, the most confident, and the most credible case for the path we are taking? Will it be Iain Gray and Andy Kerr? Or will it be Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell?
It pains me to say it, but I think the answer to that question is clear. And although my heart will always say no to the SNP, this time around my head increasingly says yes; not just for the sake of Scotland, but for the sake of the whole idea of a convivial and democratic society, which needs doughty and capable defenders now, more than at any time in our history.