Brian Wilson: Singing from the same song book

Alex Salmond and Jim Sillars at the SNP conference in 1991

Alex Salmond and Jim Sillars at the SNP conference in 1991

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Jim Sillars’ criticism of the SNP Government as authoritarian, highlights a central problem in Scottish politics, writes Brian Wilson

The pronouncement by Jim Sillars that the SNP runs as an authoritarian organisation with rigid central control reminiscent of the Communist Party should scarcely come as a surprise. Indeed, many within the organisation will regard it as a compliment.

According to Sillars, the SNP are a dumbed-down bunch of yes-people who take their orders from the ruling triumvirate of Salmond, Sturgeon and Swinney. He attributes the fact there has been no Holyrood issue on which dissent has surfaced in the past five years to the ruthlessness of the regime rather than to contented acquiescence. And he is surely right.

All political parties aspire to internal discipline but few achieve anything like the parrot-like uniformity which characterises the Nationalists at Holyrood and beyond. As Sillars suggests, there are no internal pressure groups to influence policy; no individuals left who will stand up for an unapproved cause; no right to ask an unvetted question; no evidence of independent thought. They exist to follow orders.

But the point which Sillars avoids is that the symptoms he complains of are inherent in the nature of the beast. The normal raison d’être of parties is to represent a broad social interest and a philosophy which they seek to advance through political means. That produces a constant dynamic, both internally and externally, based on competing priorities, strategies and the clash of ideas.

Sometimes it is a destructive dynamic when parties become more interested in arguing among themselves than in looking outwards towards the bigger picture. But heaven help democracy when there are no rebels or dissidents in the ranks of Labour, Tories or Liberal Democrats – only edicts from on high. By implicitly questioning why the same standard is not applied to the SNP, Sillars is edging towards a very important, and perhaps uncomfortable, distinction.

Nationalist parties – or more accurately Movements – purport to represent a unified national interest which entails a denial of such conflicts within the nation. We are “a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns”, drawn together by a common Scottishness. Arguing about policy, particularly where the economic interests of one section of Scottish society might be pitted against another, is best left for another day when the elixir of independence will cure all.

In the meantime, the mantra is to rock as few boats as possible. The SNP leadership has decided that the safest course is through the kind of centre-right government which they provide at Holyrood. They have £30 billion a year to play politics with, have administered it reasonably well and have gone out of their way to avoid offending the troublesome middle-classes. Insofar as there has been any redistribution of wealth, it has been towards those who already have most.

As the Tory fund-raiser turned Nationalist cheer-leader, Peter de Vink, has commented, Salmond’s modus operandi has long been to “talk Left and act Right”. For a populist party that does not wish to attract controversy which might divert attention from its central purpose, this has proved an effective formula. But as the money tends to be less abundant, it will become a more difficult one to sustain.

The funding of further and higher education is one obvious area in which choices have to be made. It is increasingly clear that the Scottish Government’s “free for everyone” boast is actually a cover for reducing access for the less-well-off. Is there is a single Nationalist MSP who will even challenge Sillars’ observations by speaking up this week for the FE sector and the thousands being denied access to it, in order to provide “free” university places for the wealthy?

Until now, Nationalist MSPs have willingly bought into their own emasculation for the simple reason that they are in a job which they hope to retain. They would argue that they serve a Greater Cause and that there is s a plan which depends on unity and acquiescence. The leader leads, the followers follow. That is the nature of Nationalism and there is no place within it for doubters, questioners or mavericks.

In response to Sillars’ article, the best that the SNP could do was to point to their internal disagreements over Nato membership as evidence of dissent. It is true that the entirely hypothetical question of whether an independent Scotland would remain as part of the Nato nuclear alliance has excited some disagreement which will be faced down. But it is not an issue of government and does nothing to invalidate Sillars’ description of how Hoyrood operates.

However, what bothers me more than the internal authoritarianism of the SNP is the efforts being made to extend their control-freakery into far wider areas of Scottish life and influence. On all fronts, there is a centralisation process at work. Quangos which used to have a reasonably autonomous existence are now run as branches of the Scottish Government. The appointments system is used ruthlessly to weed out anyone who might not toe the line. Local authorities are in a financial straitjacket and where the SNP are in control are run as branch offices of Holyrood.

Sillars pointed to the creation of a national Police Force as an example of where it was almost inconceivable that some SNP MSPs did not hold a view different from the party line but failed to express it. I am sure he must be right. This is a major act of centralisation which has removed accountability as well as control from the regions of Scotland in order to create a new bureaucracy headed by an itinerant quangoteer answerable only to the minister. That is the antithesis of devolution.

I see much of this process through the Highlands and Islands where there used to be serious politicians of all parties who would coalesce in the interests of the region if they thought big issues were involved – the abolition of Northern Constabulary certainly have been one. That no longer exists.

Over the past few years, there has been a constant transfer of money, political control and accountability towards Edinburgh without a whimper of dissent from Nationalist MSPs who now dominate the region. It is a tragedy for which a heavy price is being paid.

None of this was particularly difficult to predict. While a devolved Government in Edinburgh would inevitably seek to draw more powers from Whitehall, in the meantime it was going to be in a position to extract more powers from within Scotland.

That is exactly what is happening. If ever there was a time when there was a need for voices of dissent from local authorities and their parliamentary representatives, it is now. But the voices are silent.

Instead, we have a new Scottish political culture of centralisation and acquiescence controlled by force which believe – or purport to believe – that the only divisions in society worth arguing about are those which surround the constitution.

It has to be challenged for the people and communities most at risk are those whose needs are greatest and include the voices of dissent to speak for them.

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