Comment: New era will leave radical left in shadows

Yes Scotland's much vaunted broad grassroots movement draws its members from the left and the right. Picture: TSPL

Yes Scotland's much vaunted broad grassroots movement draws its members from the left and the right. Picture: TSPL

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A GREAT theme of the argument in favour of the break-up of the UK is that Scots hold fundamentally different values to others on this island.

An independent Scotland would be fairer and more compassionate, goes the story; only with independence can we help the poorest in society.

And the most enthusiastic believers in this “truth” are those on the political left wing. For many campaigners, a Yes vote holds the promise of political revolution, a rebalancing of power. Scotland is a socialist country, they say (with scant evidence), and if we’d just break away from our neighbours, we could build a new state that reflected that.

So fervent is this belief that a great many Scots lefties are willing to campaign alongside the most unlikely partners. Yes Scotland’s much vaunted broad grassroots movement includes not only the Radical Independence Campaign and the left-leaning National Collective and Women for Independence groups, but those representatives of the hated “boss class” Business for Scotland.

Fundamental ideological differences have evaporated as nationalists from the left and right join together on the same road, heading towards what they believe will be very different destinations.

The thought that, after decades as a fringe interest, radical socialism will be at the very heart of a new Scotland must be hugely exciting for those who devote themselves to the cause. But how exactly a Yes vote will bring about this transformation remains unclear. Evidence that an independent Scotland would be more fundamentally left-wing is hard to find.

Of course, any scepticism about the possibility of a shift in Scotland’s political plates is the stuff of Project Fear. All we need is hope and things will fall into place.

But the difficult question for those who believe an independent Scotland would be a more radical place is, if this is the case, why was the route to the referendum paved with policies that appeal to the self-interest of Scots?

Fortunately, there is a useful way in which we might understand what Scotland’s political priorities could be. We can examine what Scotland’s political priorities are now.

In the 2010 General Election, 
the vast majority of Scots voted for parties of a don’t-scare-the-horses, mainstream nature. More than a million backed Labour, while around 490,000 voted SNP. Inconveniently for the Yes Scotland story about our uniquely Scottish political perspective, the Liberal Democrats took 
more than 460,000 while the Conservatives won 412,000 (which is a pretty good result for a party supposedly rejected by all voters north of the Border).

Well, yes, radical lefties and chattering class commentators for Salmond may say, but the reason the Greens got fewer than 17,000 votes and the Scottish Socialist Party little more than 3,000 was that they fielded so few candidates. Undoubtedly it is true that the radical left paid little attention to the 2010 election, but if there was broad popular support for this brand of politics, you can be damned sure there would have been many more candidates.

A year later, in the 2011 Holyrood election, the SNP soared ahead of its rivals, winning more than 900,000 constituency votes to Labour’s 630,000, the Tories’ 276,000 and the Lib Dems’ 157,000. The Green Party and the Scottish Socialists, both of which (because they simply didn’t have the core support required to do otherwise) fielded candidates only on the regional lists, managed a meagre 87,000 and 8,000 respectively.

Many on the left, knocking doors in run-down estates of our cities and chattering excitedly about the imminent new dawn in the dining kitchens of the west end of Glasgow, reassure themselves that the SNP embodies the traditions of social justice and fairness that they hold dear (though some of those Yessers may have taken a knock to their faith on Friday when just two of the Scottish nationalists’ six MPs turned up in the House of Commons to vote against the 
bedroom tax). But the reality is that the SNP didn’t begin to get good at winning elections by shifting to the left.

The most obvious similarity between Alex Salmond’s SNP and Tony Blair’s New Labour (and there are more than many nationalists might find comfortable) is an understanding that elections are won not on the left or the right but the centre. Free prescriptions for all might sound a socialist dream but in reality the policy benefited none more than the middle class voters who turn out in the largest numbers on election days. Likewise, the ongoing council tax freeze hasn’t helped the poorest but the best off. It’s saved a few quid for the beemer-driving, suburban voter while shaving the budgets that pay for the council services upon which the poorest depend.

If we look at current support for mainstream parties – and the policies which got them where they are – then Scottish independence is more likely to benefit the right than the left.

If the constitutional question is answered to the satisfaction of the SNP, then we can expect to see that party divide. Some will drift right towards the Tories, with whom a number of senior SNP figures share a similar outlook on matters of the economy, while the rest will slip into the mainstream centre-left groove so skilfully carved by Deputy First Minister ­Nicola Sturgeon over the past decade.

There are no serious SNP players itching for a lurch to the radical left.

If there’s a Yes vote on 18 September, and polls suggest there might yet be, then many on the radical left will hail it as the dawn of a new era of possibilities.

Though, given that the sole redistributive policy in the Scottish Government’s 649-page-long White Paper on independence is a plan to cut corporation tax on big business by three per cent, it’s very difficult, indeed, to see exactly how those possibilities might include the creation of a socialist panacea.

The Scottish left has been disproportionately vocal during this campaign. But if they play their part in a nationalist victory, they may find there’s very little reward for their ­efforts. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm

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