ON THE day Alex Salmond announced the date of the referendum, Gordon Brewer on Newsnight Scotland neatly demonstrated the biggest barrier the SNP faces if it wants to win.
“You say you want a Nordic society” he said “but you don’t appear to have a single policy that would achieve it”.
In 1988, Alex Salmond had to make an existential choice for the SNP – did he throw his weight behind the pro-devolution gradualists in his party or the anti-devolution fundamentalists. Almost everyone now thinks he made the wrong choice in backing the fundamentalists.
The same thing is about to happen. He is going to have to choose between the Little Britainers and the Nordics – those who want to tinker with Scotland and those who want to change it. This time his choice may define not only the outcome of the referendum campaign but the very architecture of Scottish politics.
Currently, the SNP exists in a third-way fudge between two political philosophies. Critics have named this delusion “the myth of Scandimerica”, the belief that you can have Scandinavian social services with US-level taxes. Actually, there was no need since the delusion already had a name – the Arc of Prosperity.
The Arc of Prosperity was a knowing fantasy predicated on the belief that corrupt, housing-and-speculation-gone-mad Ireland was actually the other side of the coin of socially democratic Norway.
The opposite is the truth; economically and socially the politics of Ireland were diametrically opposed to Norway. The former followed unstable get-rich-quick doctrines with an unsustainable faith in short-term trickle-down. The latter emphasised productive growth, a balanced economy and long-term investment strategies where the equality and high standard of living these generate make higher taxes painless.
Let’s call these the neoliberal model and the European social model. There isn’t space here to detail their characteristics but very loosely one promotes progress-through-conflict (markets, competition, wealth-creators) and one promotes progress-through-mutuality (productivity, balanced economy, public services).
The truth that the centre left has struggled with is that they are more-or-less mutually exclusive. The things you do to increase real productivity work against short-term speculative gain. The things you do to encourage competition create unbalanced economies. The ideology of “wealth creators” is at odds with the ideal of a strong welfare state.
In Britain there is no political debate about this; in Scotland the polarising impact of Better Together means there is. That campaign is based on the assertion that we are all better off if in one Greater London political sphere living with its ingrained prejudices – nuclear weapons, low tax, welfare as a remedial policy and so on.
To the discomfort of many in the wider Labour movement, Scottish Labour has become trapped in the unrelenting logic of this situation. If we’re better together, how can we be critical of the politics of London?
The SNP, meanwhile, is waking up to the fact that it keeps scoring its hits from the left. Opposition to punitive welfare reforms, a stout defence of the principle of universal public services, opposition to Trident and wholehearted support (in rhetoric at least) for universal childcare are hurting Better Together precisely because they are very popular.
The reason the SNP is getting in jabs but no knock-out punch is because of that decade-old fudge the “Legend of the Penny for Scotland”. In that legend the SNP got its then-second highest vote in 1999 because it wanted to raise tax by a penny. When it dropped the policy in 2003 its vote declined significantly. No it doesn’t make sense, but there you go.
So the SNP is stuck trying to tell people that Scotland could be Norway without being able to voice any of the policies that would actually make Scotland like Norway.
In fact, the evidence is that if people can be persuaded of the transformational effect of taxation, they will accept tax rises. And the desire for social transformation is higher than at any time since the 1980s. People like the welfare state. They like it a lot. It tops every poll on political priorities. That’s almost certainly why opinion polls on independence have started to creep up since the SNP started talking seriously about a “Nordic Scotland”. The previous “Little Britain” approach had no impact at all.
Why can neither Labour or the SNP fully accept that most people in Scotland would rather live in a Nordic-style economy than a US-style one? The dividends go beyond redefining the referendum campaign. A firm decision rewires Scottish politics. Scottish electoral politics is dominated by a very large centre-left block of voters which will be looking for a home post-2014.
The assumption that that home will be Labour is undermined almost daily by Scottish Labour itself, which can hardly muster a token vote against Trident or punitive welfare reform and is far too comfortable in a political alliance with the Tories. People will be looking for a solidly social democratic project whatever happens in 2014. Scottish Labour may think the left will “have” to return, but that’s just its own delusion. If the SNP makes a wholehearted shift and Labour doesn’t, Labour could be finished.
Put simply, if the fudge continues, the SNP will continue to leak credibility when it tries to ‘talk Nordic’. But if Nicola Sturgeon can tap into her inner Borgen and take the SNP with her, it may not only change the referendum campaign, it could change everything.
• Robin McAlpine is director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation