The ‘geography of power’ in the UK is stacked against Scotland, writes Ewan Crawford
I’ve been working my way through an entertaining book called Lists of Note – one of those weighty tomes clearly published with an eye on the Christmas present market for men of a certain age.
My favourite list is that compiled by Richmond Golf Club in 1940, updating the local course rules to take account of the Blitz: “Number 1 – Players are asked to collect bomb and shrapnel splinters to save these causing damage to the mowing machines.”
There are 125 lists in all, covering a variety of subjects, but as we start the Scottish election year of 2016 I could easily add one more: Top Misconceptions of SNP Strategy.
This list would be drawn from the towering received wisdom expressed by both the SNP’s opponents and a large proportion of Scottish and UK political commentators who, having discussed the matter fully on Twitter among themselves (without the tiresome need to talk to any voters), have both decided the reason for the party’s success and discerned Nicola Sturgeon’s future strategy.
In short, the reason given for this apparently baffling political phenomenon is that the Nats have talked up identity politics, whipped-up grievance and by doing so have cunningly diverted attention from their appalling record on public services.
From this analysis we can expect a Nicola Sturgeon-led identity and grievance offensive (run by the infamous dark-arts spin machine) in the run up to May’s Holyrood election, to prevent people from finding out about the chaos that has taken hold of the nation’s schools and hospitals.
It’s a comforting story because it allows the defeated and the bemused to put all this nonsense down to forces essentially beyond their control and to believe all will be well at some point when voters come to their senses.
The difficulty, however, is that there has been little, if any, evidence of growing identity politics in Scotland since devolution. Surveys show that even in the referendum year of 2014 the number of people emphasising their Scottish identity over British was at its lowest level since 1999.
Irritatingly, people in Scotland also give positive marks to the Scottish Government’s record on health, education, the economy and justice.
This opens up the apparently unthinkable prospect for the SNP’s opponents – perhaps the success is down to voters taking a rational decision based on which party, leader and constitutional outcome they believe will be best for themselves and their families.
At times it seems as if the rocks will melt with the sun before this idea can even be acknowledged, let alone discussed.
In fact, the time for grievance politics in Scotland is over. As the leadership of the SNP knows it is the sense of possibility, not a sense of grievance, which has carried them into government and which needs to be maintained if they are to stay there. This doesn’t (necessarily) mean grand visions. It certainly doesn’t mean pointless jargon-filled debates between centre-left parties about which one is more “progressive” than the other.
Instead it’s about making clear, achievable, offers on how children’s education can be improved and how healthcare can be made better. Above all, parties will be rewarded by giving voters a sense of how they and their families will be able to get on in life by securing good jobs.
Far from wanting to avoid policy debates over public services and jobs during the forthcoming election campaign, I will be amazed if the SNP does not go out of its way to force them.
These discussions should also be central to the continuing debate over the constitution. Over Christmas I spent some time in Yorkshire when the county was hit by the dreadful floods that have afflicted so many parts of the UK.
I was struck by the leader of Leeds City Council, Judith Blake, complaining (justifiably, it seems to me) that the Westminster government would never have allowed the centre of London to have been flooded in the way that the centre of her city had been.
The local media was similarly vocal about the way they believed they had been treated by successive administrations whose primary focus was on the UK capital.
This all sounded like a legitimate grievance. But it was also revealing of the simple facts of life in Britain. London is becoming increasingly dominant across so many areas of politics and economics, including massive infrastructure projects.
This dominance is becoming more, not less, pronounced. Complaints by English civic leaders, or indeed Scottish or Welsh First Ministers, are not going to change this trend. A successful political or media campaign might mitigate some of its impact, and could mean some extra public spending, but the geography of power in the UK has been set.
The difficulty for those hostile to independence is that their idea of Scotland’s future looks a lot like prosecuting the kind of grievance politics they publicly claim to be so opposed to. Even with the extra tax powers contained in the new Scotland Bill, the Treasury will still determine the bulk of spending in Scotland.
The opaque way the block grant is calculated is useful cover for officials and a governing Westminster party which has long wished to cut Scottish spending.
Within the Union we face the prospect of endless rows over what the Tories are, or are not, “doing to us” (and let’s be absolutely clear that Labour’s utter collapse means it will indeed be a Conservative government for the foreseeable future).
Ultimately it is therefore up to those of us who support independence to persuade more people than we managed in September 2014 that they will be able to get on in life by transferring these economic decisions from Westminster to Scotland.
Complaining about a grievance is a relatively easy thing to do. But for all parties seeking power the harder task is not just to complain but to demonstrate that a better, more convincing, alternative is possible. This is a lesson some in Scottish politics, not least on the opposition benches at Holyrood, are still struggling to understand.