Gerry Hassan: Shall we stay in the past or create the future?

Henry McLeish. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Henry McLeish. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

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We live in a country that is changing; the big questions are who dictates change and what is change for? It’s time to decide, writes Gerry Hassan

THERE is a widespread assumption across most, if not all, of Scotland that this is a land of the centre-left; that we don’t vote Tory, didn’t buy into Thatcherism, and that we are all the children of social democracy.

Leaving aside the Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys on Scots/English differences (which show that differences aren’t that big), there is a prevalent belief that centre-left, left and collectivist values percolate through and define our society.

Some voices on the left believe that they speak for what they see as a wide and potentially powerful constituency. However, if this was the case would our politics and society not look very different?

This week, Henry McLeish, former Scottish first minister, talked of the possibilities of independence leading to the “cultural transformation” which he believes Scottish society desperately needs, while holding back from embracing it yet.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown, in a fascinating lecture, started to talk about equality again after a decade of New Labour self-denying ordinance. He noted the scale of inequality disfiguring Scotland and England, while claiming that the UK still worked.

The SNP, for all its centre-left aspiration, is about independence and statehood to which everything else comes second.

Alex Salmond a couple of years ago made deeply ambiguous remarks about his attitude to Thatcherism, saying Scots “didn’t mind the economic side so much but we didn’t like the social side at all”.

Mike Russell, just before he became a minister, wrote a book proposing to shrink the Scottish state by 40 per cent in the first four years after independence. The point about these remarks is that they reveal the SNP, like most successful parties in Western democracies, is trying to bend to economic liberalism while combining it with social justice.

The left does have small forces, such as the Reid Foundation and Bella Caledonia, but these exist without money and resources. Scotland seems to be a society whose politics are infused by the memories of a left without much of active left.

More seriously, the language and mantras of social democracy have been appropriated by the professional groups of Scotland: health, education, law, local government, for their own interests. A large part of Scotland seems to be happy to go along with this pretence.

Our public spending favours the most middle class people and groups, aided by the distributional decisions and consequences since the Scottish Parliament was established. We don’t seem to have a culture where we want to examine or question these choices.

A Scotland that was a social democracy would ask: to what extent are we becoming a more egalitarian society? Are we becoming more inclusive, reaching out to those left most behind and vulnerable? In what ways is this a place where the state and government shifts power away from vested interests?

It would ask what kind of partnerships are we creating between government, business and civic bodies which are widening opportunity and social justice. How are we nurturing the inter-generational compact which society is based on, supporting children and early years and not just the votes of the retired? And is all of this aiding a different kind of society and capitalism which points away from the Anglo-American model?

None of these things is happening in modern Scotland. We live in a society as divided and unequal as anywhere in the Western world. Where we choose to feel good about ourselves, blame Westminster or look for Nordic nirvanas, rather than come out our comfort zones.

Scotland isn’t a land of the left, but a deeply cautious, conservative nation. It is a society which has a propensity to not want to face up to some hard truths about itself, or take hard decisions which might involve taking on some vested interests. What passes for the remnants of Scotland’s left seems to be content to go along with this.

Here is the question. Is it enough for us – as some want us to do – to aspire to reheat social democracy from the supposed golden era of Britain 1945-75? Is that the high point of our aspirations and dreams: to turn the clock back to the world before Thatcherism? Instead, a different approach would draw on the difficult choices we are going to have to face, financially, demographically, economically and socially, and say that we can do better than the “old” conservatism of the managed society of elites, and the “new” conservatism of crony style, manipulated capitalism.

It would be good if we could bring this debate and its choices out into the open. The pro-union and pro-independence forces mostly talk about their abstractions, the former invoking a fantasyland Britain which has never existed, and the latter, seeming to invoke a faith-based politics that everything will come right after independence.

At the same time, the professional gatekeepers of large swathes of our society go on running education and health without major challenge or debate. In those areas, there are clear examples of change makers and innovators, but they are stifled by targets and safety-first caution alongside a deep seated fear of letting go, mistakes happening and the pull of short-termism.

This debate is going to come to Scotland due to the wider crises and it would be edifying if we began it ourselves. That would mean beginning to take a long hard look at ourselves, check some uncomfortable home truths, and recognise that the story we have told ourselves: of Scotland as this compassionate, egalitarian, warm, welcoming nation, doesn’t hold.

This requires leadership not just of the top-down nature, but from groups and movements. It means we have to have a more pluralist notion of what politics, change and being a political actor is. If we could begin making a start in this we could begin to have the kind of debate we need to have in the next few years.

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