Genuine debate about community issues can help to dig us out of this period of division, says Joyce McMillan
Wednesday evening; and on the radio, a woman from Turkey is reminding us that we should never assume that the clock of political progress cannot go backwards, as well as forwards. Her subject is women’s rights, and their marked deterioration in her country since President Erdogan began to turn towards religious fundamentalism; but she is also talking about the general danger of a top-down politics increasingly defined by dramatic and divisive questions of identity and loyalty, rather than by a genuine response to the needs of voters in their everyday lives.
So in Turkey today, to dissent from the policies of the present government is increasingly to risk being defined as an enemy of the people and the state; the same trend is visible not only in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but in EU countries like Poland and Hungary. And although the countries of western Europe perhaps stand a higher chance of holding these attitudes at bay, it’s clear that we are far from immune to them. Even here in the UK - which once fancied itself an instinctive opponent of all forms of totalitarianism - the EU referendum debate featured frequent suggestions that the pro-Remain 48 per cent were unpatriotic pessimists, who ought to be had up for treason; and the SNP itself, although not a party of the right in other respects, too often fails to act decisively against members who equate support for the SNP with patriotism and proper Scottishness, and support for the Union with a betrayal of the nation.
All of which perhaps seems a far cry from the grass-roots political activity currently taking place across Scotland, as the parties line up for the local elections on 4 May; but in fact, the campaign so far has offered an object lesson in how difficult it is to re-focus our politics on the practical welfare of our local communities, when the national debate has become dominated by questions of allegiance and identity. Some parties - notably Labour - have failed to foreground their local policies at all, instead offering yet more warnings against a second independence referendum; others, notably the Greens, have offered voluminous local manifestos full of detail, only to be confronted by voters demanding assurances that they will not use any local mandate they receive to pursue Scottish independence.
Yet if the divisiveness of the debate about Scotland’s future casts a long shadow over every discussion of policy and every local election, it nonetheless also serves to make clear just how essential a thriving local democracy is, if a nation is to survive the kind of debate Scotland is currently undergoing with its civil society intact, and its capacity to respond to voters relatively undamaged. The issues facing local communities often seem, at first glance, relatively minor; here in Edinburgh, as in some other parts of Scotland, the parlous state of our pot-holed roads is close to the top of the agenda this year.
Yet behind these local or super-local issues, it’s often possible to detect patterns of change that should, in time, form the basic stuff of a well-grounded national politics. It might be the general impoverishment of our public sphere and public services, at a time of great accumulations of private wealth. It might be the closure of local industries, or the loss of one kind of job and the coming of another. It might be the possibility of new local energy schemes, or - in some areas - land buyouts that can transform communities for good.
And it might be the never-ending struggle, particularly prominent in the capital at the moment, between the people who want to live, work, study, and enjoy their leisure time in the city they love, and developers whose obsession with ever-blander ranks of hotels, luxury flats and student accommodation robs people every day of the rich, varied neighbourhoods that make the place their own; indeed, the more our local authorities appoint directors of “place”, the less capable they seem of preventing our cities from losing their distinctive identity, and coming to resemble the anonymous, over-priced end of nowhere.
It’s in the nitty-gritty of local politics, in other words, that our representatives really learn to take note of the forces that are affecting people lives; and it’s also at this level that they should begin to formulate their policy responses to those changes - responses which should often cut across divisions of opinion about our constitutional future, and form the bedrock of a progressive future politics.
Heaven knows, Scotland’s system of local government is dysfunctional in a dozen ways, from the basic structure of our over-large authorities to their shocking lack of financial autonomy; and sooner or later, those failures will have to be addressed. In the meantime, though, it’s not impossible that these coming elections across Scotland’s increasingly rebellious communities will provide a wake-up call, not least to our notoriously centralising governing party, which is expected to make gains on this occasion. It may be, of course, that any new generation of SNP councillors elected this year will prove to be nothing more than supine pedlars of the party line, on all subjects.
Yet it’s also possible that their presence - if they are genuinely ambitious for the communities they represent, imaginative about what could be possible, and frustrated by their lack of real power - might begin to change traditional SNP attitudes to local government, born of decades of contempt for lazy Labour hegemony in Scotland’s municipal fiefdoms. And if other parties engage with that shift, and join in genuine debate about the issues that will face our local communities in or out of the UK - well then, local government could begin to provide a basis for a politics that will finally carry us forward from this period of ill-tempered division in our national politics. It’s a slender hope, perhaps. But to read a document like the Green Party’s vision for Edinburgh - even if you disagree with every word of it - is to glimpse the kind of debate we should be having, about the future we want; and on an Easter weekend when political hope is in short supply, that’s a starting-point worth valuing, and one on which we can begin to build.