Lesley Riddoch: Reach for the sky to end inequality

Land ownership in Scotland must be addressed for change to have any significant meaning. Picture:Reuters
Land ownership in Scotland must be addressed for change to have any significant meaning. Picture:Reuters
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Westminster is faced with a conundrum but only real reform at Holyrood will consolidate SNP gains, writes Lesley Riddoch

‘Top Tories lash PM over Scotland deal. Miliband faces revolt on home rule for England.” Weekend headlines show the Westminster parties are trapped between a rock and a hard place over delivery of Devo Something. If it’s too little or too slow for Scots, Yes campaigners will feel robbed. If it’s too much or too fast, MPs from all parties will veto the plans. It’s a nightmare of their own creation.

But for the soon-to-be anointed new leader of the SNP, difficulties are looming too. Obviously, the challenge facing Nicola Sturgeon is not that of being elected to succeed Alex Salmond. That’s in the bag and deservedly so after a sterling effort during the referendum campaign. Nor is it adding to the status of the SNP – like the Greens, the party is adding dozens of new members every hour. Let’s be frank. The Yes-supporting parties are the only winners of the indyref despite losing it. The Labour Party continues to implode after losing support in its former heartlands of Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Dunbartonshire and Dundee – the poorest parts of Scotland. Even Unionist commentators like Alex Massie admiringly describe the SNP as “the natural party of government in Scotland”. The SNP appears to have lost the battle – and its leader – but has unquestionably won the war.

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Yet, like Labour, the SNP lost the vote in heartlands like Perth, Aberdeenshire and other rural areas and failed to win over older and more affluent voters for whom social justice and equality were not the most effective rallying cries.

There is little doubt that the wider Yes movement generated much of the excitement, grassroots activity, and the online material that helped rebut the non-stop Westminster/Establishment onslaught. Those tens of thousands of foot soldiers are now thoroughly demoralised by the unexpected fact and scale of defeat and are not immediate shoo-ins for any existing political party. That matters. They are the future of Scotland.

So the battle is on to harness their support or at least neutralise their active opposition. Over the weekend the #45plus hashtag emerged on social media – linking those still committed to independence and the social justice/equality agenda which full powers would have enabled the Scottish Government to pursue. Is it a new movement in the making, maybe a new political party?

In truth, as yet, there is no great will to make that happen. The #45plus movement may have more power as a loose and delightfully unbiddable umbrella movement shaped by the leadership of its constituent parts with the joint mission of pushing the SNP, Labour and Greens towards the social and structural changes they have failed to make at Holyrood. Common Weal and National Collective have already issued compelling and detailed manifestos for change – Women for Independence and Radical Independence are about to do the same.

So Nicola Sturgeon faces two immediate challenges as she takes over the reins. The obvious one is to shift policy to respond to the grassroots movement which helped achieve the 45 per cent independence vote and which is now intent on acting as its custodian. The less obvious challenge is equally serious. If change doesn’t come very quickly, some of those disillusioned young activists will leave Scotland.

That may sound over-dramatic. But I’ve had several calls from devastated leading activists contemplating an escape with their young families to more progressive European countries. Not just because the referendum was lost – but because the Establishment won. Placemen, untalented folk, the old guard and tired old elites will now continue to sit pretty in many institutions managing decline at the taxpayer’s expense. And to date the SNP has spent more time trying to sweet talk and co-opt than question and topple them. It may have seemed sensible to party leaders not to “rock the boat” before the referendum. But that strategy makes no sense now – and may have helped produce defeat.

Take the joint rural scandals of “slipper farmers and fishermen”. A tiny number of very wealthy Scots are trading quotas, raking in subsidies and controlling access to natural resources. Landowners are making millions through wind-farm payments while denying would-be tenant farmers leases to farm.

These inequalities – some the product of EU policy – leave many Scots in fishing, farming and “sporting” communities feeling thoroughly dispirited. And that feudalism, festering across much of rural Scotland, contributed to the No vote. Without a robust challenge to the notion that wealth and jobs are bonuses delivered by landed or southern elites, those working on the land struggled to believe a better future was possible. Enthusiasm for independence was much higher in areas of community control. But in the bulk of rural landowner-controlled Scotland, the prospect of antagonising powerful interests had a freezing effect on rural voters, helped by letters sent by some landowners to employees. That under-reported part of Project Fear worked a treat. It always does. It’s called feudalism.

Left-leaning Scottish politicians can no longer side-step the need to democratise Scotland. They must start with land reform – since a new bill is promised – and include the most far-reaching recommendations in the Land Reform Review Group’s final report.

They must decentralise power to community level in a more radical way than envisaged by the toothless Community Empowerment Bill.

Scotland’s massive councils are not right-sized vehicles for grassroots democracy. A new community-sized municipal tier of government must be created – even Cosla recommends it. So too the “early years” transformation promised by the SNP in the event of a Yes vote – parents demand it. 45 per cent of Scots have no confidence in the BBC’s even-handedness. That’s a problem for Holyrood as long as it’s a power retained by Westminster.

Yes voters also expect the SNP to intervene as it did over the Bedroom Tax, shielding the poorest Scots from the worst excesses of Westminster austerity. It’s a tall order for a new leader.

The Yes campaign moved well beyond its collective comfort zone during the referendum campaign – setting up TV stations, news agencies, videos, films, mass canvasses and new businesses on a shoestring. Such a self-starting movement will not now wait decades for change.

Years of self-education, discussion and contact with folk from functioning democracies have removed any tolerance for the dysfunctional status quo in the parts of Scottish society over which Holyrood presides.

The genie is out of the bottle. It is the Spirit of Independence.