Simon Pia: Vision is just an illusion
VOTERS are being sold a false image of Scotland instantly becoming a fairer, better place just by voting Yes to independence in the referendum.
Increasingly, the phrase “I’m not a Nationalist but…” has begun to jar as another well-meaning member of the “Scottish Left”, whatever that exactly is these days, tells me they will be voting Yes in the referendum on independence.
What particularly irks is that the reasoning for this is fundamentally flawed and rests on La Grande Illusion of Scottish politics and its progressive chattering classes. The assumption is that a separate Scotland will be a kinder, gentler, fairer, better and, let’s face it, superior country than this beastly Britain dominated by Tory England. Overnight, Scotland will turn into a Scandic social democracy.
It reached its nadir during the Edinburgh Festival in two debates, one with ageing hipsters in Leith that had more than a whiff of Shoreditch about it, and the other at the Book Festival, where it was difficult to differentiate the local literati from the North London lot until they opened their mouths.
A common theme at both was the bile and betrayal felt towards Labour – much of it, perhaps, understandable when one considers Iraq, the wholehearted embrace of neo-liberalism and assault on civil liberties. This was backed up by the belief that independence will be the panacea to all our ills.
But as Scotsman columnist Gerry Hassan was good enough to point out in his debate with Polly Toynbee of the Guardian at the Book Festival, in England the majority of the overall electorate has only ever voted Conservative once – in 1955, when Scotland did likewise. What was not said was that Labour, unlike the Tories, has never achieved more than 50 per cent of the vote in Scotland. It may have been the biggest party since the Sixties, but Scotland has never been as deeply Labour as our electoral system portrays.
Scotland, though, has become increasingly anti-Tory, but over the past decade it has also become less social democrat.
Academics John Curtice and Rachel Ormston’s report on the British Social Attitude (BSA) survey last December, entitled Is Scotland more left-wing than England?, concluded: “Although Scotland is more social democrat in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best. Like England, Scotland has become less – not more – social democratic since the start of devolution”.
In recent years, BSA surveys have also shown Scotland to be more conservative than England on social issues, while the Kirk and Catholic Church continue to have a disproportionate influence in Scottish politics and the media compared with churches south of the Border.
Another fallacy of La Grande Illusion is the belief that, after a successful Yes vote, the SNP would not necessarily become the natural party of government. Scots may be thrawn, but it is difficult to imagine them replacing Alex Salmond and the SNP, particularly as the unionist parties would be in disarray.
Part of the “Non-Nats” premise also rests on how much a party of the “Left” the SNP really is? Much of the SNP’s success has been Salmond’s ability to pitch himself as all things to all people. As financier Peter de Vink said approvingly on the BBC recently: “He talks Left, but acts Right.” A more accurate description would be broadly populist as, while Salmond has courted the Mathewsons, Grossarts, Farmers and Murrays of the Scottish business world, he was also backslapping the late Jimmy Reid. It should also be noted that before the banking crisis Salmond was more neo-liberal than New Labour and even criticised Gordon Brown for not enough light-enough regulation. Meanwhile, the First Minister promises corporation tax cuts while the council tax freeze – a regressive policy of greater benefit to the wealthier – has been the SNP’s key policy.
Salmond also made great play on BBC Question Time during the 2011 election that he would protect the NHS, unlike the UK government. A senior aide described it as a game-changer during the campaign, but with the latest figures on NHS cuts last week even its critics admit that a Labour government at Holyrood would have protected the NHS more vigorously .
However, Salmond’s Teflon-like quality ensures that he continues to be seen as an “outsider”, exploiting the general disillusionment with Westminster and politics in general. As a political chameleon, his vision for Scotland is still ill-defined. While Gavin McCrone’s analysis of Norway last week in The Scotsman pointed out that its high-tax regime and wealth tax are key part of its economy, it is a subject that Salmond runs a mile from.
One of the main failures of devolution has been that it has benefited “civic scotland” – media, academics, civil servants, quangos, public and third sector executives – while failing to address the core problems of inequality and unemployment. Meanwhile, “civic Scotland” is engrossed in constitutional navel-gazing, encouraged by the SNP, and many see an expansion of their role and no doubt greater opportunities in an independent Scotland. However, the future for manufacturing, research and workforce at large is far more uncertain.
But underlying La Grande Illusion is ultimately a false sense of grievance, often from people who have very little to grieve about, and a warped view of Scotland’s relationship with England. Brian Wilson’s bracing outburst in these pages last week about the media obsession with looking at everything through “ the prism of the national question” and his clarion call for Scotland to fight back against the rewriting of its history was a much-needed corrective.
James Kelman’s refers to our “colonised culture” in the latest edition of the Scottish Review of Books. Yes, as Kelman says, Gaeldom did suffer, was oppressed and brutalised like many other indigenous people, but it was as much by lowland Scots as it was by England. No culture remains pure and pristine.
Kelman is right, though, to say it is pathetic how little is known of our history, but when education secretary Mike Russell stood up in Holyrood and ran through a tea-towel version of it, omitting inconvenient truths like the Darien scheme, during the debate on introducing Scottish Studies, one can but despair.
Scotland’s culture does thrive as part of a multicultural Britain. People are trying to right past wrongs and while Kelman rails against the British Council, that other institution of the state – the BBC –has introduced the BBC Alba channel.
Scotland has benefited greatly from the Union and as an equal partner and leading agent in the empire at so many others’ expense. It has gone on to do so culturally, economically and politically and to refer to our “colonised culture” is an insult to those truly colonised. Even more galling, however, is the general crude caricature of “Tory England”. Danny Boyle’s Olympic spectacle was not only a corrective to the Jubilee but also a reminder of our best traditions.
The Scottish Left would also do well to reflect on England’s great radical tradition, what it has given us and the common values we share today. From the Magna Carta, the Lollards, Levellers, Diggers, Ranters and the Chartists to writers such as Milton, Blake, Paine, Cobbet, Shelley, Morris and Orwell and even the anti-Corn Law league inspired by the English middle-classes.
The Tolpuddle martyrs, the Peterloo massacre, Thomas Spence’s call to nationalise land, to the Jarrow marchers, all continue to resonate and inspire throughout these isles, while not just Scottish women can look to Mary Woolstencraft and Emily Pankhurst, who fought for their rights. In more recent times, one need only look to Orwell, Beveridge and Bevan and appreciate their impact on Scotland.
Toynbee, in her response to Hassan, made the heartfelt plea: “Don’t leave us. We need you to be there.” Tony Benn said the same days earlier. Progressives, liberals, social democrats, socialist are misguided if their constitutional navel-gazing embraces is limited by what is effectively “bourgeois nationalism” instead of looking to new horizons such as federalism, localism and stronger city regions.
But it would seem solidarity is fading from the lexicon of the Scottish Left.
• Simon Pia is a former Labour media adviser and now freelance commentator
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 22 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 24 mph
Wind direction: North west