SNP hegemony threatens to send Scotland down the road to mediocrity, writes Brian Wilson
I am not in the habit of quoting my past wisdom but, since this is my valedictory Scotsman column, I may be permitted that indulgence. Back in 1978, when the first devolution referendum was being contested, I made two predictions which have now been fulfilled in equal measure.
Writing from the geographic periphery, my first was that creating an Edinburgh legislature would lead to centralisation of powers and decision-making which already resided within Scotland. That has duly happened through the neutering of local government, the creation of myriad all-Scotland quangos under ministerial control and the systematic enfeeblement of dissenting outposts.
My second forecast was that a devolved Scotland would soon be run by the SNP – an unwelcome sentiment since the official Labour wisdom was that devolution would be their death-knell. That was a curious assumption, not least because precedent from elsewhere suggested that many who would not vote for independence are prepared to support separatist parties in the meantime.
There is an obvious reason for this. They alone have the threat of secession in their armoury, which in some eyes makes them best-placed to extract the maximum from the centre. And who can disprove this? I believe that Scotland would be a better place if the SNP was not running Holyrood. But I cannot dispute that their constant agenda of grievance and betrayal concentrates the minds of those who seek to appease it.
Whether that is the way one wants one’s nation to be presented is another question. I don’t. I detest the reduction of Scottish politics to an ongoing exercise in blame-shifting as cover for self-inflicted timidity and serious under-achievment. But clearly, there is a market for wrapping all of that up in a flag and calling it progress. Eventually it will be seen through but it may take a while.
Since 1997, Scottish Labour might have done better through a more acute awareness of having constructed – with the best of motives – its own potential scaffold, leading to a greater sense of purpose in avoiding the associated fate. Labour has never been good at reminding people of its own considerable achievements, leaving others to re-write history, at which Nationalism is famously adept.
Until far too late, Labour failed to make the coherent case for inter-dependence which, ultimately, a comfortable majority of the Scottish people endorsed in the 2014 referendum. By then, however, the dividing lines in Scottish politics had been crucially redrawn. The new orthodoxy, as expressed on the front of the SNP manifesto, is that “everyone wins” under Nationalist rule. It is a cruel hoax if, in the short term, a saleable one.
Let me quote you an example. I went back to my former constituency last weekend to give the Labour candidate a hand. Saltcoats used to have a thriving town centre where, at election times, political campaigning was focused. What I found was closer to dereliction. The place was poorer. The shops were poorer. The people were poorer. I suspect health and educational indicators will be poorer too.
That is what a decade of council tax freezes and disproportionate cuts to local services leads to. Throw in a poverty of ideas about stimulating investment and employment, far less a strategy for reviving town centres, and you have a spiral of decline. The same picture could be painted in many parts of Scotland. Everyone is most certainly not winning and the trick has been to con many of the poor into voting for their own further impoverishment, plus a flag.
Next to us in Saltcoats were a particluarly motley band of local Nationalists, with one individual shouting insults and alleging that his opponents were the possessors of English accents. This specimen turned out to be an office-bearer of the local SNP who, a few days later, was forced to resign for publishing warped, sexist comments about the Labour candidate. O Flower of Scotland, when will we see your likes again…?
In broadcasting studios and cultural salons, the fable is that we are living through some energised form of political engagement with a thousand flowers blooming. In most of Scotland, any of that is difficult to discern. We are not all winners. Higher earners prosper while the poor, and their communities, are poorer. When an antidote is proposed, asking the best-off to pay a bit more, the faux-radicalism of Nationalism is replaced by the hard face of home-bred austerity.
Writing in the Scottish Review this week, Kenneth Roy took issue with the “abuse of language” in which the Nationalist manifesto is couched. There were cloying presumptions like “All of us who live here in Scotland love our country”, not to mention “We all have a positive and vibrant vision of what Scotland can become”. Orwell, he recalled, thought such meaningless language in political manifestoes “had an anaesthetic effect” and “could corrupt thought”.
“The First Minister,” wrote Roy, “confuses the people in her immediate circle – the anoraks, the zealots, the deranged – with the apathetic majority who have never known what it means to be as positive and vibrant as Nicola Sturgeon”. For the time being, around a quarter of the Scottish electorate (since half won’t vote) have been persuaded to join in the ordained mood. But many of them, over the next four years, will look around and wonder: “What has changed?”
Since I had assumed the SNP would control Holyrood, if not quite as soon as they did, I was not roused to action when it happened. It was an irritation rather than an intrusion into daily life. I was happy to be out of politics or remotely close to the front-line of debate. But things got serious when they began planning a referendum and I responded to the call by starting to write this column. If it played any part in the outcome, that is more than enough reward. After more than 200 weeks, it’s time to give it a rest.
Scotland desperately needs a strong, critical media and a fearless, competent opposition. We are not a one-party nation in which all are winners and that needs to be pointed out. The biggest danger Scotland now faces is not the mythical motorway to independence but a slow road to mediocrity.