Alex Massie: Nostalgia is undoing of Scottish Left

SOCIALISM cannot regain traction in Scotland by harking back to the old days, writes Alex Massie

William McIlvanney at this month's Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Jane Barlow
William McIlvanney at this month's Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Jane Barlow

Few things have been cheerier this summer than Canongate’s admirable republication of William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw novels. Other writers may receive more publicity, but there’s no finer living Scottish novelist. None, I think, are regarded so affectionately either. So it has been, as he has said, a kind of living resurrection. A late flowering that’s as warm, surprising and splendid as an Indian summer. Worth cherishing, in other words.

Earlier this summer, it was reported that McIlvanney might be asked to write the forward for the Scottish Government’s forthcoming – one almost says keenly anticipated – white paper on independence. Speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival last week, McIlvanney said he knew nothing more about this than what had appeared in the newspapers.

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McIlvanney’s prose would improve the white paper. He is, as he confirmed at the Book Festival, planning to vote Yes in the referendum next year. For reasons that escape me, this unsurprising revelation seemed to excite many Nationalists. The views of celebrities – including writers, artists and actors – may be deemed newsworthy, but excellence in one field hardly predicts, far less guarantees, eminence in another. The political views of novelists are no more pertinent or acute than anyone else’s.

In any case, McIlvanney’s enthusiasm for independence was tempered by the suggestion that it’s the least bad option available to Scotland. As he put it: “I really believed when we got the [Scottish] parliament that a lot of socialist principles would surface in Scotland. But the truth is the Labour Party’s now dead in the water. We voted Labour for generations. Now we’ve got the parliament, there is no Labour Party.”

No-one, I think, expects McIlvanney to be an enthusiast for New Labour but, never mind Old Labour, this is the authentic complaint of Prehistoric Labour. It represents the triumph of sentimentalism over experience; melancholy romance over modernity. Perhaps something was lost when the socialist dream perished, but the past was another country where lives were shorter, harder and meaner – an age when women’s lives were often limited to back-breaking domestic drudgery, too. It was not a better time at all. Nostalgia is natural, but it’s also often misguided.

Not that McIlvanney appears enthused by the future either. “I’m deeply disillusioned, but I hope the SNP will take over that [socialist] role because to me British politics has degenerated into being just a management system,” he said. Of course politics has always been a matter of management, but I fancy McIlvanney will be disappointed also by the SNP. Alex Salmond is many things, but he’s no kind of socialist firebrand. On the contrary, in matters of economics, he is a pretty orthodox neo-liberal.

Which makes it odd that McIlvanney should hope to “take the chance of being a small country dealing directly with that kind of monstrous juggernaut of finance, rather than doing it indirectly through a government which I think will surrender and kowtow to them any time”. This may be an admirable sentiment, but anyone who thinks that RBS and other major financial interests will not, effectively, be able to write their own laws in an independent Scotland is, I am afraid, walking in the land of the deluded. This may be regrettable, but that’s a different matter.

In any case the SNP is not, and never has been, a socialist party. John Swinney is scarcely a tribune for Red Perthshire. Despite being one of the SNP’s most capable – and reassuring – salesmen, the finance minister has kept a surprisingly low profile in recent months. Perhaps this is because he is a realist and, as custodian of the national finances, cannot afford to wrap his calculations in wishful thinking. Swinney’s realism should be a selling point for independence, not a brake upon it.

Polls suggest that a majority of Scots expect taxes to rise after independence and it takes no great powers of analysis to divine that this must probably limit the people’s enthusiasm for independence. On the rare occasions Swinney has been heard from recently, however, he has stressed his preference for the overall tax burden to remain much the same after independence as it is now.

Of course, as Yes supporters keep telling us, the independence movement is broader than the SNP. Moreover, we should not make the mistake of assuming that the SNP’s vision for Scotland is the only road to travel. True as this may be, it remains the case that many – perhaps even most – of the non-SNP voices arguing for independence are doing so from the fringes of the Scottish political scene. Given the dreary conformity that characterises much of mainstream Scottish political thought, there is no shame in being on the fringe; nevertheless the kind of politics favoured by the Greens and whatever remains of the Scottish Socialist Party are brands of politics that have been emphatically rejected in election after election.

Doubtless the dinosaur Left thinks independence might produce a new national awakening and a red-hued socialist dawn. There is a naiveté about such dreams that is almost touching. It persuades itself that Scotland is a markedly more left-wing country than the rest of the United Kingdom and that once free of polluting, pestilent Toryism, the red flag will fly again.

This, like most other shibboleths cherished by the far-Left, is not true. Scottish attitudes are, generally speaking, much the same as English attitudes. There are differences but these are of degree, not kind. For instance, 43 per cent of Scots think the government should pursue redistributive policies, but only 34 per cent of people in England think this. More recently, polls report that 80 per cent of Scots favour capping the amount of money any family can receive in welfare payments.

In 2011, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University considered the question “is Scotland more left-wing than England?” Based on polling from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, he concluded that though it is, “the differences are modest at best”. Indeed, he added: “Like England, Scotland has become less – not more – social democratic since the start of devolution.”

Scots may think of themselves as socialists, but their actual views tell a different story. And it is a story that suggests the appeal of tax-and-spend leftism has diminished sharply. In 2000, more than 60 per cent of Scots favoured increasing taxes and government spending; by 2010 that figure had collapsed to 40 per cent. This may be explained by Labour’s public spending increase; even so, as Prof Curtice noted: “Scottish appetites for more spending have been satisfied in much the same way as they have for the English.”

Perhaps this should not be a surprise either. The prospects for socialist revival in Scotland are dim. It is convenient to forget this, but Tony Blair’s government was popular in Scotland. Much of middle Scotland rather approved of New Labour’s modernising project and some of Labour’s difficulties in Scotland stem from rejecting New Labour, not from embracing it. Labour was left behind and offered no view of – or for – the future.

Neither the SNP nor the Labour Party promise a deep red future for Scotland. That is, at least in part, because each party is in the business of winning elections and the Red Flag is not the banner it once was.

An independent Scotland would most probably be governed, most of the time, from the centre-left. But neither short- nor long-term trends favour the far-Left and the answer to what killed the dinosaur Left is simple: time, experience and modernity.