Gerry Hassan: Social democracy has lost its meaning

Scottish parliament. Picture: Kenny Smith
Scottish parliament. Picture: Kenny Smith
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WE ARE all social democrats now”, Scots politicians might say – Salmond, Lamont, Rennie, even the occasional Tory seeking redemption.

Scotland is a land imbued and shaped by social democracy, but which has spent little time or energy in defining this in terms of its philosophy, values and practice. And increasingly this matters.

To Labour, social democracy has always been what it says it does from the local Labour council to Labour in government. To the SNP a catch-all populist party, social democracy has become part of its mission as a centre-left party, but not something it has ever reflected upon in-depth.

Both of these parties sit across a large part of the political spectrum, containing egalitarians, pragmatic managerialists, social conservatives and neo-liberals. Think of Wendy Alexander’s New Labour strictures or the SNP’s Mike Russell, who argued that the first years of independence could see the size of the state slashed.

There is much more at work than their mutual ambiguities about social democracy. Scottish Labour, like British Labour, was never first and foremost a social democratic party. Instead, its origins were in representing the interests of organised labour through a set of ideas which became known as labourism and at the same time doing some social democratic things. Similarly, the SNP’s modus operandi is not about being social democratic, but the vision of Scottish statehood and realising self-government.

Yet Scottish social democracy faces significant challenges. One is its lack of definition. Part of this is the absence of clear opponents. Scottish nationalism has been influenced by centre-left values; marketisation from a different angle similarly has permeated the centre-left body politic.

Alex Salmond last week talked of a social democratic Scotland at the Jimmy Reid Foundation and elsewhere defined it as “a competitive economy but a just distribution of resources”. This is rather similar to the definitions of Douglas Alexander and others at the height of New Labour and their mantra of “a strong economy and social justice”. Neither of these is frankly good enough.

Then there is the narrow bandwidth of what social democracy talks and does not talk about. It is all about public services and public spending, never about the nature of our society or taxation and redistribution.

Even more of the big issues of social democracy remain unaddressed: political economy, social justice, the role and nature of the state and how it aids prosperity and reduces poverty, and, critically for a centre-left agenda, the dysfunctional dynamics of capitalism and its propensity to monopoly, oligopoly and cartels.

Social democracy, like any philosophy, entails choosing priorities between competing interests, and emphasising the values which guide you. It does involve acting upon the limitations of the Anglo-American model of capitalism with its short-termism, shareholder capture and endemic insecurity. But it also entails not invoking Nordic fantasy models with their 50 per cent plus tax rates while chasing Irish corporation tax levels.

One reason for this political tax avoidance is the nature of the Scottish Parliament, which spends but does not raise its money.

In 1992, Labour were wrong-footed and put on the defensive on “Labour’s double whammy” tax hikes, while in 1999 the SNP’s “penny for Scotland” was pulverized by Labour. Both parties learned from these experiences not to talk openly about tax. This cannot go on indefinitely.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the absence of debate and reflection between social democratic ideals and practice. There is a propensity in politics and in much of public commentary to take at face value the comforting story that Scotland is this egalitarian, inclusive place and is incrementally day-by-day becoming more and more, a fairer, better society.

This could be seen in the knee-jerk reactions of some to Johann Lamont’s “something for nothing” speech last year, itself carelessly written. It can be seen in the lack of interest in the realities and limits of social justice on the part of most of our politicians and political discussions.

Scotland is not becoming a more equal place. In fact, we have to concede that there has not been a social democratic devolution dividend with our progress on a range of indicators less than comparable regions in England. Instead, we must ask, what are the consequences of the distributional choices successive administrations have made? Who is speaking up and championing those who are voiceless, not insiders and without institutional clout? Why should we think it socially democratic to hand state education policy over to the EIS or health to the BMA?

Social democracy’s triumph in Scotland has also become its greatest weakness. It is everywhere in Scotland and ultimately nowhere, paid lip service by institutions and professional groups, but championed by none. It has allowed itself to become a philosophy for all seasons: for radicals and egalitarians, technocratic managers and the consultancy class in the big accountancy firms and elsewhere.

This was just tolerable in good times when the Scottish Government budget grew dramatically over a decade but it will not do in hard times and when we face the winter of a punitive Westminster government.

We have to ask what would a Scottish social democracy look like; what would its values, priorities and practices be? How would it look and be different from the British social democracy which existed pre-New Labour? And if we want to tell a Scottish story of greater equality, compassion and solidarity, a Scottish “good society” if you like, then we have to begin to have the courage to tell ourselves some difficult home truths, reflecting on where we fall short, and mobilise and galvanise society to bring about that Scotland of the future.