Scotland’s progressive politics needs some championing
The National, 30 November 2021
Scotland’s progressive values have defined much of our politics – the first 20 years of devolution, majority opposition to Thatcherism, and the independence debate. And yet for all their wide support they need attention, nurturing, and championing.
On Saturday Plaid Cymru voted to endorse a deal with Welsh Labour for a co-operation agreement in government covering 46 areas including free school meals for primary children, free childcare, and tackling the second homes crisis. Adam Price, Plaid leader, said that this renewed “trust in a new democracy with an instruction to work differently – inclusively and co-operatively.”
In Scotland the SNP and Greens are in alliance in government – a first for both parties with a detailed programme of action. This is after fourteen years of SNP party government; for all the talk of co-operation across party divides in Scotland the reality has been mainly adversarial party politics which has often strangled aspirations for “a new democracy”.
Westminster may find itself the exception across the UK as it clings to single party “elective dictatorship” – an approach Labour still cannot wean themselves off and which benefits the Tory stranglehold, but its unreconstructed anti-democratic attitudes find too many echoes in how we still do Scottish politics.
Scotland’s progressive politics may have wide support but are somewhat vague in what they positively propose, rather than what they are not i.e. anti-Tory, anti-private sector capture of public services, pro-integrated public services and respect for professionals. But neither Labour nor the SNP has really defined what social justice means or fully articulated our different traditions of public service.
In too many places our values fall short of what we think we are. We are not a society getting more equal and fairer, redistributing from the wealthy to the less wealthy, championing social justice and disadvantaged communities.
We do things we can be proud of like Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement on Monday of the doubling of the Scottish Child Payment to £20 per week from April supporting over 100,000 children but we need much more. And while some of our shortcomings are due to Westminster, not all are.
This is for a variety of reasons. There is the thin nature of what passes for social democracy in Scotland. Another is the dynamic between Labour and SNP and independence and the union. These are symptoms of the conservatism, caution and safety-first mindset that defines too much of Labour, the SNP, and institutional Scotland, which the two parties (and others) reflect.
There is also a lack of depth, reflection and substance in much of our politics whether in policy, ideas or practice and action which then reduces serious issues to knee-jerk responses and whataboutery.
All of this is aided by a dominant Labour view of the SNP as usurpers, imposers and imposters that has little understanding of the SNP’s appeal and the rationale of independence – witness Gordon Brown’s many recent pronouncements on the latter.
Then there is the view of many in the SNP of Labour that caricatures the labour and trade union movement and shows little respect for its values of solidarity and collective action. These are however fundamental to the future of Scotland, and the reinvigoration of a vibrant social democratic tradition to the left of the SNP would be beneficial to everyone – including the SNP.
Both Labour and SNP claim to be shaped by social democracy but have always been vague about what this means. This has allowed both to be ultra-pragmatic in office, because both parties have come in their periods of dominance to be defined by retaining power above all else.
The big challenges of our age struggle to get air in this – the climate crisis and the need to rethink economic growth, prosperity and wealth creation; the march of AI and how work and employment will change; how we put the economic and ideological calculus of the past 40 years called “neoliberalism’ into reverse; how to tackle the huge concentrations of tech and corporate capitalism; and how to defend and deepen democracy and stand against the march of authoritarianism and nascent fascism.
Added to this, the independence question cuts through the progressive tradition but the future of independence has to be progressive. This means independence has to speak to all these issues and more to show it connects, is not about abstracts, and can shape the politics of the future.
Our progressive politics are also restricted by the lack of platforms, public forums and spaces which encourage dialogue, discussion and go deeper and beyond rhetoric. After 20 years of devolution there is a missing terrain of initiatives which encourage people out of their trench lines and try to find common language and ground.
Neal Lawson, head of Compass, the centre-left campaigning organisation which tries to speak beyond party observes: “Scottish progressive politics feel too tribal and rigid. No one wants to talk to anyone else, just blame them. A bit of humility and vulnerability is needed to open new debates up and get the progressive wheels turning again.”
The above absence aids a conservative public culture and politics which likes to present itself as virtuous, but in reality turns its back on ideas and values linked to action, and avoids self-criticism.
Who gains from the current status quo? Not independence. Or centre-left politics. Or social justice and change. But rather the conservatives in positions in all of the main parties and public life.
Moreover, the current big gainers are voices of inertia and stasis inside the civil service and institutional Scotland who do not want to see their positions questioned and for whom contemporary Scotland works rather well and comfortably – talking vaguely “progressive” language while presiding over establishment politics.
Rather than just continue in this vein without challenging it we need to ask is the current state of progressive politics the best we can do? Is this really a land taking seriously social justice, inequality and the blighted lives of too many of our citizens?
Answering this – rather than Labour and SNP knocking lumps out of each other with empty rhetoric – might be the answer to a fairer Scotland and even independence. This would renew our radical ideas and ambition, draw from a variety of sources, including the Greens, feminists, and grass roots campaigners, and be true to the best of our traditions aspiring to “a new democracy” and new society.