Scotland’s Quiet Revolution: How we changed and what it may mean
Sunday Mail, May 3rd 2015
What in the future will people say about the state of our nation today? They will say they saw a Scotland on the cusp of historic change, shifting from an older, predictable order to something new and potentially different.
A SNP wave looks certain to wash over Scotland next Thursday, toppling most Labour and Lib Dem strongholds. Cameron has given up on the Scottish Tories – in the pursuit of undermining Scottish Labour and winning back soft English UKIP voters. Ed Miliband in stressing his ‘no deals’ with the SNP seems to have abandoned Scottish Labour to await its fate.
This raises big questions: where are we, how did we get up here, and where are we going? One account stresses that Scotland has been fundamentally changed by the democratic engagement and upsurge of the indyref.
Another even more limited perspective emphasises that Labour’s alliance with the Tories in the referendum has proven toxic for the former, aiding the winning of the vote, but leaving a bitter aftertaste.
There is a wider story. The indyref was a product of long-term changes in society. And the referendum campaign then acted as a catalyst of further change – beyond the constitution and politics.
None of the recent change we have seen came out of the blue. There is a long tail to this. And a whole series of contingent factors, accidents and events which amplify or even create historic trends.
Take the example of the SNP narrowly winning office in 2007 by one seat and a few thousands votes. The Nationalists wouldn’t have won if Tommy Sheridan in the four years previous hadn’t blown up the Scottish Socialist Party reducing it from six MSPs to zero. Similarly, the long goodbye of Tony Blair as Prime Minister in 2007 cast a dark shadow over Labour’s electoral prospects.
Minority government turned out to be the making of the SNP. Even this wouldn’t have happened if the Lib Dems hadn’t boxed themselves out of possible negotiations with the Nationalists because of the independence question. There should be a lesson in that for the UK parties post-May 7th, but none of them seem to remember this.
However, we need to go further back into history to grasp the scale of change we are living through. Scottish society post-1707 until the middle of the 20th century was a very ordered place. It had a very certain sense of authority: which saw itself as benign and enlightened, but in which stepping out of line or being a dissenter was publically frowned upon.
The main institutions of this order – the church, education, law, local government and the media, were all part of what could be broadly characterised as a liberal unionist establishment.
Slowly over the post-war era, the hold of these bodies began to wane and decline. There was the decline of Scottish owned businesses, the rise of the welfare state, the hollowing out of religious observance, and a wider shift away from blindly trusting authority.
Scotland in many respects became quite a bit like elsewhere in the Western world. And as it did many people, not surprisingly, wanted at the same time as embracing these changes, to emphasise and celebrate a sense of their distinctiveness.
This phenomenon is not unique to Scotland. Instead, it can be found all across the Western world. It is one of the ways that people negotiate and make sense of globalisation, and what we have seen in recent years in Scotland isn’t exceptional to us, merely a Scottish manifestation of huge changes sweeping the globe.
This can be seen across society. Despite some Scottish protestations that we are ‘a socialist country’, like elsewhere in the developed world, including the Nordics, the social democratic tradition is not in a good way. It has had a shaky last forty years from the demise of the post-war settlement in the 1970s.
The main party associated with it, Labour, is not in a good way, and hasn’t been creative or imaginative in how it has done politics for several decades, instead trying to hold onto its power base in Scotland. For years people didn’t openly talk about this, or pretended it was otherwise by favourably comparing the Scottish party with New Labour or English Labour, but now its condition has become self-evident.
This situation carries with it all sorts of risks. Some people believe that the SNP should just take up the mantle of Scottish Labour and champion it more effectively; others that a social democracy with a Nordic tinge is enough to repulse the worst excesses of our age.
There is in this a danger of passing seamlessly from an age of Labour one party dominance to that of SNP one party supremacy. The Labour Party were for decades the political establishment of this country, who ran, administered and gave purpose to a whole network of institutions and public networks.
This Labour world and way of doing things is now being called time upon. Voters, despite the SNP being in office in Holyrood for eight years, are looking as if they are going to act next week in kicking the Labour Party as incumbents, and regarding the SNP as insurgents.
There is a logic to this: Labour has run huge swathes of Scotland for something like 50 years, and the SNP are still the new kids on the block. And for all the talk of anti-SNP tactical voting, it is also true, given public opinion and this history, that there will be some anti-Labour tactical voting as people choose to express years of pent up frustrations at the party which once defined Scotland.
There are many different moods in Scotland at the moment: excitement, hope, a belief in change, and a bit of anxiety and foreboding. Large parts of our country are bewildered by what is going on. Others fear the transition without pause from one machine politics to another, and where we find the spaces for reflection and dissent.
We have to see the bigger picture. Scotland has come from a place where institutions and wee men thought it their mission and right to tell the rest of us off and keep people in their place. We have travelled far from this. It has been a long, quiet revolution. It is essential to cherish the light and cracks in it, and having thrown off one orthodoxy to not replace it with another. Lets recognise and nurture the ‘diverse assembly’ that is our modern Scotland.