The SNP, Centre-Left Politics and the State of Social Democracy
Scottish Review, June 8th 2016
One party stands head and shoulders above all others in Scotland – namely, the Scottish National Party. It has got there through its own efforts, hard work and virtues, along with the numerous mistakes and weaknesses of its opponents. Scottish Labour’s long car crash was part tragedy, part comedy, but mostly of its own making. If it ever has an obituary written, it will say: ‘died at its own hands’. The Scottish Tories have been toxic for a generation, even seen as unScottish and ‘alien’, a phenomenon only slowly beginning to change.
This then begs the question: nine years into office, what do the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon stand for? What kind of Scotland do they wish to bring about, bar one that is independent and self-governing? For some these latter qualities are enough, based for them on principle, but for many they are abstracts which need further detail, and should be the means to an end of wider economic and social change, not an end in itself.
In many respects, a large part of the last nine years of the SNP in office have been the years of light lifting, considering the disarray and weaknesses of their opponents. It has been easy to point the finger at ‘London Labour’, even worse ‘Red Tories’, and of course, the grip of Westminster. Things aren’t always going to be so easy: opponents will be less incompetent, incumbents make mistakes, more powers are coming to the Parliament, and a decade of public spending cuts will take their toll.
Now the conventional answer to this question is, of course, that the SNP is a modern, centre-left, social democratic party. Whenever one writes of the crisis of social democracy across Europe and the entire developed world, some SNPers reply that you haven’t factored in the success and achievements of the Nationalists.
Social democracy everywhere is in a terrible state, battered by three decades of economic deregulation, social change and the weakening of working class collectivism and solidarity, and unable to deal with the pressures of globalisation, instability and immigration, which has seen a new wave of ugly populism and xenophobia. Not one traditional social democratic party in Europe has been able to ride these tigers and remain popular and true to a centre-left politics – not the French, the German, or even the Swedes and Norwegians. While the emergence of a populist new left such as Syriza in Greece has confronted the realities of what has been seen in Athens as the fiscal fascism of Berlin and Brussels.
We are meant to believe that Scotland, in the form of the SNP, has bucked these trends and provided a solitary oasis in this desert of the left. Apart from its smugness and insularity, it, of course, just isn’t completely true. The SNP have much to be proud of in their history and office, but they haven’t managed to yet buck global realities.
The SNP are not in their hearts a social democratic party. The clue is in the name: Scottish National Party. They are a party whose first and foremost aim is Scottish self-government, sometimes expressed as independence; at other points, as statehood, the latter of which can at times be expressed more flexibly.
Social democracy has become a secondary set of ideas to the SNP – which the party came somewhat late to in both its history and that of the centre-left – first beginning in the 1970s, and more convincingly in the 1980s. This has had a number of consequences rarely reflected upon: one of which is that this late conversion meant the SNP has always had a superficial and deeply unphilosophical relationship with this tradition. And this has mattered more and more, as social democracy since the early 1980s has been in retreat.
All across Europe and the developed world for the last three decades debates have raged about how the centre-left should adapt and respond to the great changes in our societies. How does social democracy respond to an age of greater individualism, choice and aspiration? What is the most relevant response to greater inequality, the super-rich and left behind? How can public services meet increased demand, both in terms of expectations and demographics, and allow people to have more say? And how does the centre-left make a politics of collective identities once class and workerist identities have weakened, and that of consumer and numerous hybrid-identities emerged?
In none of these debates and many more has the centre-left anywhere found convincing answers. This is not to argue that the right has had all the answers. Indeed, it hasn’t, but it has unlike the left, been able to posit a vision of the economy and the future based on going with the grain of mega-change (deindustrialisation, service economy, deregulation, financialisation). That this worldview is now falling apart, and in places in tatters, even more shows the paucity and crises of the centre-left.
Scotland and the SNP isn’t immune to all of the above. Nor have we somehow, unlike elsewhere, stumbled upon the answers. To be fair, much of this isn’t just the responsibility of the Nationalists. Scottish Labour dominated our country for fifty years and while it did many Big Things, it didn’t exactly prosper in the realm of ideas. Former Labour minister Wendy Alexander once said that Scottish Labour hadn’t had an idea since 1906; I always thought that was a bit hard, and it had a few in the 1920s, but you get the point.
Scottish mainstream social democracy just hasn’t done ideas and intellectualism: instead, its dominant strand has been practical and deeply pragmatic. And the SNP has continued this tradition. Throughout its recent history, thinkers such as Neil MacCormick have added considerably to intellectual debates on sovereignty and post-nationalism, but in the realm of economic and social ideas the Nationalist cupboard has been mostly bare: Stephen Maxwell being a lone exception exploring both big questions and policy dilemmas. To this day, nine years into office, the SNP seem strangely unmotivated by generating new policies and ideas, with no Nationalist or independence supporting think tank set up, and the leadership, seemingly uninterested in such possibilities.
Wait you might say, isn’t this just a ‘bash the SNP’ argument? What about the list: free care for the elderly, no tuition fees, the council tax freeze, and the such like. First, of course, all of these Big Ticket items are redistributive, but not to those poorer or on below average incomes, but those on above average incomes. Second, the case is often put, never mind such detail Scotland stands proudly for universalism, unlike England. But this ignores that universalism per se, involves choices and selectivity. Scotland isn’t a land of milk and honey, and we cannot afford to have universal universalism, so arguing for the above policies means putting them above others. In short, it means putting middle class and affluent interests ahead of those who are poorer and on lower incomes, and in typical Scottish traditions, dressing it up as ‘progressive’.
The incantation of free care for the elderly and no tuition fees has become almost the holy grail of Scottish politics. Just as at the last UK election, Ed Miliband, decided for posterity to engrave his six point plan into granite, in what became known as the ‘Ed Stone’, maybe the SNP could do the same? Why stop at Alex Salmond’s self-congratulation stone about no tuition fees: ‘the rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees’? Why not raise your aspiration and reach for your very own ‘Ed Stone’; indeed it could be our own ‘Eck Stone’, praising the achievements of our own dear former leader? That is the logical conclusion of a politics of past achievements, if you are not thinking about future choices.
To be more serious, the SNP have to come up with some answers for what kind of Scotland they want – beyond independence and the very short mantra of achievements. Apparently, there is to be a summer of independence, with SNPers and Yesers touring the nation (minus its former leader, Stewart Hosie), reigniting the cause of independence. Two wee problems with this are that there is no independence offer on the table, the 2014 one being dead in the water; and with that being the case, what sort of future Scotland is being offered, beyond the principle of independence?
A final thought. Scotland is centre-left and the SNP centre-leftish. This being the case is it not possible to start thinking, pushing and creating an actual, real, detailed politics of the centre-left? At the moment, a whole swath of Scottish respectable society, from the commentariat, to academia, professional bodies and the voluntary sector, have provided a ‘left cover’ for the SNP’s centrish-soft-leftish politics.
That was fine and understandable in the early days of the SNP in office, when everything was fresh and exciting, but nine years in it isn’t good enough. What chance that the Scotland which prides itself on being centre-left, radical, curious, and interested in ideas and debate, could actually contribute in some small way to the reinvention of social democracy? It is worth asking and even trying, and who knows might actually assist the SNP in answering some of the big questions.