Time for the SNP and Labour to break with the failed policies of divided Britain
Sunday Herald, May 28th 2017
Until last week this election was one in which nothing seemed to be happening. All of that changed with the horrors of Manchester.
Such atrocities test the fabric of our democracy and civic culture and sadly find some – though thankfully few – wanting.
Theresa May came out saying some of the right words. But we have nearly 1,000 armed troops now on our streets:; a reflection of the huge police cuts she made in her six-year stint as Home Secretary and glaring failures in intelligence and security.
Tory McCarthyite smears will be out in force for the remainder of the election. Things haven’t gone quite to plan – with polls showing their lead slipping and one YouGov poll putting it as narrow as 5%, which would translate on a national swing to a Tory overall majority of a mere two seats.
The Tories historically have never winced at wrapping themselves in the union flag, claiming patriotism as their own, and calling out opponents as Reds under the beds or unBritish.
It isn’t going to be pretty. It is going to be ugly. But the Tories have a born-to-rule attitude and a hunger to win. It amounts to an entitlement attitude which has served them well through the ages. Labour and the others would do well to learn from this.
It is a strange election across the UK – and in Scotland. The mood is difficult to gauge. But it is filled with apprehension, confusion and different parties talking past each other to different demographics. The Tories believe they have the over-65s in the bag in England; similarly Labour with under 34 year olds.
Many of us in Scotland like to emphasise how different we are from the rest of the UK: secure in our centre-left values, and not pandering to the lowest Tory and UKIP populist and xenophobic sentiments. Yet we are not immune from the gathering storm clouds – from the anxieties that fed Brexit, to insecure economic times, and worries about security here and abroad.
The SNP campaign until Manchester was missing something. Before the shock of the terrorist attack there was no clear, over-arching Nationalist strategic theme.
‘The election isn’t about independence. It is about Brexit’ said Campbell Gunn, ex-Salmond spin doctor. In this he agreed with Theresa May’s southern strategy, and disagreed with May and Davidson’s northern approach.
The SNP have been ten years in office in Holyrood. They are the incumbents and having to slowly adjust to this new political reality.
This was the undertow of the BBC Scottish Leaders’ Debate which saw nurse Claire Austin challenge the First Minister on nurses’ pay and having to use a foodbank. This had ripples beyond the twitter storm of whether she did or didn’t use a foodbank. What was revealing was the First Minister having to face the realities of being responsible for public services defined by constraints and cuts and failing to adequately deal with the human costs of this.
This is an age of insurgency across the globe. In the UK, however fleetingly it may turn out, Jeremy Corbyn has tapped into anger, anxiety and feelings of powerlessness, particularly amongst younger voters.
In Scotland, this mood has been opportunistically and brilliantly captured by Ruth Davidson – challenging the SNP with the incessant ‘We Say No. We Meant It’ mantra.
It is a threadbare insurgency. It is bereft of policy and ideas. But the SNP need an opposition and with Labour in Scotland in confused and divided, Davidson has stepped into the breach. She has got far with guile and a bit of populism.
Scotland is slowly changing its political mood. It isn’t yet turning against the SNP. But the days of the SNP carrying all before it – the age of the 56 and winning just a whisker under half the vote – are no more.
The SNP as its peak had a deft political touch, but in the last year or so it has slowly begun to show a growing inability to reach out and understand non-SNP majority Scotland. This was writ large in the party’s local election campaign and response afterwards.
Theresa May has shown the limits of ‘lonely at the top’ leadership. Her excruciating U-turn on social care four days after the Tory manifesto launch showed poor judgement and her weakness as a politician – unable to even admit that she was conducting a U-turn.
May is restricted by her inflexibility, narrow knowledge beyond her Home Secretary brief, and small number of key advisers who she listens to on key decisions.
Nicola Sturgeon has a much more agile political and campaigning instinct, and already won her own mandate. Yet, there are some similarities between the two leaders. Both are consummate micro-managers, don’t take risks or make radical moves they don’t have to, and listen to a small circle of voices.
With Sturgeon this is beginning to affect the political antenna of the SNP. Whereas Alex Salmond had an obvious ‘Team Salmond’ who he listened to, there is no equivalent with Sturgeon. She doesn’t even have her own Nicola in the way Salmond did. That isn’t ultimately good politics.
Labour have made headway in this election, but whether it is sustainable is questionable. Wales has come back into the fold. Scotland is a right-off.
Corbyn’s Labour hasn’t been the shambles many thought they would be. The Scottish party, for all Kezia Dugdale’s energy, seems reduced to a sideshow. The best that can be said is that it isn’t facing complete meltdown.
Until the start of last week, we seemed inevitably to be heading towards a reluctant, unenthusiastic Tory landslide, on a reduced turnout. Now that seems just a little less certain.
Similarly, Scotland is in unusual mood. The era of the near-invisible SNP is over but they will remain our dominant party well into the future. Now they face the prospect of a more popular, abrasive opposition from the Scottish Tories. Both are going to have to adapt and change, and offer more detail and serious politics.
Look around the world. It isn’t an edifying picture. All around politics and leaders are failing. The promises of globalisation pre-banking crash ring hollow.
Instead, we face post-2008, a future of slow growth and what the US writer Ruchir Sharma calls ‘a post-miracle world’ – where the easy promises of the nineties and noughties no longer convince.
The pursuit of economic growth is the way all mainstream politicians have framed their choices and avoided the politics of choosing winners and losers. This is true of Theresa May’s Brexit and the SNP’s independence.
This conceit looks like it no longer works. This means that the politicians who are fighting this election, or maybe the one after this, are going to have to find a richer language and set of slogans than the ones we see today.
Next week will see the SNP launch their delayed manifesto on Tuesday – a mere nine days before polling. They will claim to be the progressive party of Scotland and the real opposition to the Tories at Westminster, and will pepper their manifesto with eye-catching measures on higher rate tax, inequality and the public good.
It will be a decent prospectus, but this election shows that the Blair-Brown-Cameron way of doing politics, of showing your contempt for voters by treating them as children is becoming increasingly wearisome. The appeal of Corbyn and the SNP at their best show enough voters yearn for something different. It is time that one of the two had the courage to completely break with the failed politics of Britain’s recent past.