What is the point of manifestos if they wont treat us as adults?
Sunday Mail, April 24th 2016
All the party manifestos are out – bar Labour. But the only really important one – that of the SNP – emerged this week.
It was an event. A spectacle. A cross between an American sports event and a Barbara Streisand concert, with the associated emotional overload.
It is all part of the modern election ritual. Part of the form and planned grid of the campaign which political and media professionals know and understand.
If we step back from the political bubble we have to question why all this fuss about party manifestos? They used to be thin things filled with vague pronouncements. Then they became thick and detailed. And now they are filled with photos and sunlit shots.
There are two positive examples of British manifestos – Labour 1945 and Thatcher 1979. The Labour one ‘Lets Face the Future’ was 27 pages long: short, concise and clear. It said things like ‘The nation wants food, work and homes’. It changed Britain for the better in ways we still live with.
The Tory 1979 one was a mere 32 pages. It was more sure on direction of travel than detail, about smaller government, lower taxes, trade union reform, but it heralded a revolution which still shapes a large element of our world for good or ill.
Then there was the anti-manifesto of Labour in 1983: 13,000 words, sellotaping together a bitterly divided party as it embarked on the doomed endeavor of unconvincingly presenting itself to the voters.
Now we have the manifesto as personal covenant; a solemn connection between national leader and the public. Tony Blair, populiser and innovator of modern politics broke new ground with the 1997 New Labour manifesto ‘Because Britain Deserves Better’. It was big pages, huge photos and Blair on the front cover.
The SNP’s 2011 manifesto ‘Re-elect’ had a huge Alex Salmond on the front, and now in 2015 we have ‘Re-elect’ with Nicola Sturgeon everywhere – the direct descendants of the New Labour approach. About connection, trust, the personal and presidential.
The SNP manifesto launch was an impressive occasion, but the document, despite its 76 pages, is as important for what it doesn’t say, as what it does say and what it reveals.
In the ‘My Vision’ introduction Sturgeon writes that the manifesto and its contents are about a ‘fair, equal and prosperous nation’, but that ‘the journey’ to this Scotland ‘is far from over.’
Following under the banner ‘The Next Steps to a Better Scotland’ are eleven sections – a healthier, smarter, wealthier Scotland and more. A section on ‘Scotland’s future’ is all about constitutional change, while ‘Empowered Scotland’ dares to mention revitalising local government, but is short on specifics.
This is the official story of our nation – the professional, well-meaning version of public good, believing it is slowly and unremittingly continuing the progress to a fairer, better land. Never mind the facts. It is what Alphabet Soup Scotland (SCVO, STUC, CBI) want to tell themselves and convince us.
This was always questionable, but is alarming now. Where is the consideration of the hard choices and huge public spending cuts coming? But then why bother with such inconvenient facts when you can show sunlit uplands and selfies to carry yourself over the winning threshold?
The SNP have enormous goodwill behind them, and could have confidently said that there are rocky times ahead but that we are in trusted hands who will be honest and treat the public as adults and, that we could get through this together. Instead, they have chosen a road of collective delusion.
We know that manifestos are in part about keeping the morale of parties up, and making members feel they are part of something bigger – which contribute to making all the compromises and boring bits of politics bearable.
They can also give a sense of community and uplift, as in the almost ‘We are family’ aspect of the 2011 SNP manifesto – which showed significant personal events, from marriages, to births and deaths within the Nationalists connecting past, present and future generations.
In recent years, the SNP has been a growing, welcoming family, whereas Labour has become bitter and dysfunctional – warring about past mistakes that no one can quite remember the details of.
Despite this, there is a feeling that the age of Blair and New Labour spin has reduced the manifesto to a charade, to a pretense, reinforcing an actor’s interpretation of politics across the world – and that is a damning and corrosive development.
This is the time of peak SNP. It is now clear this isn’t about independence for the moment, unless Brexit changes that, or policy or detail, but about ‘standing up for Scotland’ and its interests. This isn’t imaginative or radical politics, but essentially defensive, waiting for events to turn your way, and in a curious manner, very traditionally Scottish.