The Coming Big Ideas in Scottish Politics
The Scotsman, October 16th 2010
Scottish politics is going through the motions at present. There is the excuse of waiting for the Comprehensive Spending Review. But a deeper malaise is at work.
The political classes have run out of money and ideas, and devolution – that much trumpeted project – now seems shorn of vision and dynamism.
Scotland is currently shaped by risk-averse conservatives in our political parties and institutions, and number crunching accountants earnestly lecturing us that we cannot afford things we once cherished and it is time to sell everything off or charge for it.
This is an historic moment and opportunity then to challenge such doomsayers and pessimists on both sides: the old and new conservatives and positively choose a radical path. This is the time to say to those wanting restoration to a golden age of a managed Scotland in the 1950s and 1960s, and the restoration revolutionaries of neo-liberalism, that they are both delusional and not living in the real world.
The Scottish political debate needs to decide to think and act big, responding to, challenging and rising above these frankly inadequate accounts. We have to recognise that the politics of the first decade of devolution and the pork-barrel Parliament of largesse is over.
We need to recognise the changed public mood and times. Across society there are widespread anxieties about the economy, society and inequality. Many people now wonder more and more about what is the purpose of life, and doubt whether the treadmill of increased growth, consumerism and individualism is the answer.
We have a vacuum in the realm of ideas and ideology, after the humiliation of social democracy under New Labour and car crash of neo-liberalism. Numerous vague and insubstantial ideas have wafted across the political spectrum: ‘happiness’, ‘affluenza’, the idea of a ‘confident Scotland’, and numerous others from the ‘health and well-being industry’ who first took growth for granted, and have never engaged in the importance of the economy.
A central text here has been Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s ‘The Spirit Level’, charting the damage inequality does across the world in rich societies. What is fascinating, in what is an important, but flawed book, with no recognition of the importance of ideas or that the economy matters, is that it taps into this growing public feeling in Britain and elsewhere, that something has gone wrong, and that the scale of inequality disfigures and distorts our societies.
Scottish politics at the same time has to enter a new phase not just about spending money or the constitution. This is a challenge to the SNP but also Labour’s die-hard unionists obsessed with the Nationalist shibboleth. Instead, for the SNP any longer-term independence strategy or radical Labour approach has to address the key question of what kind of Scotland we want to live in, and what kind of society do we aspire to, and how can we sketch out a route map to begin taking us there.
Two big possibilities would allow the Scottish Government to reframe the political debate. The first is a Fairness Commission. More and more people are anxious and concerned about the direction of society, the widening chasm between rich and poor, the insecurity of the middle classes, what we do about welfare, and the failing inter-generational compact across the ages. Terms such as ‘aspiration’, ‘success’ and ‘talent’ have become devalued, and seen to be associated with the short-term, superficial and being selfish.
A Fairness Commission for Scotland would be a major initiative by our government, responding to these concerns, addressing them and offering solutions. It would not as a commission be solely on poverty or social justice, or just about people in poverty or disadvantaged, but instead about all of Scotland.
Finally, this would not be a commission just about what government can do. It would be about all of us, the public life of Scotland, business, voluntary organisations and individuals.
The second is a Commission on Public Sector Reform. This would start from the widespread assumption that existing ways of doing things are going to have to radically change.
Yet at the same time, it would challenge the conventional contours of thinking in Scotland. First, there are the ideas of the consultant class and quangocrat Scotland: of top down, command and control, technocratic solutions. Second, there is the conservatism of the labour and trade union movement who haven’t had a positive suggestion about public services, work and organisations since Upper Clyde Shipworkers.
A new approach is needed which puts trust and co-operation at its heart, alongside the ideas of public sector workers and users. This would build on the best we have, while challenging the perceived wisdom of the past and recent times.
Taken together these two initiatives would have the potential to remake Scottish politics and the policy landscape. They would allow us the space to think long-term, identify a sense of collective purpose, and draw together Scottish, UK and international thinking. They would say who and what we were as a nation, what we aspire to be, and would have a UK and international impact.
A Fairness Commission and Commission on Public Sector Reform would not only challenge the conservatives in our midst, but set out new ideas on equality and equity, ‘traditional values in a modern setting’, look at new ways of running public services, and address the issue of the economy. It could be a major contribution to the global debate about the kind of capitalism we want.
The assumptions we have grown up with have proven illusionary. We cant go back to the oppressive, stultifying, slow Scotland of the recent past. Nor can the neo-liberal gospel be taken as vindicated. The one-dimensional men of market fundamentalism who insist that every citizen become an autonomous SME only responsible to and for himself, are dangerous, determinist revolutionaries who over a soulless, bleak future.
There is a bigger Scotland up for grabs. We have to – all of us – stop seeing political and societal change as about politicians, politics, the Parliament and institutions. Most of Scotland will never be politicians, so that makes such change a minority activity and automatically disenfranchises 99.9% of the population. Change has to be about more than this, or the endless debate about more powers for the Parliament.
Instead, we need to start talking about a wider, more inclusive idea of change, which is about all of us, which talks about the potential of society, cultural change, and a more generous, radical idea of self-government and self-determination which isn’t restricted to politics.
Can we do this? And can we seize the initiative? I think we can if we hold our breath, and dare to realise the threadbare vision of the pessimists and conservatives. Scotland deserves better, we all deserve better, and isn’t it time we showed as a nation some courage and collective leadership?