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Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The SNP’s mortal sin – pragmatism – so say the unionists – and the Left?

I mentioned recently that we were perhaps in another phoney war period, only to be sharply reminded by some SNP activists that while I was sitting comfortably musing at the keyboard with a coffee in my hand, they were out on the streets doing the hard, vital slog of canvassing and leafleting for the critical local elections.

I bow my head and acknowledge the truth – that although full battle has not commenced, there is crucial ground to be won that will have an infinite impact on morale, and on the lives of Scots dealing daily with fallout from the disastrous remedies being pursued by the Coalition to address the shambles left by Labour – remedies designed to protect the rich and powerful by making the ordinary people pay the price, punishing them with increasing severity for crimes they did not commit.

Watching the complacent rich boy Clegg deliver his feeble justifications for the action of his government and his LibDem hit men - Alexander and Cable - to Isabel Fraser on Sunday made me want to throw up.

Nicola Sturgeon put this in a nutshell at the Glasgow University Law School last night when she stated that the Union was now the biggest threat to the welfare state, and only independence offered the decent choice.

Faced with a totally objective statement on the State of the Economy by Dr. Gary Gillespie, Bill Jamieson, Editor of the Scotsman was left with a dilemma  - how counter such objective neutrality while appearing to remain neutral oneself? Bill Jamieson’s big idea was to complain that John Swinney offered a comment on what this meant for the Scottish economy immediately after the speech, and worse still, said what the SNP Government were going to do about it.

That’s what government’s are supposed to do, Bill – that’s what we elected them to do. We also expect our newspaper editors to present objective views as well, but the Scottish electorate have had one expectation fulfilled and the other less so … 

Bill Jamieson comments on the absence of debt interest from the analysis, and Scotland’s share of it.

Since the debt was caused by a UK Labour Government’s mishandling of the economy during a global crisis and compounded by the UK Coalition’s mishandling of the remedies, one might reasonably think that until Scotland is independent of these UK incompetents, there is not a lot of point agonising about that which we don’t and can’t influence until after 2014. Bill Jamieson would call this blaming the UK for Scotland’s ills. Well, yes, Bill – that’s because they are to blame. His earlier comment, that “nothing is measured and neutral in Scottish politic today” is certainly true, least of all what emanates from the Scotsman.


But strangely enough, there is a criticism of the SNP Government and of Alex Salmond specifically that comes from both the unionist camp – entirely predictably – but also from the independence-supporting Left, represented by many commentators and by the Jimmy Reid Foundation, and that is that the SNP and the First Minister are guilty of the sin of pragmatism.

Pragmatism: a philosophy that evaluates assertions solely by their practical consequences and bearing on human interests. From the Greek pragma, a deed.

I readily accept that a political philosophy based solely on pragmatism is doomed to failure – to a series of compromises that ultimately prove fatal because they ignore an underlying reality and a grand strategic imperative. But it is also true that a political philosophy based on grand narratives that ignores reality and the need to adapt to changing circumstance is also doomed to failure, and a failure that is likely to be fundamentally damaging to a society over a much longer period.

The general who reacts tactically, but has no strategy may succeed in the short term, but will fail in the long term. The general with a grand strategy may hold to it in the face of short-term reverses, but without a tactical dimension, will ultimately be brought down a by a series of failures, or by a fundamental and rapid change in the dynamics of the situation faced.

The unionists, who are essentially of the right in politics - even though Labour and the LibDems can’t face that this is what they have become – are instinctively economic pragmatists locked in a destructive and false grand narrative about the nature of society, and therefore make the wrong pragmatic choices, as Blair did, for example.

The Left are locked in a grand narrative that profoundly distrusts pragmatism, believing that all evidence that contradicts the grand dogma must of necessity be false, and must be ignored, lest compromise blunts the edge of the great plan. This folly unfolded tragically throughout the whole of the twentieth century, and has played itself out through all of my life, during which I saw the Labour Party gain power after a destructive but necessary war and transform British society with a mixture of radicalism on their grand narrative and necessary pragmatism in the face of post-war reconstruction, yet ultimately fail to maintain that balance, drifting back into dogma.

Both the unionists and the Scottish independent left are now united in a criticism of the SNP’s and Alex Salmond’s pragmatism, but mean very different things by it.

The unionists want the SNP to conform to their stereotypes of the nationalist character.

They want them to be nostalgic, Braveheart and Bannockburn nationalists, they want them to be separatist and insular, they want them to be republican, not monarchist, they want them to be anti-English, they want them to be isolationist and not internationalist, to be economically illiterate and unrealistic, to be addicted to borders, boundaries and passports, to be anti-European, to reject the inter-dependence of the modern world, to be anti-defence alliances, pacifist, and above all, they want them to be racist.

The fact that neither the Scottish National Party nor its leaders are any of these things is a source of constant frustration to unionists, especially Labour unionists. There is nothing worse than being faced with a reality that will not conform to your stereotypes.

This is why, for example, the American racist right could not abide the existence of articulate, qualified and successful blacks, and tried to deny the blazing reality of black talent in the arts, in music, in theatre. This is why those who resisted the rights and equality of women could not abide the reality of strong-minded, capable, successful articulate women. Because in both cases, to acknowledge it meant that they must be allowed to vote, to govern, be equally rewarded, and  take their place in society as free and independent human beings.

But what of the Scottish Left – committed to independence, yet suspicious of the SNP’s pragmatism in government? Well, firstly, they do not see an independent Scotland as an SNP fiefdom for all time after independence. Neither do I.

After independence, normal democratic politics will return, and the parties will compete for the ear and the votes of the electorate on their programmes for Scotland. Between the SNP, the LibDems and Labour, there will simply be a dialogue on the best policies to achieve a democratic Scotland that care about its people, about its public sector, about a dynamic and entrepreneurial private sector, about education, about defence, etc.

There will still be a gulf between these three parties and the Tories, because that has been a great divide in Scottish society for a long time now. But the Tories will have their place in the new democracy, and it will be a stronger, more influential place than it is now.

So what’s bugging the Scottish Left about the SNP’s pragmatism,?

It seems to come down to two things – the monarchy and corporate-friendly policies. At the heart of the monarchy question is the fact that the left tend to be instinctively republican, as I am.

How can a democrat support a crucial part of the political structure that rests on birth and divine authority, not to mention one that cascades into a whole structure of dependency and unelected privilege?

Answer – only by the pragmatic view that such a symbol matters to large sectors of the electorate and that, properly controlled and limited, it can provide the role and function of Head of State that seems to be necessary in democracies across the globe – and of course the fact that democratic parties may be unelectable unless they accept such a symbolic institution.

The other dimension to this question is whether or not the ‘policy’ that Alex Salmond has stated clearly on many occasions, most recently to Andrew Neil on the Sunday Politics is in fact a policy approved by SNP members. The evidence seems to be that it is not. Shock, horror? Well, no. Anyone who thinks that political parties when in government only create policy with the approval of their party members  has had their eyes and ears closed to reality and history, not to mention to constitutional realities.

Governments are not elected by political parties, they are comprised of individuals elected by voters – the electorate. The electorate is in part influenced by the party that the candidate belongs to, and that party’s manifesto, but also by the candidate themselves and what they are committed to. They also elect a representative within a representative democracy, a representative who is free to accept or ignore the party whip – a representative who is neither a delegate of the party nor a delegate of the electorate, but an individual who, once elected, will act freely in accordance with their beliefs, in step or out of step with the party, and if necessary, out of step with the electorate.

We are not a populist democracy – we do not govern by referendum, we give a free mandate for a fixed term to an individual, but with some reasonable expectations on how that individual will behave while in office.

The only remedy of the party, if unhappy with their member, is to remove the party whip and de-select at the next election, and the only remedy for the electorate is not to vote for the candidate at the next election. We have seen this uncomfortable reality at work recently in the Joyce and Walker cases. In fact, I am not uncomfortable with it – I like the system, and accept its occasional frustrations as the price of the benefits it conveys.

So I don’t give a bugger whether the SNP Government or Alex Salmond have the imprimatur of the party membership for their policy on the Queen. I think the electorate knew that was their position when they elected them, and moreover, I think the republicans in the party – like me – knew it as well, and accept it as a necessary pragmatism. There is, of course, the argument that after independence - since the monarchy is a constitutional issue - it should be the subject of a referendum.

I reject that, as I believe most republicans in the party and the electorate reject it, because it would be seen a pragmatism taken a step too far, towards blatant expediency and deceit practised on the monarchists for whom this issue might be a deal-breaker in how they cast their vote. If we go into the referendum with a Keep the Queen policy, then we must live with it for the foreseeable future because that is the only honourable and decent thing to do.

And so to the ‘corporate-friendly’ policies of Alex Salmond, epitomised in the minds of his critics as low corporation tax and the meeting with Rupert Murdoch. One might reasonably ask if the critics would like the First Minister of Scotland, at a time a deep economic uncertainty over jobs and private sector activity, to pursue corporate-unfriendly policies?

But let’s move to the Murdoch meeting, and look to the Guardian for a reasonably objective factual report on it. Here’s what the Guardian and the Press Association said on 29th February -

Rupert Murdoch met Scotland's first minister on Wednesday to discuss the potential for further investment in the country. The News Corp chairman met Alex Salmond in Edinburgh, where they also talked about the country's constitutional future and the Leveson inquiry into press standards.

A spokesman for Salmond said: "This was a very constructive meeting focused on News Corporation's substantial economic footprint in Scotland and the first minister and Mr Murdoch discussed the potential for further investment within the country.

"Mr Murdoch was keen to express his view that the current debate on Scotland's constitutional future continued to make Scotland an attractive place for inward investment.

"During the meeting, the first minister indicated support for the Leveson inquiry and police investigations into journalistic malpractice.

"Mr Murdoch gave strong assurances that News International is intent on consigning these matters to the past and emerging a better organisation for it."

Also at the meeting was Tom Mockridge, the chief executive of News International.

Frankly, the critics are out of their skulls if they think there is anything sinister or untoward in such a meeting with such an agenda. Murdoch’s organisation have been bad boys, aided by the Metropolitan Police and the close and intimate friends of David Cameron – Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brookes, not to mention the close and intimate relationship between the Labour Party under Blair then Brown for years.

But Murdoch is not the Antichrist – he is an international businessman who was allowed to get to big for his boots by successive UK Governments who had their own narrow political interests at heart rather than than the integrity of democracy. He is also a large employer of people who are doing decent professional jobs - and very necessary jobs – in an economy that desperately needs jobs.

Let the First Minister say it all in his own inimitable, principled and – yes – pragmatic style. If BSkyB comes to Scotland, I for one will be delighted – and so will a helluva lot of unemployed Scots, who don’t give a green damn about the scruples of the Left, or a vague, romantic idea of internationalism that has huge appeal for the kind of people who theorise about such things, but has never produced anything except destructive wars and ideological divides.


  1. """""The general who reacts tactically, but has no strategy may succeed in the short term, but will fail in the long term. The general with a grand strategy may hold to it in the face of short-term reverses, but without a tactical dimension, will ultimately be brought down a by a series of failures, or by a fundamental and rapid change in the dynamics of the situation faced.""""""""

    Thanks for this Peter. Clear vision and logic locked together and helpful when reflecting upon such things.

    You are right of course but it's the FM who convinced me - never thought I'd hear myself saying this... but this is not all about my wants now, is it? In any case, the republicans will just be bleedin' overjoyed to have a social democratic government putting people at the heart of policy.

    A government to serve the people, not the people to serve a government.