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Showing posts with label the Scottish electorate. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the Scottish electorate. Show all posts

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Scotland’s independence and the role of political parties

Counting today, there are 95 days to May 5th.

No time for irrelevancies, for digression, for sports celebrities - time to focus. A joyless dictum? Maybe, but in a world where the power of information may free subject peoples from decades of despotism but throw the Middle East - and therefore the world - into chaos, where the UK slides inexorably towards economic disaster while the rich and privileged feather their nests, and the Scottish people face perhaps the most decisive choice since the 1945 General Election, frivolity and self-indulgence must be postponed, in my view.

Here’s what Scotland is up against:-

the insidious return of inherited wealth, privilege and the values of a self-serving oligarchy to government, alien to 93% of the people

a return to elitism and selection based on money and influence in education masquerading as a move towards meritocracy

an attack on the living standards of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society through the tax system, and by attacking their public services, their jobs and their incomes

a commitment towards perpetual war as the operating principle of the state, together with the generation of a state of paranoia about external threats, and total commitment to irrelevant weapons of nuclear mass destruction to the detriment of conventional defence forces, with the dominance of the ‘values’ of the military/industrial complex

a blatant attempt to dismantle the NHS in the name of reform with the hidden motive of profit for the friends of Government

an attack on the trades unions, perhaps the last bulwark against the attack on ordinary people, through attacks on their democratic procedures and balloting percentages, blatantly suggesting the application of majority voting levels that apply to no other democratic organisation.

an insidiously growing intent to erode the devolutionary settlement for Scotland, and an attack - masquerading as fairness - on the Scottish Government’s progressive social policies, through the use of highly selective and distorted benchmarks of comparison

a growing hostility to Europe and the European Union, combined with a slavish dependency on the imaginary special relationship with the United  States and a growing insularity as the ‘nation’ of the United Kingdom.

The cynical creation of new members of the House of Lords, essentially ennoblement as an anti-democratic act - the creation of voting fodder - at a time when a reduction in democratically elected MPs is being actively pursued.

A shameless network of influence and cronyism extending into anti-democratic press empires, inimical to the freedoms of the people, and almost above the rule of law

All of the above is actively or tacitly supported by the three opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament, supine adjuncts to their London and Westminster-based masters - Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats - and their puppet ‘leaders’, Gray, Goldie and Scott. If any of these three establishment parties, singly or in coalition, gains power in Scotland until 2015, then the grip of the anti-democratic forces detailed above will be consolidated, and the levers of power will be held by people virtually immune to the force of democracy and the law.


What defines the SNP? What distinguishes them from the other large parties in Scotland and the UK?

A total commitment to achieving Scotland’s independence

An anti-nuclear stance that includes not only nuclear weapons and the policy of nuclear deterrence, but also nuclear power, the latter tempered - I hope - with realism about the present nuclear power capacity, and an open mind about the future of nuclear power developments.

A total commitment to Scotland in the European Union, but internationalist in instinct, as Scots have always been, at least until the Union.

A commitment to Scotland, undiluted by UK considerations, with no ambitions to pursue a political career outside of Scotland. (This is tempered by the unpalatable reality that, while Scotland remains within the UK, the SNP - and Scotland - must be represented at Westminster.)

A commitment to a true defence policy for Scotland (as opposed to international aggression masquerading as defence that characterises UK - and US - policy) with conventional - i.e. non-nuclear - forces

I endorse and support every one of these policies, and therefore the SNP is the only party with a realistic chance of power that I can vote for. I respect the ideals of the Greens, as I respect the ideals and practical action of the Scottish Socialist parties - in spite of their self-destructive factionalism - but I do not believe they will ever represent anything but a useful minority voice.

But within these principles, I must be realistic about the strengths and the limitations of political parties as a vehicle for achieving justice and equity in a democratic society.


I would love it if an ancient ideal of democracy could be practised, the concept of individuals, elected by their peers, clustering and re-clustering around issues, vigorously debating, forming temporary alliances on issues, and reaching consensus by civilised discussions.

In short, my ideal would be a Parliament of Margo Macdonalds and Dennis Canavans, and maybe Henry McLeishes and Partick Harvies, independent in thought if not yet independent of party. (I realise that for some people, that would be their worse nightmare made flesh.)

But it never existed, not even in ancient Athens, and faction and party have been the uncomfortable and often untidy reality of politics since democratic politics began. The choice remains the same, between dictatorship and democracy, however flawed - and that means political parties.

Nothing gets done without a party - or parties - that can form a Government. But governments and parties do not operate in a power vacuum - there are forces in society, some democratic, some not, that claim a right to influence in that society. They are multifarious, but I must confine my thrust to the ones that appear to me to be the most significant - the Churches, the Law, the Armed Forces, Big Business, the Press, the Trades Unions and, for lack of a better description, the power elite based on wealth, privilege and class - The Establishment.

Where does The Monarchy fit into this? Easily, if superficially answered - they are part of the power elite, at one and the same time manipulating it and being manipulated by it. It has ever been thus, as any reading of history will confirm.

Of these, only two make a claim to a higher ideal or concept than democracy - the Churches and the Law. (We can ignore the claims of the monarchy to hereditary, God-given rights: their natural ally in this claim is the Church). The rest, whatever their pretensions, are power elites that, while theoretically subject to democracy and the rule of law, will circumvent and covertly or even frontally attack both when their  interests are threatened. The Press in this context is best considered as Big Business, although ideals of freedom of information and the higher ideals of journalism and objective reporting regularly challenge this big business dominance.

For me, only the law must stand outside the control of democracy, and the difficulties and contradictions inherent in this vital distinction are beyond my limited abilities to analyse.

(The recent BBC Four programme on the UK Supreme Court, fascinating in its description of the undemocratic processes that result in the appointment of judges, exemplifies the problems of selection, of age, class and sex in this process, yet the concept of the independence of the judiciary has been central to civilisation since the emergence of society from tribalism. The first attack of dictatorship and totalitarianism is always on the independence of the judiciary.)

Scotland, with a population of some 5m people, has within it the same range of opinions and views as the rest of the United Kingdom, although I believe that these views have a very different distribution from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Politically, we Scots are manifestly - and dramatically - different from the rest of the UK, as the 2010 general election demonstrated so powerfully.

We have the SNP, of course, but the Labour vote was the most egregious evidence of the existence of two nations, politically speaking. I can only speculate at the reasons for this disparity, as indeed can anyone, without the benefit of a complex, focused demographic analysis, and there isn’t one to my knowledge, although the pundits, the pollsters and the politicians will claim to know the truth.

As someone who spent well over six decades of his life in Scotland (a total of ten years in England) and was for most of that a Labour voter and supporter, I think I have some idea of the reasons, but I am highly aware that age is not a guarantor of wisdom, nor of accurate perceptions of the mindsets of the two generations other than mine that constitute the Scottish electorate.

But here goes

The Labour Party was born in Scotland, and in its early decades was the only recourse for the poor other than the churches, who were riven by their own ancient feuds. It is easily forgotten that, for example, about the only thing that kept Catholics and Protestants from waging religious, and to some extent, ethnic wars against each other in the late nineteenth and early decades of the 20th century was a common membership of the Labour Party.  I grew up in the later manifestations of this climate, a child of a poor family of Irish extraction in the east end of Glasgow, living in extreme poverty in a slum, with little in the way of social policy support services - no NHS, no welfare state - and with institutional bias affecting every aspect of life, including employment, education and policing - and football.

The only thing apart from intellect and popular culture that bridged this religious gap, and the ghetto mentality it bred, was the Labour Party. Involvement with the Party, its ideas - its concepts of egalitarianism and internationalism and the brotherhood of man - was the only real unifying influence. Of course, corruption and graft, ambition and elitism were present in the party then, but they were not endemic as they are today. The Tories were the class enemy, the SNP were quaint characters in kilts, and the Liberals were an irrelevance.

As a child, I had adult relatives and friends who pre-dated the Labour Party, who were articulate, and possessed a burning personal knowledge of injustice. Some of them had experienced Red Clydeside and the revolution that never was around the  time of the General Strike. They remembered the tanks in George Square, and they had a visceral hatred of Churchill, and nothing he did in the Second World War made any difference to that memory and that hatred. (They also remembered Gallipoli.)

To highlight the difference, the following link is to a piece by a man loosely of that generation (born 1906) who viewed Churchill as a hero. He is an Englishman and probably accurately reflects the views of most English Tories, and a lot of Labour people as well, as Brown and Blair made clear.

A personal memoir of Churchill and the general strike

While few Scottish Labour supporters today remember such history, they do remember the Churchill of the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, her destruction of Scotland’s industrial base, the poll tax and Maggie’s little war, the Falklands conflict. (That, however, is bound up with their respect for the Scottish service personnel involved in the conflict, reflecting the split mind many Scots have about Scottish soldiers, even when they are used as the instruments of imperialism and in unjust wars, a dichotomy sedulously exploited by the UK Establishment.)

These memories, covering a century or more, are passed through generations of ordinary Scots, especially in Labour’s industrial heartlands, and have resulted in almost a conditioned reflex to vote Labour, a muting of criticism of the party, almost a denial of reality in the face of feelings of instinctive loyalty, and the conviction that to vote for a party other than Labour is a betrayal of class and family. This syndrome is rather like religious belief rooted in a specific church, which however corrupt in reality, is perceived through a fog of ancient idealism and lost values.

But there are other factors at work, mainly those relating to long indoctrination of Establishment values, values that inculcate servility and  deference, exploit feelings of hopelessness and dependency, lack of self-belief, and foster contempt for the essence of their true Scottish history, culture and language, substituting a sentimentalised, tartanised, Sir Walter Scott version, and exalt sport and celebrity television icons  to the status of a surrogate belief system.

The above factors, in combination, have permitted Labour to successfully airbrush out the contemptible record of the last 13 wasted years, the greed, venality, corruption and lethal ambition of the Party’s ruling elite, and the supine co-operation of the party rank and file.

As for the Tories and the Liberal Democrats - well, as parties they have become an irrelevance, but the views of Scots who hold conservative and liberal democratic values and ideals are not irrelevant, representing as they do a substantial strand of thought and belief in Scotland. The ultimate irony is perhaps that conservative and liberal democratic views exists within Labour’s traditional support and indeed within the Scottish National Party, and it must be said, even extreme views at both ends of the Left/Right spectrum of political belief, including revolutionary totalitarianism and neo-fascism, with a latent racial and religious bias.


I am a Johnny-come-lately to the politics of independence, and those for whom it has always been a self-evident proposition - a no-brainer - have my admiration for their clarity of vision and, in many cases, decades of work and support for the party and the cause.

But to achieve the tipping point in popular support for independence, not just for an SNP government within a devolved Scotland, it is necessary to achieve a quantum shift in attitudes and values among people like me as I was before 2007.

First, to the immediate and pressing need to get re-elected on May 5th.

The SNP won an historic victory in 2007 significantly because of their vision, their passion and emotional appeal. There were of course other factors, notably Iraq and the manifest failure of Labour to deliver the promise of 1997.

The SNP today seems to me to have lost that vital spark under the appalling pressure of governing in the most challenging economic times the UK has experienced since the 1930s.

Worse, they are beginning to display the kind of timidity and wish to be all things to all men and women that drains the life from political parties close to the end of a term. They have ceased to be a great freedom movement and are slipping towards a reliance on the undoubtedly vital traditional campaigning skills at the expense of the essential spirit of the party.

This is accompanied by a reluctance to make bold statements, to drive their standard into the ground and take stands on great issues. Now, I am not close to the centres of party campaign strategy or policy - I can only judge as a voter with a keen interest based on what I see and hear. It is entirely possible that a great, explosive, dynamic campaign strategy is being held in reserve for exactly the right moment - but 95 days before the election?

The only thing that may save them is the total and utter absence of any coherent strategy or vision from Labour, a party whose negativism and expediency are now almost complete under Iain Gray and Ed Miliband. (The Tories are irrelevant, and the LibDems close to extinction as a political force.)

The SNP’s social media strategy seems to be predicated on the very strategies that failed Gordon Brown and David Cameron - that of attempting to establish a niche in celebrity culture - with the X-Factor and Strictly being sedulously tweeted on while the world burns, the economy crashes and the NHS faces brutal demolition.

The voters are supposed to say - these politicians are just like me, instead of  - these are people I trust to grapple with the forces that threaten my hopes and dreams and my family.

I think false lessons have been drawn by some from Alex Salmond’s undoubted charisma and popularity, something natural and not crafted, the product of a real personality rather than a PR and media construct.

But it is by no means too late to rectify these shortcomings, if my analysis is correct and there is no master plan waiting to burst out of Party HQ.

The bravura performances of First Minister at FMQs in Holyrood are seen by a tiny percentage of the Scottish electorate. If they were, things would be very different, but the Party has taken no imaginative steps - and there are many they could have taken - to ensure that they are.

The Party’s website, to put the criticism at its lowest level, is not representative of the best in web design. It is probably too late to rectify that before the election. The traditional branch structure, the bedrock of party, is not responsive enough to the times. In this, it is almost certainly no worse than any other political party, but that is little consolation from a party that aspire to radical political change.

The approach to the trades unions, intimately woven into Labour Party power structures and finances, appears to lack imagination, indeed among those to whom I have spoken about it, there is a kind of fatal defeatism about the potential for change, yet there has rarely been a better point in UK history to approach this imaginatively.

There will undoubtedly be those who will say that  I have no right and indeed no competence to make such criticisms, especially at this time. I respect that view. I did think long and hard about these factors, but time is not on my side, nor is it on the Party’s side.

Be bold and be outspoken, SNP - it’s now or never, as Elvis once said …