THE next 18 months could change the face of British and Scottish politics as we face the essential dilemma at the heart of our democracy: the contrast between substance and superficiality.
A general election in 2010, likely to be held on May 6, the possibility of a referendum, increasingly unlikely, in the autumn of 2010 and Holyrood elections in May 2011 are opportunities for electors seeking to regain some trust and confidence in politics – and for our political parties and politicians, trying to get to grips with enormous 21st century problems and challenges, to restore their credibility.
Before looking at the battle between the big two parties in Britain, let us briefly focus on the SNP. Still the Government of Scotland, they are likely to find 2010 difficult as the battle lines between Labour and the Conservatives engage the electors to the exclusion of other parties.
Gordon Brown acknowledges that Labour will have to fight “every inch of the way” to win what will be a ‘big choice election’. Scots may oblige him, acknowledging that there are two political systems now operating in Scotland, for Westminster and Holyrood.
In this context, will Labour retain all their seats in Scotland in the general election? And as the possibility of a referendum on the constitutional question recedes, will the SNP focus instead on 2011? By then the Labour Party will need a serious alternative to independence which moves them closer to a devo-max perspective.
The constitutional debate will not go away and the outcome of the Holyrood election could be greatly influenced by whoever wins at Westminster – especially in the event of a David Cameron victory, which could change the political dynamic in Scotland overnight or a hung parliament where the SNP could exert some political leverage.
For Labour and the Conservatives, the political stakes have never been higher. We are experiencing the fallout from a financial and banking recession and the worst crisis in politics for generations. The resulting atmosphere is poisonous, with a public mood contemptuous of politicians and our democracy.
This would be challenging enough but we also face renewed global terror threats; a need to rebuild momentum after the disappointing outcome of the Copenhagen summit on global warming and climate change; the economic challenge of ensuring recovery from the recession; and dealing with debt and deficits with the threat this poses to our public services.
The election campaign, likely to be long, bitter, personal and hard-fought, has already started. Is it too much to hope that the contest will inspire, educate, inform and even enthuse the electors? The first few weeks of the New Year suggest we should not hold our breath!
The public are tired of ill-informed, superficial, and depressingly partisan politics. The current level of political debate in Britain is poor and, while we all bear some responsibility for this, there is a need, for all political parties and politicians to raise their game.
President Obama uses the phrase ‘moral imagination’ to describe the process of getting inside the minds and lives of people to gain a better understanding of their concerns, fears, ambitions and hopes for the future. Maybe our politicians need to embrace this idea … Nowhere is this disconnect better illustrated than in relation to the Conservative Party.
Despite what could be seen as the benefit of so many disasters and crises facing the country and the Labour Government, the Tories are making little progress. With a general election imminent, their poll figures are not convincing. People find it hard to trust a party that seems so uncomfortable with modernity, lacks serious weight and whose London leadership seem even more inexperienced than they actually are!
More importantly do they really have what it takes to deal competently with the whole panoply of global, European and national issues that currently fill an ever-growing political agenda? Do Conservatives truly understand the consequences for ‘ordinary people’ of the worst global economic, financial and banking slump since the 1930s?
The Cameron-Osborne response to the global banking and financial crisis seems to be at odds with common sense. On the fiscal stimulus, the Conservatives have once again refused to support measures to ease the impact of recession and protect services and investment. On public expenditure, they would cut more savagely regardless of the consequences.
Membership of the European Union is vital to our national prosperity but the Conservative Party is now seeking to isolate Britain.
They remain to a large extent ambivalent about the NHS, as many in their ranks are hostile to one of the most cherished and successful parts of our public services. These are fundamental issues, vital for Britain and for every election, but especially so in this one.
In contrast – and more due to perseverance, seriousness and global statesmanship than anything else – no one should be writing Gordon Brown off. The global agenda is once again dominating. Maybe there is a place in British politics for serious and statesman-like qualities?
Inevitably, though, the economy will dominate and will be the area of policy where the differences will be significant and decisive. Again, the electorate may come to appreciate that Gordon Brown got it right.
The Conservative Party might form the next government – but the forensic exposure of their policy platform and the idea of living with ‘the devil you know’ may turn out to be critical influences on how people vote. Being in government and being in opposition are very different. A democracy must impose some reality checks on a party aspiring to run Britain.
Britain and Scotland deserve a serious debate on the ideas, issues and arguments that are essential to our future. And for political parties and governments to be better connected to the people they wish to serve.