Scotland talks like the far left but leans towards small ‘c’ conservativism

Written by Paul Sinclair on 13 April 2016 in Comment

Paul Sinclair, former adviser to Gordon Brown, Johann Lamont and Alistair Darling, says Scots say they want radical change but then shy away from it

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The first political demonstration I ever took part in was as a student, protesting against Clause 28.

To my mind, the argument was simple. I had no choice in my sexuality, so I presumed no one else had. To treat people differently on account of it was just prejudice and discrimination.


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So we are right to celebrate that not only are the leaders of our three main parties all women, two of them happen to be gay. And here is the progress: they are politicians who happen to be gay, not gay politicians. The mission will be complete when we don’t even ask those questions.

But let’s not get carried away. Scotland remains a very conservative country, albeit with an emphatically small ‘c’. We are a country as strongly determined to be different as we are to stay the same.

On the brink of our fifth Scottish Parliament, we should ask what have the four previous ones done that has really been radical?

The smoking ban? Other European countries were leading the way on that and the UK Government was going to bring it in anyway through health and safety legislation.

Free care for the elderly? We say we do it but we don’t fund it.

No tuition fees? Perhaps, but at the price of limiting the number of Scots who can go to university and cutting 152,000 college places. Why is it now even the case that a Welsh student from a poor background can come to a Scottish university, pay fees and end up with less debt than the Scot sitting beside them whose parents have similar resources?

Free prescriptions? The poor, elderly and chronically sick never paid them. It is a tax cut for the middle class.

As Scots, we feel we have the imprint of fairness on our foreheads and then vote for a council tax freeze which redistributed wealth from poor to rich – yes, poor to rich – on a scale Michael Forsyth would never have attempted. The poor don’t pay council tax; the rich saved most from the freeze and £1 billion was cut from anti-poverty programmes to help pay for it.

If you think that is just a rant against SNP policy, you are missing the point. I am saying the SNP might just get it. Scots want to vote for policies which sound different but change little.

We walk a very different walk from our talk. That is why one of the SNP’s biggest messages in the referendum was that everything would change but nothing would change. You could keep everything you like but somehow life would just get better.

They get that we say we want radical change but then shy away from it. Think of all three main parties’ tax policies. The biggest shift of power since devolution and the Tories say no change, the Nationalists are just about the same and Labour wants just another penny.

Polling during the referendum showed that Scots – by a majority of two to one – wanted full devolution of welfare. And by a majority even larger than two to one, we wanted welfare in Scotland to be the same as the rest of the UK.

This is a nation that likes to think it is radical but hates reform. And that will be Nicola Sturgeon’s challenge in her first full term. The SNP have wrested the Scottish establishment from the Labour Party. But if she tries any real reform they might just turn on her.

For now, let’s celebrate our three main parties are led by women. And remember, our politics is still shaped by the first woman party leader who tried reform in Scotland – Margaret Thatcher.

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