Henry McLeish: SNP have great weaknesses but opposition parties have not inflicted any serious damage
There is little to be achieved in trying to predict Scotland’s political future. The old Union is dead; no obvious replacement is in sight. Instead, the war between two forms of nationalism is dominating British politics.
UKIP, the Conservative Party and SNP are in battles that are destroying any prospect of achieving some form of political and constitutional equilibrium in the foreseeable future. Scotland is bitterly fractured, a 50/50 nation where politics, elections and the constitution divide us in equal measures.
Paradoxically, now is the time for a reinvented Labour Party to play a vital role. The Tory writ does not run in Scotland and the SNP has no base in England, but Labour has the ability to influence both: a non-nationalist alternative to a lesser Britain or a greater England.
Labour in Scotland needs an alternative to independence and should not shy away from another referendum but with a second question. Scots should be asked to decide on the future of Scotland not on the future of independence.
Our 50/50 nation has lessons for both Labour and the SNP. The referendum and general election outcomes do not, of themselves, take Scotland any closer to an exit from the Union. There is every indication that electors could still be convinced by arguments that offered a new role for Scotland within a radically different Union; a genuine four-nation solution makes sense, but currently only independence is on the table.
So, can the SNP be halted? Their performance has been impressive; they have great weaknesses but the opposition parties have not inflicted any serious damage. Obviously, their flagship independence policy needs to be confronted with a viable alternative. Their record on education can be criticised.
They are a highly centralising government, the police being a good example. Local government has become too close to central government and is fast losing its independence. The council tax freeze is wasteful. It shackles local government, discriminates in favour of the middle class and the wealthy and is undemocratic in that the right of councils to determine and pay for local needs has been compromised.
Overall, it deprives other services of much needed investment. Localism and freedom for local government are long overdue. Progress on tackling inequality requires greater critical scrutiny.
In particular, is there an over-reliance on economic measures to the detriment of education? What about the health service performance in Scotland?
How will the SNP Government handle the new taxation powers brought in by the 2012 legislation? Will their power base at Westminster create new tensions and add to the difficulties of party discipline?
These are important practical questions but also raise issues of philosophy, principles and priorities. Solidarity, social justice and aspiration for all should be a bigger part of the national debate. As a prosperous Scotland, in or out of the Union, we should be undertaking more nation and institution-building to make Scotland stronger in the UK and Europe. Patriotism is more important and inspiring than nationalism.
Scotland should be a social (ist) democratic nation, and be more interested in progressiveness than populism. Scots may warm to a credible, radical and relevant alternative to independence which favours interdependence within a new union of the UK and the EU. Promoting the idea of the Nordic experience has much to offer Scotland in terms of a model for enlightened change, state investment, social partnership and social democracy.
The SNP has successfully held together a strategy that combines the broadest political coalition of the far right to the far left to achieve independence. Its recent conversion to a party of equality and social justice may be at odds with many of their right-leaning supporters and certain elements of the business community. A populist agenda may not be compatible with a social justice agenda.
Put simply, the SNP, despite their formidable achievements, are not miracle workers. Much of their success looks remarkable because of the failure of the opposition parties. The SNP has become a ‘one-stop political shop’, the creator of ‘an embryonic one-party state’ and the ‘single voice’ of Scotland in a troubled Union. They have a difficult constitutional and political path to navigate as far as achieving independence is concerned and living up to their claim that they are now a ‘left wing’ party.
It is not intellectually, philosophically or instinctively a progressive left of centre or socialist party. It is a populist party and to a large extent, reflects much of what is happening throughout Western Europe. It is now facing its most difficult challenges.
If so, can a reinvented Scottish Labour Party seize the opportunity? There is a difference between being the ‘national party of Scotland’ and the ‘natural party of Scotland’.
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