t has been a year of unprecedented change
in Scottish politics following the first Scottish Parliamentary
elections on May 6th last year and the formation of a Scottish
administration, a partnership between Labour and Lib Dems.
New institutions are beginning to find their feet and create
new relationships: Parliament and the Executive, the Executive
and Westminster. New policy initiatives include an economic
framework for Scotland, social inclusion, the Incapable Adults
Act and abolition of warrant sales.
It is, however, the controversies which have grabbed the
headlines: the Cubie Committee's report on tuition fees, Section
28/Clause 2A and Brian Souter's unofficial referendum, the
role of the media itself in reporting the Parliament and the
'Scotland's Shame' debate on the extent of anti-Catholic prejudice.
This is a Scotland changing - sometimes not as fast as some
would like, and not in the direction others (Brian Souter,
the Catholic Church) would like - but unarguably changing.
It has been a year of contradiction, criticism and difficult
debate. Donald Dewar's opening address as First Minister on
July 1st last year caught the emotional mood of the nation.
Dewar spoke of 'the distant cries of the battles of Bruce
and Wallace', of the Clydeside shipyards and 'the discourse
of the Enlightenment'. It seems a long time ago now. Long
before Dewar's recent ill-health he seemed a victim of events,
rather than the master.
The year can be summarised as one of cultural schizophrenia
- of the Parliament and Scotland's institutions developing
new roles and voices, while, cynicism and self-doubt were
whipped up by the press. Iain Macwhirter has called this 'the
Jekyll and Hyde Parliament' - of growing self-confidence and
However, not even Scotland's most influential commentators
are immune from this 'Jekyll and Hyde' spirit as the following
two quotes show, the first, from Tom Nairn, the second, from
"No one really thinks the shade of William Wallace will
reappear at Holyrood. A lot of people do think, with appropriate
despondency, that Councillor McDirge, Provost McBaffie and
Mrs. McGrunge will not only be in there but could soon swamp
the place." (Nairn, After Britain 2000)
"Make way for the Lumpen Scot. Habitat: largely the
West of Scotland but found in large numbers across the country.
Predominantly, but not exclusively male, traits are: aggressive,
pig ignorant, loud, sexist. Health: one in two will contract
cancer of some form, and his testicles are a carcinogenic
war zone. Lifestyle: inert. Culture: football, football and
football. Prospects: redundancy. Age: immaterial. Fears: profound
sense of sexual and social insecurity - hates gays and English."
(Sunday Herald, April 23 2000)
Neither of these are accurate recordings of the events of
the last year, but instead, are actually, symbolic of Scottish
self-doubt, reinforcing appalling negative Scottish stereotypes.
Tom Nairn, unquestionably the foremost left thinker in Scotland
in the last twenty five years, engages in the above in a recreation
of small-town, small-minded kailyard Scotland to knock down
and mock it, while Macwhirter's anger at the Daily Record/Brian
Souter Section 28 debate sees him reduce the West of Scotland
working classes to a cartoon stereotype. These quotes are
evidence of the difficulties in analysing and reporting the
complexities of modern Scotland.
Bwefore the election, the Scottish people had high expectations
of their Parliament. They believed across a host of economic
and social issues - devolved and reserved - that the Parliament
would be able to make a difference. The 1997 Scottish Election
and Referendum Surveys both recorded this - the latter showing
while 76% expected taxes to go up, 70% expected improvements
in education, 65% expected improvements in the NHS and 64%
improvements in the economy (see Brown et al, The Scottish
These expectations were never going to be easily met - particularly
early on - and it is not surprising that some kind of backlash
or disillusion has set in. Popular support was for the institution
of the Parliament, with people feeling a degree of disenchantment
at the individual politicians in it. After a year with many
crises and tensions, a majority of Scots still support the
Parliament and want to see it given more powers. An Economist
survey of last year showed Scots thought the most powerful
institution in 20 years would be the Scottish Parliament with
46%, European Union 31%, Westminster 8% (The Economist,
November 6th 1999).
The two most significant debates in the last year were the
Cubie Committee on tuition fees and the debate over Section
28/Clause 2A. The Cubie Committee arose as a direct result
of the Scottish Parliament's electoral system and its outcome.
Only Labour supported the retention of tuition fees. As a
result of entering a partnership government with the Lib Dems
an independent committee was set up (the Cubie Committee).
In its process and its outcome (a graduate endowment payment
which puts redistribution at the centre of policy) Cubie was
a triumph for the new politics.
The same cannot be said for the debate on the repeal of Section
28. This found the Scottish political classes across all parties
completely ill-equipped to argue for equality and saw the
Scottish Executive retreat and equivocate in the face of the
Daily Record and Brian Souter's Keep the Clause campaign.
Souter's referendum was only possible because of the political
vacuum created by the political classes nervousness. Nevertheless,
it was a challenge to the legitimacy of the new Parliament
on who speaks for Scotland.
The Scottish political system has long been defined and distorted
by Labour's one party dominance of Scotland - based primarily
in the West of Scotland. This is coming slowly to an end with
the introduction of proportional representation for the Scottish
Parliament. No party has an overall majority, nor is one likely
to in the foreseeable future, so we have the novelty of coalition
government. The introduction of proportional representation
in local government will be the final nail in the coffin of
Labour's one party rule across a swathe of fiefdoms in the
West of Scotland (Glasgow, North and South Lanarkshire, etc).
The political system is slowly shifting to a more pluralist,
fragmented political system. Different scenarios are possible.
One, Labour continues its historic role as Scotland's leading
party on a slightly lower vote with a more competitive political
system. Two, Labour and SNP develop a two party system with
the Lib Dems and Conservatives reduced to marginal parts.
This scenario looked likely in the summer of 1998 when the
SNP built up a significant lead in the polls over Labour with
the Lib Dems and Tories reduced to single figures. Three,
a hyper-pluralist system is possible, wherein the Labour and
SNP votes are reduced by competition not only from the Lib
Dems and Tories, but also from the Scottish Socialist Party
(SSP) and Greens.
This last scenario - not really a six party system, but two
major, two minor and two micro parties - is currently possible
according to the polls. At the Hamilton South and Ayr by-elections,
the SSP scored an impressive 9% and 4% - taking Labour voters
that the SNP was desperately trying to win. Already the SSP
has a more significant level of electoral support in Parliamentary
by-elections than Jim Sillars much vaunted and media friendly
Scottish Labour Party secured in the 1970s.
The present dispensation of electoral forces suggest that
a non-Labour majority will at some point come to power and
that this will coalesce around the SNP. This point - perhaps
not at the next Scottish Parliament elections, but the one
after that - will be a defining point for the SNP. How can
it change from a party of opportunist catch-all opposition
politics to a party of government? How can it more successfully
anchor its core beliefs about the Scotland it wants to bring
about when it currently combines the politics of social democracy
and Thatcherism - A Penny for Scotland and the Laffer Curve?
A more diverse, contradictory and pluralist Scotland is slowly
being born where the Scots will have to become at ease with
argument, difference and diversity: one of the central undercurrents
in the Section 28 debate. New alliances and faultlines criss-cross
the old party and ideological divides: so while Douglas Alexander
may wish to retain the simplicity and salience of the hard
Unionist social democrat vs. separatist divide, politics are
transcending this. We now have: Labour-Lib Dem coalition versus
SNP-Tory opposition, liberal vs. conservative, participative
politics vs. corporatist, urban vs. rural.
One of the crucial divides will be between liberal values
and conservatism. This was highlighted by Cardinal Winning,
the most senior religious figure in Scotland, who condemned
the Parliament after its first year as 'an utter failure'
for pursuing 'a liberal agenda' across Section 28, sex education,
euthanasia and abortion. This is a battle Scottish Labour
and the SNP - as the two main centre-left parties - need to
fight and win. Scotland has for too long being shaped and
restricted by the forces of conservatism - whether they be
in the Labour Party, the Catholic Church or civic Scotland
- and the incestuous relationships between them.
In the last year a number of myths about Scotland have been
challenged. The myth of civic Scotland has certainly had a
profound shaking. This proposes that civic Scotland is a land
with rich, complex institutions and opinion just waiting to
contribute to 'the new politics'. This was always romantic
rubbish, but the debate over Section 28 has killed it for
ever. Scottish civil society is just as full of contradictions
as elsewhere, and contains some pretty narrow and ugly conservatism.
Another myth was that of labourist Scotland which proposed
that Scottish Labour won elections in the 1980s, while English
Labour lost them because it was radical and connected to the
people. This theory reached its absurd levels by seeing New
Labour as an English creation, irrelevant to the needs of
Scotland. Scottish Labour's institutionalised and backward
looking attitudes have been revealed in the first year of
devolution and the Scottish Executive.
The other central myth was nationalist Scotland which exaggerated
the degree of difference between Scotland and England to aid
the argument for separatism. Scotland was a social democratic
country, whereas England was enamoured with Thatcherism. What
one year of devolution has already shown is that Scottish
people want to see Scottish solutions to Scottish problems,
but that most people share the same values and policies as
people in England.
What this has meant, positively, is that a third myth of
Scotland has in fact, been shown to be grounded in reality
- Scotland as a social democratic country. The direction of
several of the policy debates in the first year - on Cubie,
Section 28, economic policy, social inclusion and quangos
- shows the social democratic consensus that exists in Scotland.
What is more surprising, given the extent to which this discourse
had become identified with an oppositionalist variant during
the Tory years, is how it has quickly moved onto an agenda
of innovative and distinctive policy. Scottish politics is
already undergoing the shift from an oppositionalist social
democracy, characteristic of the 1980s, to an aspirational,
achieving social democracy relevant to the new politics of
The first year has been the start of a journey, and one of
the problems encountered on that journey has been a lack of
a convincing narrative from the political classes about what
this process of devolution is meant to be about. In practice,
the dynamic of change has brought about all kinds of identifiable
and measurable political change, but the bigger picture -
of this shift from an oppositional to an aspirational, achieving
social democracy - has seen no convincing advocates emerge.
Part of this is the ambivalence some of the Scottish political
classes feel about devolution and whether it is about anything
other than a degree of autonomy, but it is also about the
need to reclaim the relevance of politics and reconnect to
different visions of the future and progress. For devolution
to succeed, new politicians need to find their voices on 'the
bigger picture' - telling the story of a different Scotland
and different futures.
Gerry Hassan is co-editor of A Different Future: A Modernisers'
Guide to Scotland (1999) and The New Scottish Politics:
The First Year of the Scottish Parliament and Beyond (2000)
published by The Stationery Office £9.99, which will be reviewed
in our next issue.