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Jekyll and Hyde Parliament

One year after the birth of the Scottish Parliament Gerry Hassan enquires whether the centre-left coalition can break the forces of conservatism.

It 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 self-hatred.

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 Macwhirter:

"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 Electorate 1999).

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 devolution.

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.

July/August 2000