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You say you want a revolution

Gerry Hassan reports on a year in the life of Scottish politics

T

he last year has been one of major change and upheaval in Scottish politics with the establishment of the first ever SNP administration under Alex Salmond. The subsequent period has seen the SNP dominate the political landscape, set policy and political priorities, and throw up challenges and questions to the other parties which they have answered in different ways.

While the Scottish Tories have found a new role and influence in a Scottish Parliament where the minority SNP administration needs to win votes to govern, the Lib Dems and Labour, the two ex-coalition partners, have found it increasingly difficult to adapt to opposition.

This has been particularly true for Scottish Labour who have had a painful, difficult year. Things went from bad to worse with the ‘election’ of Wendy Alexander as Scottish Labour leader, who following in the footsteps of her mentor Gordon Brown, was elected without a contest – after her campaign set out to win enough nominations (41 out of 46 MSPs) to stop a leadership election.

This was part of a wider pattern. Alexander was the fourth Labour leader since devolution and the fourth without a proper election. This shows that the Scottish Labour establishment just don’t get the importance of intra-party democracy, and refuse to acknowledge that there is something rotten in the party’s culture which rejects democracy and is about managing processes to get the right outcomes.

Four leaders in eight years without one election paints a certain picture. Within weeks of becoming leader Alexander became the third Labour leader to be enmeshed in scandal – following Henry McLeish’s resignation over ‘Officegate’ and Jack McConnell’s ‘Wishawgate’ scandals. Alexander’s problems stemmed from her raising £17,000 to fight a campaign that her supporters went out of their way to ensure was not a competitive election.

Leaving aside the political stupidity of why Alexander needed to raise monies for an election that was unlikely to happen, or why she didn’t just fund her campaign herself in the way the SNP do, post-her coronation it turned out she had broken the law. To briefly summarise, the Alexander team accepted an illegal donation from a Jersey based businessman, Paul Green, who not being a UK citizen and voter was not entitled to make a donation.

Eventually, after it had dealt with ‘the big fish’ of Peter Hain, the Electoral Commission got around to investigating the Alexander case. After a torturous ten weeks for Alexander, the Commission found that while she had broken the law she had taken ‘significant steps’ to prevent this, ‘she did not take all reasonable steps’ and that the case would not be passed to the authorities.

The Alexander team feel this has validated them, but she has been found to break the law, and their various defences during this period were nothing short of shocking, taking Labour into uncharted waters. Thus, we learned that Labour had undertaken a strategy of soliciting donations of under £1,000 to circumvent public knowledge. When forced into disclosure, Jackie Baillie, Wendy Alexander’s spokesperson for the crisis, developed the line that this strategy was based on securing a number of small donations rather than relying on a couple of big donors.

 

Pitfalls of ‘the Scottish Tut’

 

This all leaves Scottish Labour in a state of denial and still coming to terms with the events of the last year. Having been the political establishment of Scotland for the last fifty years, Labour developed an over-exaggerated sense of its own strength and a belief in its own God given right to rule.

When you look at the attitudes and faces of the Scottish Labour benches in Holyrood since May 2007 you see a party struggling to accept reality. Scottish Labour MSPs sit ashen faced, by turns angry or despondent, looking over to the SNP sitting in the government benches and thinking that they are sitting in what are their seats ‘by right’. This is the mindset and mentality of what is known north of the border as ‘the Scottish tut’ – the assumption that you have the right to tell complete strangers off, go off in a huff, and be a general pain in the neck until you get your own way. This is usually confined to inarticulate, incandescent middle-aged Scots, not political parties!

While presentationally Labour might be able with better PR to improve their behaviour in the Scottish Parliament, a deeper malaise is present. The party has no strategy for working in opposition because it has been in power for so long and cannot think beyond its oppositional mentality towards the SNP. Basically, the current situation calls on Labour to develop a nuanced strategy of co-operation and measured opposition to the Nationalists, but Labour cannot get past its tribal dislike and detestation of the Nationalists. This infects and affects every aspect of Scottish Labour, and in short, destabilises its judgement towards the SNP.

Labour might be awful at opposition, but it wasn’t very impressive at governing either, given the unimpressive, unattractive hectoring voice of the former Labour-Lib Dem Executive. Labour has not had the resources, skills or élan to cope with devolution, and unsuspectingly it has in Scotland (and Wales) set in motion a set of processes which are undermining its own hegemony.

 

Scottish Government arrives

 

For the SNP, with enemies like this who needs friends. However, the first year of SNP Government – as it has now become known to everyone - has been a positive success rather than just winning by default. The party’s first year has seen it remake and remould the Scottish political environment and establish its credentials as a credible, competent, modern government – more than could be said for Scottish Labour in eight years.

The SNP quickly carved out a new profile and voice with only a one seat lead over Labour. It has with effortlessness and both stagecraft and statecraft dominated the political agenda, setting the priorities of the nation, and forcing the other political parties to react to their views on a host of issues. The process of the first SNP budget passed in February 2008 was illuminating with Labour and the Lib Dems excluding themselves from influence, while the Tories and Greens played a more subtle and strategic game - winning concessions, influence and status.

The Scottish Tories, for years the knocking shop of Scottish politics, have slowly re-emerged from the cold and have quickly adapted to the new realities. Their leader, Annabel Goldie, is an astute micro-questioner of the detail of the SNP in office and has a personable, amiable style miles away from Labour’s abrasiveness which is part based on a good working relationship with Salmond. What is also emerging is that the SNP and Tories have always had the potential common ground of coming together to undermine the Labour order and patronage state; without invoking old jokes about hedgehogs making love they just have to be very careful how they do it.

The central figure in this is Alex Salmond who has not exclusively made the ground, but hugely contributed to it. In the course of his time as SNP leader second time around from September 2004 he has turned the party’s fortunes from the listless ship in becalmed waters to one coming into the 2007 election with a new sense of confidence and mission, aided for the first time by a more effective, professional electoral machine than Labour.

More so, as First Minister since May 2007, Salmond has changed the nature of government and office of First Minister fundamentally. His office has unquestionably become that of the leader of the nation, asked to potentially comment on any issue of the day in that post-modern way that Blair and Clinton were. There are potential pitfalls, as we know from the counter-productive politics of both of the above, and Salmond can be guilty of being too theatrical to the point of pantomime in the Scottish Parliament, but the office has been remade. It is absolutely unthinkable to imagine going back to the ‘mini-me’, dull, lifeless style of Jack McConnell as First Minister. Salmond has simply changed the terms of debate and engagement.

 

Where is Scotland going?

 

Scottish politics have had an exciting year and more is to come. The SNP administration restrained by tight UK public spending will have difficult choices to make in coming years. The populism inherent in the party which allows it to be broadly centre-left while spanning left-wing firebrands to economic neo-liberals and conservative small mindedness cannot last indefinitely (although the last three characteristics can be found in Scottish Labour too).

The party in its first months in power has shown a sense of maturity in government Labour failed to find in office. Across a range of policy issues the SNP has spoken with a more thoughtful voice. Three examples of this are Kenny MacAskill’s aim to abandon Labour’s hard line criminal justice policies building more prisons; their jettisoning of Labour’s shrill, hectoring line on anti-social behaviour which played to the worst authoritarian instincts of the party; a final one is the SNP’s abandonment of ring-fencing between the government and local authorities which before under Labour emasculated local government.

The Scottish Labour Party faces even more questions than it did immediately after its election defeat. The leadership of Wendy Alexander has proven part of the problem, and she seems incapable of developing a style and content which can match Salmond. Not only is she not an instinctual, emotional politician like Salmond, she is unable to tell a story, using imagery, allegory and folksy charm the way he can; she is also a technocratic, modernising politician stuck in the prism of New Labour neo-liberalism.

Added to that her gut, visceral lack of empathy for the SNP and what drives them      >>>> >>>>(Lesson No. 1 in Robert McNamara’s The Fog of War is ‘empathise with your enemy’) discolours her view of the Nationalists and Scottish politics. It is a common view in Scottish Labour – shared across the party by MPs and MSPs, but that makes it worse, not better. Interestingly it wasn’t a worldview shared by Wendy Alexander’s protector on her way up, Donald Dewar.

Labour mishandled the Scottish Constitutional Convention which the party set up with the Lib Dems and Tories to investigate the case for the Scottish Parliament having more powers. This was Labour’s answer to the SNP and also the three unionist parties moving onto the SNP’s ground. Gordon Brown has indicated the Commission should only have the status of a ‘review’ or ‘working party’ and that he will have the final say. David Cairns, Scotland Office Minister commented that the Parliament did not need any more powers and that this was the obsession of the ‘McChattering classes’. A member of the Alexander team accused Cairns of being ‘out of step’.

Scottish Labour’s interconnecting crises are combining to overpower it as happens when one- party dominant systems end. The party has lost the power of the patronage state. It has lost the last of the three pillars of Labour dominance – with the massacre of Labour councillors due to electoral reform for local government. The party is increasingly without a sense of mission and purpose, clearly no longer a social democratic party, but not quite the unqualified neo-liberals of New Labour.

The party’s leadership seem to have little understanding of what to do. This stems from the limited nature of modernisation within Labour which goes back to the early 1990s. At this point the modernisers led by Jack McConnell said that unlike New Labour they did not need to remake their appeal to voters, only overhaul organisational issues. In short, from here on, the modernisers, like numerous intra-Labour groups before then, thought they could just ‘capture’ the party and start pulling the levers to bring about their agenda. Thus, several Labour politicians entered the Scottish Parliament, some believing in a more progressive version of modernisation and thinking they could use the unreformed party to further this. Such a strategy has shown itself to be a complete disaster, while the party is still left unreformed and antithetical to democracy.

This can be seen in Alexander’s answer to the crisis of the party which was to call in Patrick Macdonald, former chief executive of John Menzies to overhaul the party and structure looking at the ‘resources required, capabilities necessary and the infrastructure to stay in touch with members and communicate with supporters’: a remit straight from MBA Business School. Rather than engage in a democratic debate and set of processes Alexander’s instincts were to reach for the management solutions thus compounding the problem. Not surprisingly his first recommendations included the politically idiotic suggestion that the leader of the opposition party in the Scottish Parliament sit in the UK Cabinet.

Scottish politics are being taken from under the feet of Scottish Labour, and the SNP has goodwill and momentum behind it for the foreseeable future. In the longer-term, irrespective of party fortunes, and the SNP being in or out of office, we are witnessing the slow decoupling of Scotland from the rest of the UK.

This brings nearer the inevitable independence referendum which will be a watershed moment for Scotland and the UK. While the pro-independence forces would not win a vote today, the arguments for the union are increasingly defensive and counter-productive. The SNP are preparing for this day, while Scottish Labour and unionism are still stuck in an earlier age fighting the last war.