Scotland: almost afraid to know itself

Alex Salmond as Braveheart? Actually the increased vote for his Scottish National Party was born of desperation, not conviction.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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‘Alas, poor country! Almost afraid to know itself.’ Shakespeare’s description of Scotland under Macbeth is eerily appropriate for that poor country in the wake of last week’s elections for the devolved Scottish Parliament.

As predicted, Labour, which had been in government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, did very badly, and the Scottish National Party (SNP) now has the largest number of seats, but not a majority. At the time of writing, the SNP has failed to persuade the Liberal Democrats to join a coalition, and may have to form a minority administration, with all the problems that entails. But the bigger problem facing the parliament as a whole is the complete absence of political vision that has been exposed by the election.

The expected success of the SNP gave a frisson of excitement to last week’s elections, providing a fun diversion for bored English politicos finding nothing of interest in the local elections south of the border. But while there may now be jokes about Scotland’s ‘bid for freedom’, the reality is altogether less exciting. The politics of nationalism versus unionism are no more vital or meaningful than the politics of left and right.

The SNP officially stands for independence from the UK, but nobody is under any illusion that the party’s relative success was the result of an upswell in nationalist feeling. SNP leader Alex Salmond was shrewd enough to downplay independence during the campaign, in a bid simply to take advantage of anti-Labour feeling. If anything, Labour’s scaremongering about the imminent break-up of the UK, and a now notorious Scottish Sun front page showing a noose (to suggest voting SNP would be national suicide), probably annoyed more voters into backing the SNP.

If it is able to form a government, the SNP is committed to calling a referendum on independence within four years – but for now the emphasis is on showing Scots that it is a proper party, competent to run the ‘kiddy-on’ Holyrood parliament with its limited powers, before trying anything else.

Indeed, the overwhelming sentiment behind the SNP vote seems to have been: ‘We may as well gie them a shot.’ This is the kind of thinking that has football fans calling on a reluctant manager to put on an untested 16-year-old after a misfiring striker misses yet another sitter. It is born of desperation rather than conviction: ‘He cannae be any worse than that dumpling.’ In that respect, the SNP’s ideological anonymity is an advantage. Salmond has gone out of his way to cultivate the image of a respectable, sensible, modern, vaguely European-style politician, without setting out a political agenda that might actually inspire people. Consequently, people are not afraid to vote SNP, but if not for the desire to get rid of Labour, it simply wouldn’t occur to anyone beyond its nationalist base to vote for the party.

As for the dumpling, public feeling about the Labour Party in Scotland long passed disillusionment, and is now more like exhaustion. As the Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh noted in an unlikely guest column in the Financial Times, the election result has frayed the psychological cord connecting the Labour Party to Scottish working-class voters. ‘Frayed’ is an understatement, but in any case, it is undoubtedly a good thing, not least because the real political cord was cut by the party itself some time ago. Sadly, those voters do not have a new political home (the Scottish Socialist Party, which subsisted for a while on ‘Old Labour’ sentiment, never had a credible political vision, and was wiped out in last week’s election). The old-fashioned politics of Labourism in Scotland are definitively over, and the stage is clear for something new. But so far there is no meaningful alternative on the horizon, and politics in Scotland, as elsewhere, has become a sorry spectacle.

The result has been widely described as a ‘kicking’ for New Labour and Tony Blair (and perhaps outgoing First Minister Jack McConnell, if anyone can remember his name). For some, this is an indication that democracy works: the electorate showed their displeasure, and displaced an unpopular government. But this reveals an impoverished and very conservative view of democracy. Genuine democracy is not merely about ‘having your say’, taking potshots at unpopular politicians, or even voting out one shower and having another lot in, presumably till we get sick of them and bring back the old crowd. Genuine democracy is the exercise of power, and that depends on a popular political agenda. Scotland, like the rest of Britain, and most of the West, is ‘afraid to know itself’ because it has no vision of where it is going as a society.

No wonder so many voters failed to complete the overcomplicated ballot papers correctly. With the local elections happening at the same time, two completely different voting systems were in operation – leading to an unprecedented number of ‘spoiled’ papers. When politics is reduced to putting an X, or a number, next to the name of the politician or party you least despise, can anyone be bothered to perfect the technique? The idea that this passionless process has anything to do with democracy is a counsel of despair.

Whatever its composition, the new Scottish government is likely to expire before the flower in its cap. The future of politics in Scotland, and elsewhere, surely lies beyond the stale politics of Holyrood, or Westminster, or indeed the moribund political class. A bit of self-knowledge would be a good start. As Scottish football commentators are keen of saying of under-performing teams: following this result we could all do with taking a long, hard look at ourselves.

Dolan Cummings is research and editorial director at the Institute of Ideas and editor of Culture Wars.

Previously on spiked

Dolan Cummings wondered why the Scottish executive saw racism everywhere and suggested to UEFA that sectarianism is not a serious problem in Scottish football. Lee Jones asked if the end of the Union was nigh. Neil Davenport did not accept David Cameron’s apology to Scotland. Or you can read more at: spiked issue British Politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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