Sneers and Self Loathing

5th February 2007

One factor seems constant in Scottish politics: a surge in SNP support, and Scotland becomes an interesting place. South of the border and further afield, nobody generally cares much about Scottish election results outside the professional pundits and those in the business of gathering votes. The result was disasterous for Labour. For the first time it frayed the psychological chord that had hitherto inexorably associated working-class Scots with votes for the party. Whatever the protest element, its hard to envisage all that toothpaste being squeezed back into the tube. It also gives the SNP the credibility of governance for the first time. It would be wrong to dismiss the unpopularity of Tony Blair from contributing greatly to the SNP victory. Scots were similarly hostile to Margaret Thatcher, using the Labour Party to repeatedly make that point to the Tories. This time the SNP are the principal benefactors. But besides anti-Blairism, other issues come into play. Labour’s campaign was unfailingly negative. They have long regarded Scotland as a fiefdom, whose role is to quietly deliver a block20of seats that will help secure a Westminster Labour Government. Indeed, the devolution ‘settlement’ was intended to be just that, and to kill Scottish nationalism ‘stone dead’, in the words of George Robertson, now NATO General Secretary. The attempt to portray a transparently moderate, democratic organisation with a personable leader, as a band of wrecking extremists, was way past its sell-by date. The ‘Vote SNP and you’ll never get to see your old granny in Hounslow’ approach has gone far beyond insulting. It now just seems the embarassing self-ridicule of the boorish drunk who turns up at the cocktail party and behaves as if he’s at a football match. Even worse were the self-loathing sneers concerning Scotland’s ability to function as an independent nation, similar to say, Ireland, Norway or Lithuania. This is manifest nonsense. Like any other nation, the success of an independent Scotland is likely to be contingent on the type of economic and social policies it follows, and the health of the global economy in general. In the20long run, one suspects, Scottish independence would neither be the great disaster nor the magnificent triumph its detractors and advocates seem to anticipate. Political processes are dynamic. There was always going to be an element of ‘suck it and see’ after the devolution ‘settlement’. What the elections have shown is that Scots want more power and sovereignty but not total independence. But this embarrassment to the Government is largely one of their own making. The new Parliament presented Labour with an opportunity to be bold and radical, but many Scots have seen it as one squandered by a spineless Vichy administration concerned with dampening down expectations to suit the Westminster agenda. The election results also indicate that Scots voters are far more sophisticated than nationalists who demand independence yesterday or unionists who crave that elusive ‘final settlement’. There is an element of canniness at play here. Why should Scots take the potentially cataclysmic route to sovereignty when they now have an institution in the form of the Holyrood parliament and a20strong party in shape of the SNP, which can give them as much or as little leverage as they desire? Why abandon the safety net of the union when you can try degrees of independence and see how it works out? The problem for Labour is, how far do they move to repair the damage and appease the Scottish aspirations that they’ve sorely misjudged? To do so will have ramifications. For the real sleeping giant is not Scottish nationalism, but the English version. Many people south of the border have reclaimed Englishness, as opposed to Britishness, as their post-imperial cultural identity. They may come to the point where they say to the sulking kid brother, ‘we bought you a place of your own, so why are you always crashing on our couch?’ The FT recently provided renewed evidence that tax subsidy flows from the south-east to the poorer regions. The counter argument, of course, is that by the very unitary nature of the British state, Scotland and the rest of the UK are massively subsidising the south-east through the location of the central government departments in20that region. This structural inequity gives the debate a constitutional edge and highlights tensions that can only exacerbate. Therefore subsidy is one area that English interests might be inclined to look at. Scottish representation at Westminster will inevitably be another. Discussion constantly emanating from north of the border over the need to either dismantle or maintain a state which is now starting to feel decidely anachronistic -designed to pave the way for the imperial adventure and held together by the esprit de corps of two long ended World Wars - seems only likely to stretch English tolerance further. This SNP victory does not necessarily herald the break up of Britain. However, it invariably sets into motion processes that mean debate on the constitutional issue and our national identity will be high on the agenda for some years to come.


Originally featured in Financial Times Comment.