13 May 2015

Can Scotland find a new political consensus?

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Looking back at my pre-election post for British Future about why the general election felt different in Scotland, it now looks absurdly cautious, writes Chris Creegan.

Even the day before the election my prediction was around 45-50 SNP seats and a greater degree of local variation than finally materialised. Yet in the end just three sitting MPs bucked the trend. And on the morning after the night before, the First Minister herself was heard articulating precisely the thing I’d been cautious about. The tectonic plates had shifted.

So what are we to make of the most momentous election in recent history? And how do things feel in Scotland now?

‘The Scottish lion has roared’ said Alex Salmond in his acceptance speech. And it made me bristle. It didn’t fit with my sense of the complexities at play beneath the surface of the momentous swing. Any more than Ed Miliband’s claim of a ‘surge of nationalism’ or Peter Mandelson’s analysis that Labour’s vote had been ‘squeezed by two nationalisms’.

There has been so much talk in recent weeks of a febrile atmosphere in post referendum Scotland. As one commentator observed there was a perception that during the election people had been swayed by faith and flag rather than detail and minutiae. Worse than that has been the accusation that Scotland has gone mad.

Putting to one side that such language is at best unhelpful and at worst insulting (not least to people with mental health problems), the trouble is that it misrepresents what’s actually being going on. I know that for many of those who switched allegiance last Thursday, the experience has actually been rather quieter, more reflective, more considered. And often really hard.

Cultural identity has played its part of course, but it cuts at least two ways. People did not suddenly become nationalists, any more than many of those who voted Yes last September. They haven’t taken leave of their senses. And they haven’t been duped either.

That last accusation is particularly unfortunate in the context of what everyone agrees is increased political engagement in post referendum Scotland. The Scottish turnout was its highest since 1997 and higher than in either England or Wales. It will do the cause of engagement no favours to suggest that people have simply been hoodwinked.

As to whether people have allowed their hearts to overrule their heads, this would hardly be a new phenomenon. In fact it was precisely because many people rejected previously unquestioned loyalties that they found themselves voting SNP.

Isn’t voting often finely balanced between assiduous attention to detail and gut instinct? Sometimes, despite the content, it’s look and feel that finally sway the voter. Crucially it’s having a reason to believe. And even if people approached the ballot box with a degree of emotion, is that really such a bad thing?

There is perhaps an argument for saying that it’s the media debate, particularly that on social media, which has been febrile. An argument that away from the highly charged atmosphere of Twitter, with all its cybernatery, the quieter Scotland, assumed to be anti-independence, is rather more diverse. That people have made their own careful, personal choices.

As Douglas Alexander pointed out, people in Scotland chose (largely) to reject the Tories but to place their trust in someone other than Labour to carry that mantle for them. So their votes may have embodied grievance. However this was not the ugly smouldering grievance we’ve been told to fear (though that does undeniably exist), but rather a longer-term disaffection with Scottish Labour and the extent to which it still represents the interests of ordinary Scots. A loss of trust which is not new but has been ebbing away for a long time.

Where does this leave the political identity of Scotland? From a sea of red to a sea of yellow in just a decade. One answer is of course ‘utterly and hopelessly divided’; around half of voters voted for parties which supported independence and the other half did the opposite. But perhaps with some long-overdue reassessment and conciliation, particularly amongst SNP and Labour, it’s possible to find common cause and a greater degree of consensus.

It will not be helpful for the election result to give way to a sense that the SNP is Scotland (any more than Scotland was just Labour). Half the electorate did not vote SNP last Thursday and if the SNPs commitment (which was so compelling to many) to put Scotland’s interests first is to be really meaningful then it must be on the basis that the voices of the other half are not forgotten.

Attitudinal trends suggest that Scotland is barely more left wing than England.  Yet this time the level of support for the Tories in England was 41%. Combine that with the UKIP vote and there’s a majority (55%) to the right of centre. Whereas Tory support in Scotland actually fell to less than 15%. Combine the support of parties which could be described as social democratic or left of centre (in some form) and the proportion tops 70%.

Labour, in particular, has argued that the SNP isn’t a social democratic or progressive party, let alone socialist. Such values are embodied by Labour, they argue. But many of those who voted SNP assert otherwise. In reality are progressive values really the property of one party?

The fact is that the SNP went to the country on an anti-austerity ticket, committed to locking the Tories out and won nearly 50% of the popular vote. So is there another way of reading the election results in Scotland? A way that is far more about convergence than polarisation?

How might this play out? There seems on Labour’s part an emerging acknowledgement that devolution needs to go beyond Smith; and on the SNP’s part a recognition that it must respect the referendum result and focus on more powers for now. Is this the basis of a new pragmatic consensus for devo max?

With a shedload of goodwill and another one of common sense it might just be possible to write another narrative for Scotland’s immediate future. One where devolution is extended and nurtured, where effective governance and robust scrutiny prevail, and where both happen on the basis of a new shared social democratic consensus which chimes with people across the independence divide. This could be an inclusive narrative in which smaller parties like the Greens and even the Scottish Tories participate.

Sound like a pipe dream? It would require a major suspension of hostilities on the part of political parties for sure. But the polls before the election showed that away from the political melee many ordinary Scots want the parties to work together.

So it may be a mountain to climb. But doesn’t the Scottish political class owe that to the Scottish people? If not what is the alternative?

Chris Creegan blogs at www.chriscreegan.com and Tweets from @Chris_Creegan This post is written in a personal capacity.

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