No ‘Scottish solution’
Politics in Scotland suffers from the same ailments as politics in England.
Before New Labour’s UK general election victory in 1997, election results in Scotland were generally taken to underline the huge differences between Scotland and England. While the Tories had won the previous three elections UK-wide, often with large majorities, Scottish voters had consistently and overwhelmingly voted Labour.
It was the perception that Scotland had a fundamentally different, and specifically socialist, political culture that fuelled the campaign for a separate Scottish parliament. Ironically, it was only after Labour swept to power south of the border that the parliament was established, and by then any talk of socialism had become fanciful. The Holyrood Parliament in Edinburgh is an empty shell whose members have limited powers and even more limited political imaginations (1). It is still elections to Westminster that really count; it is there that power remains in terms of foreign affairs, defence and the economy.
More importantly, Westminster remains the focus of political attention. In Glasgow and Edinburgh as much as London or Leeds, or Cardiff for that matter, it is Tony Blair and co who dominate the (grudging) public consciousness when it comes to politics. Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, is a Scottish MP who sits at Westminster. So too is chancellor and putative successor to Blair as prime minister, Gordon Brown. Even Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond prefers Westminster to Holyrood. And all the problems that blight Westminster politics in England – a lack of ideas, a lack of popular engagement, and increasing doubts about legitimacy – apply equally in Scotland.
Far from demonstrating Scotland’s difference, last week’s general election result underlined how similar Scotland is to England. Labour won convincingly in Scotland but was given a ‘bloody nose’, losing five seats and suffering reduced majorities elsewhere. As in the rest of Britain, the campaign was dominated by the question of trust and Iraq (code for a more general disillusionment with New Labour and Blair) and by the same sorts of ill-defined concerns about crime, antisocial behaviour and even immigration. There is one variation – everyone acknowledges that Scotland needs immigrants, but the (inane) question is whether they should be foreign or whether expats should be encouraged to return.
Also as in England, none of the Scottish opposition parties can claim convincingly to have done very well. Scottish Labour leader Jack McConnell (who?) said the election had been ‘a complete disaster’ for the SNP and the Tories, but both claimed success. The SNP crowed about taking Dundee East and the Western Isles (or Na h-Eileanan an Iar, if you prefer) from Labour, despite a drop in its overall share of the vote, while deputy Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie described her party’s one seat as ‘a very remarkable achievement’. Jim Wallace of the Liberal Democrats said he had the biggest smile on his face, but Jack McConnell (that’s the Scottish Labour leader) argued fairly convincingly that the Lib Dems had simply made themselves a vehicle for protest votes (2). Meanwhile the Scottish Socialist Party vote actually dropped.
Those who once imagined a ‘Scottish solution’ to the dominance of Thatcherism were sorely disappointed, as the politics of ‘There Is No Alternative’ was merely given a second home. And anyone who imagines a Scottish solution to the contemporary problem of political disengagement and illegitimacy is similarly deluded. Like England, Scotland suffers from a staid and conservative political culture, and its politicians of all parties lack the imagination to overcome it. Scotland now has more similarities than differences with its neighbour to the south, but it seems unlikely that this is what the cosmopolitan Scottish Enlightenment philosophers had in mind when they insisted on calling the place North Britain.
Whatever the solution to the current malaise, it is unlikely to have anything to do with geography. The political energies of all Britons would be better spent challenging the deadening politics espoused in both Westminster and Holyrood than dreaming of Camelot over the hill.
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