Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution

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Justin Reynolds reviews Iain Macwhirter’s latest chronicle of post-referendum Scotland.

Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution is the third in Iain Macwhirter’s series of books attempting to map Scotland’s fast changing political landscape. It is indicative of the extraordinary speed with things are moving – and Macwhirter’s industry – that this is the third book he has published in two years.

Road to Referendum navigated the long and circuitous path that led to the calling of last year’s referendum, telling the story of the rise of the SNP and the wider independence movement.

Disunited Kingdom followed the drama of the referendum debate, and the surge in popular democratic participation it inspired.

Tsunami picks up the story after the referendum, charting the SNP’s unstoppable rise and Scottish Labour’s precipitous decline, and assesses the prospects for the Union in the wake of a General Election result that illustrated, as dramatically as possible, the political differences between Scotland and much of the rest of the UK. The book doesn’t disclose any new revelations that won’t already be familiar to close observers of Scottish politics, but Macwhirter synthesises a vast amount of material in 100 or so dense pages, and offers some shrewd observations on where Scottish politics might go from here.

The SNP juggernaut

The opening chapters try to make sense of the seemingly counter-intuitive surge in support for the SNP that followed its referendum defeat. Macwhirter suggests the fundamental reason is quite simple: over the course of the long independence debate the SNP and the wider Yes movement succeeded in presenting a case for an independent Scotland that appealed strongly to the electorate’s imagination, inspiring a majority of younger voters and persuading many older voters to entertain seriously, often for the first time, the political possibilities that independence might open.

The Yes campaign managed to cast the prospect of independence in a new, attractive light, disassociating it from older expressions of Scottish nationalism entangled with patriotic appeals to identity and ethnic exceptionalism. Eschewing such sentimentality, Yes instead popularised the idea of ‘civic nationalism’, an instrumental understanding of independence as the most effective means of opening the political space for Scotland to redesign itself as a modern social democracy, free of the compromises necessitated by continued membership of the Union.

The ideal of civic nationalism, interpreted in various but essentially complementary ways by the SNP and the various Yes groups that emerged over the course of the campaign, opened the shimmering prospect of an independent Scotland set free to combine all the best bits of social democracy: a vibrant participatory democracy powered by a technologically advanced economy funding a generous welfare state.

Yes might have lost last September, but it succeeded in aligning the idea of independence with the future, as a logical next step for Scotland, and in making the Union look old fashioned, a phase in Scotland’s history it is now ready to move beyond. During the referendum campaign the somewhat dusty old idea of Scottish independence became ‘cool’, the simple ‘Yes’ brand becoming iconic somewhat in the manner of Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign.

This latter-day ‘utilitarian’ nationalism informs the political philosophy of many of the SNP’s new army of MPs. Macwhirter follows one of them, Tommy Sheppard, on canvassing sessions round the streets of Edinburgh East, and observes the strong appeal Sheppard’s particular presentation of the civic nationalist ideal held for many voters. He notes Sheppard seemed to have no particularly strong patriotic attachment to Scotland, and was somewhat uncomfortable when questioned about the meaning landmark events in Scottish history, such as the Wars of Independence, held for him. For Sheppard, independence is simply the most effective gateway to Scottish social democracy, and the modern SNP the natural successor to Scottish Labour:

’[I]’m not a nationalist. I’m an internationalist … I think there’s lots of people in the SNP who aren’t really nationalists. Or rather are civic nationalists who see themselves first of all as social democrats. For me, independence is a means to the same ends in which I’ve always believed.

(While following Sheppard Macwhirter records some observations on the SNP’s canvassing techniques that might be of particular interest to Labour readers. Known SNP and Yes sympathisers are generally ignored, except for occasional constituency wide literature drops. The relentless focus is on gaining new voters, not shoring up a ‘core vote’, Sheppard claiming that ‘the SNP is the only party that deliberately goes after the people who do not already support it.’)

Sheppard’s utilitarian nationalism is similar to that of Nicola Sturgeon, who has always said she joined the SNP rather than Labour because she thought it better placed to defend Scotland’s social democratic settlement from Home Counties Conservatism. Macwhirter suggests her appeal to so many Scottish voters has much to do with this down-to-earth, unsentimental view of the pragmatic benefits of independence, which invests her political message with an air of authenticity:

Sharp, intelligent, confident, down to earth: Nicola Sturgeon’s image chime[s] with how modern Scots like to regard themselves.

Indeed Sturgeon and her party are so sensitive about nationalism’s historic associations with dubious quasi-mystical speculations about ‘national character’ that the modern SNP seems to have become ‘a party defined by national identity whose politics is almost wholly unconcerned with identity.’

And yet, for Macwhirter the surge in support for greater Scottish autonomy cannot wholly be explained by successful ‘detoxification’ of the nationalist brand: for all the ‘respectability’ that the popularisation of civic nationalism has conferred upon the case for independence, a residue of the old visceral appeal of Scottish nationalism persists, though not quite as it did before. The establishment of the Scottish Parliament has facilitated a growing sense of national self-confidence, a proud belief that Scotland is indeed capable of going it alone. The tone of the Yes movement Macwhirter has listened to at the countless referendum and election meetings he has attended over the past couple of years is not without a certain patriotism:

They weren’t all utilitarian nationalists, just wanting a better Labour Party. Their sense of right and justice is based on a communal sense of belonging to a nation. A nation with strong communitarian and social democratic values, certainly, but a nation nevertheless … What the SNP seems to have achieved in East Edinburgh, as in so many working class communities in Scotland, is to have fused class solidarity with a latent sense of national identity so that many voters can still feel they’re in touch with their Labour roots even though they are voting SNP. This isn’t about identity as such – Scots have rarely had a problem with their identity. Rather, they have for a variety of reasons, started to feel a degree of self-confidence about it.

Labour’s decline

Faced with this gathering sense of collective national possibility, and the shining vision of an autonomous Scotland so ably projected by the Yes movement, Scotland’s pro-Union parties have found it hard to offer a positive alternative. The challenge has, of course, been particularly acute for Scottish Labour: the SNP seems to offer both social democracy and freedom from Westminster’s ‘forces of conservatism’. Labour’s traditional appeal to cross-border solidarity simply doesn’t resonate as it once did, many Scottish voters having given up faith in the British political system as a channel for effective centre-left politics:

[S]cottish voters were tired of being told that it is somehow indecent to support a nationalist party, even though it seemed more socialist than anything else on offer. They were fed up being scolded by Labour politicians like Gordon Brown for abandoning the poor and dispossessed of northern England, as if Scottish voters were in some way responsible for Westminster policies since Thatcherism.

For Macwhirter this shift has more to do with the positive case made by the Yes movement than the failings of Scottish Labour, but he runs through a by-now familiar array of issues of Labour’s own making that have aggravated the party’s problems. These include the repeated leadership crises that have plagued Labour since Henry McLeish’s resignation more than a decade ago; the Scottish electorate’s distaste for elements of the New Labour project, notably the Iraq war and those aspects of welfare reform that questioned the inviolability of the principle of welfare universalism; the perceived negativity of the Better Together campaign; Johann Lamont’s unfortunate ‘branch office’ remarks; and strategic errors committed under Jim Murphy’s brief leadership.

Macwhirter is measured in his assessment of Murphy’s tenure. The former Eastwood MP took on a near impossible job, and took on the challenge with energy, eloquence and under no illusions about the gravity of the party’s predicament. Macwhirter believes that Murphy, though undoubtedly on the right of the Labour Party, has always been a sincere social democrat, and was genuinely committed to leading Scottish Labour from a solid centre-left position. But much of the electorate simply didn’t buy it, Murphy’s association with some of the most controversial legacies of the New Labour governments (Iraq, welfare reform, tuition fees) constantly working to undermine him:

[M]urphy was a little like a very good female impersonator – who wore the right clothes, could talk the talk and walked the walk – but then you noticed the telltale stubble on the chin. The Scottish voters were too sophisticated to fall for confusion marketing techniques and Murphy’s popularity – never high – sank dramatically in the months before the General Election.

Murphy’s leadership was also haunted by his more recent involvement with Better Together, particularly during the last weeks of the General Election campaign when – under extreme pressure to save as many seats as possible – Labour retreated to negative campaigning, unleashing something akin to ‘Project Fear II’ through relentless focus on Institute of Fiscal Studies predictions of a significant revenue shortfall in the Scottish budget if the SNP were to secure full fiscal autonomy. Those warnings never gained traction with the electorate, who were confused by inter-party wrangling over complex financial forecasts. Macwhirter writes that ‘a law of diminishing black holes’ set in as the Institute pointed to anomalies in Labour’s own spending plans, not just those of the SNP. In the end all the doom-mongering about ‘Austerity Max’ and ‘SNP Full Fiscal Austerity Bombshell’ simply served to remind voters of Labour and Murphy’s involvement with Better Together (which was not helped by Murphy’s recruitment of much of the Better Together team soon after his election as leader).

Macwhirter suggests some possible ways forward for Scottish Labour. He argues that two essential steps were actually undertaken under Murphy’s leadership: the reaffirmation of Scottish Labour’s commitment to the principle of welfare universalism after some muddying of the waters under Lamont; and the rationalising of Labour’s election procedures through the introduction of one person one vote. But Macwhirter argues for much more, suggesting that Scottish Labour reinvent itself as a revived Independent Labour Party, which would make clear its full freedom to set its own policies, and allow it to reference the old ILP’s ‘profound Scottish, pacifist, socialist, and anti-imperialist principles.’

Ultimately, though, Macwhirter is pessimistic about Labour’s prospects, thinking it unlikely the party will be willing to make the radical changes necessary to remake itself as a serious challenger to the SNP. He thinks it more likely that the longer term challenge to the SNP will emerge from within the Yes movement itself, possibly in the form of a new party positioned to the left of both Labour and the SNP. This could take the form of some kind of ‘ScotDemos’ modelled on the popular new European parties of the left Podemos and Syriza, an idea that has already been mooted by the Radical Independence Campaign.

Prospects for the Union

Macwhirter’s final chapter considers the prospects for the Union in light of the sharply polarising General Election result. He thinks that the vector of British politics points to the Union’s eventual dissolution, not through the calling of another referendum in response to some sudden crisis, but simply as the logical outcome of the incremental transfer of ever more powers to the Scottish Parliament. Sharp divisions between the Scottish and Westminster governments over issues such as the proposed abolition of the Human Rights Act, the implementation of English Votes for English Laws, and a possible British exit from the European Union may yet provoke a second referendum sooner rather than later, but Macwhirter predicts that the gradual accumulation of powers to Holyrood will by degrees demonstrate Scotland’s ability to govern itself, and thereby overcome residual scepticism about the feasibility of independence. Ironically this gradual move towards ever greater autonomy was facilitated by Labour’s design of the 1998 Scotland Act, which by granting to Holyrood powers over everything not explicitly reserved to Westminster, made devolution, in the words of Donald Dewer, ‘a process not an event’, and made it straightforward to transfer new powers to the Scottish Parliament without major constitutional upheaval:

When you have a national legislature, elected on PR and with primary law making powers, you are already 80% of the way to self-government.

Macwhirter argues that the Smith Commission’s proposals to give the Parliament major new powers over taxation, imperfect as they are, mark the first significant step towards the transfer of extensive economic powers to Scotland. The granting of control over revenues has already generated pressure for the granting of new powers over the economic levers by which those revenues are raised. As Scotland acquires ever greater economic sovereignty the Barnett formula will be replaced by complex mechanisms for financial transfers between the constituent parts of a quasi-federal UK, including rules for the acceptable level of Scottish national debt in relation to the UK debt pile. Macwhirter suggests a point will be reached where all this becomes so ‘horribly complex’ that there will be an emergent consensus that independence would be preferable to the maintenance of a byzantine federalist structure.

Some questions

Macwhirter’s analysis may make rather grim reading for Scottish Labour loyalists, and those of the other pro-Union parties, but I found much of it persuasive. He is right, I think, that Labour’s decline has as much to do with the positive appeal of the SNP as its own failings. And his matter-of-fact assessment that independence may arrive by stages seems to me more convincing than the idea that voters will be bounced into it by some sudden crisis: as last year’s referendum found more than half the electorate have yet to be convinced, and will only be persuaded by further concrete evidence that independence could work.

I have reservations about some of Macwhirter’s assessments.

Though certainly not starry-eyed, Macwhirter frequently seems too willing to take at face value the SNP’s attempts to align itself with Europe’s emergent anti-austerity left. At one point he writes:

Ms Sturgeon’s appeal has something in common with that of leaders of the European populist left movements like Pablo Iglesias of Podemos in Spain and Alexis Tsipras of Syriza in Greece. She is a modern social democrat seeking a broad national opposition to austerity economics. The explosive growth of the SNP, led by the urban working class turning away from the traditional parties of the Left, echoes the way Syriza displaced the Greek Socialist Party PSOE.

Though the SNP’s attempts to present itself as an anti-austerity party are not wholly tactical, they are in large part opportunistic. The SNP has been skilful indeed in presenting itself as the kind of radical social democratic force that its supporters would like it to be, while in reality governing firmly from the centre. Compare, for example, the modestly expansionist economic programme proposed by the SNP during the General Election, or John Swinney’s day-to-day technocratic caution, with the thoroughgoing critique of neoliberal orthodoxies offered by scholar-politicians such as Syriza’s Yanis Varoufakis, or Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias.

Indeed the gulf between SNP rhetoric and deed isn’t just a fabrication of a bitter Scottish Labour Party: it is well understood by the SNP’s ostensible allies in the wider Yes movement. That is the very reason why movements such as RIC have been discussing the possibility of a Syriza-style alternative: for them the SNP is regarded as the agent through which independence may be achieved, but not as an adequate vehicle for radical economic and political reform. That would be a job for ‘ScotDemos’.

And as regards Macwhirter’s suggestions for the revival of Scottish Labour I’m not convinced resurrection of the ILP would make much difference. The rebranding of the party as the ILP would surely leave it wide-open to the charge of hypocrisy: if Labour believes in the Union then why would it feel the need to sunder itself so absolutely from the rest of the UK Labour Party? The SNP would, with justification, argue that what’s good enough for Scottish Labour is good enough for Scotland. Some kind of federal party structure may well have to be designed to formalise Scottish Labour’s policy making independence, but breaking up UK Labour would seem to be a contradictory and self-defeating move. And Macwhirter’s vision of the kind of party that the ILP would need to be seems to take it too close to the territory of Scotland’s other left parties. An independent ILP with ‘pacifist, socialist, and anti-imperialist’ principles would be fighting for territory already held by the Greens and the proposed ‘Scottish Syriza’. (It’s curious that Macwhirter’s book mentions the Greens hardly at all given the real threat they will pose to Scottish Labour at the next 2016 Holyrood elections.)

It’s arguable that Scottish Labour will only be able to survive if it can make a stronger case for the fundamental principle that distinguishes it from its political revivals, its belief that social democracy is best pursued in a UK context. That position might seem a marginal one today, but it may start to regain its lustre if some kind of coherent federalist structure for the UK could be worked out in which a strong Scottish Parliament would exist alongside English regional assemblies and the Welsh Assembly. If a federalist UK could be organised so as to give Scotland the legislative and economic flexibility that so many Scots want, while preserving the benefits of pooling and sharing resources across the Union, then Scottish Labour’s time may come again.

That, however, seems wishful thinking in the present political climate, with a Conservative administration at Westminster for whom federalism means little more than EVEL-style tinkering to secure short-term political advantage, and a vibrant Scottish independence movement that seems to be gathering ever more momentum. For now, at least, Macwhirter’s pessimism regarding the future of the Union seems justified.

In Tsunami he has given us another exceptionally lucid and thoughtful guide to Scotland’s ever shifting political scene will be of great interest whatever the reader’s political affiliation.

Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution by Iain Macwhirter is published by Cargo Publishing.