Show Hide image

Hey, Dave: our society's bigger than yours

We have an uprising that's far bigger and more social than Cameron could have imagined.

The words "big society" will be written on the tombstone of this Conservative government. They were written on the side of the Treasury - which is, in effect, the same thing - in angry spray-can letters during the riots in December. The people of this country will not mutely acquiesce to the mortgaging of civic society to pay off the debts of the super-rich. A new social spirit is on the move, but it is not the one that the Tories envisage.

As vital public services are being dismantled, people are occupying their local libraries instead of volunteering to staff them. Instead of wealthy parents setting up academies, there are education activists running free schools for all-comers in empty mansions in Fitzrovia. David Cameron's big society branding platform imagined us "taking responsibility for the people around us". He didn't imagine that we'd be doing it by standing together on picket lines.

The Tory rhetoric around the big society is breathtakingly patronising. It's not just the awful name, which makes it sound suspiciously as though our politics were now a slick children's television show, fronted by puppets. It's not just the glib way in which the parties in government are slashing training programmes at a time when youth unemployment is nearing a million, while holding lavish fund-raising balls where millionaire donors can bid for top City internships for their sons and daughters.

And it's not just the way they declare that we can no longer afford to care for our sick and disabled, while they somehow find spare cash for tens of billions of pounds in tax breaks for banks. It's that they have the gall to do all of this and then to suggest that it is ordinary voters who have lost their sense of social responsibility.

Guess what? Enforced hardship makes people band together and now we have an uprising that's far bigger and more social than Cameron could have imagined. Who are the authors of this revolution? Check your mirror.

The real deal

It's true that there are career activists and romantic student adventurers leading the charge. But the real revolt taking place in Britain involves every one of us, whether we like it or not. It's about whether you and I are willing to let our society be broken apart and sold to unelected global financiers or whether we have the courage to stake our claim.

The sort of dissent that petrifies the powerful has an everyday face. It's the 12-year-old who organises a picket of the Prime Minister's constituency office to save his youth centre. It's the woman with progressive multiple sclerosis who builds an online resistance network to fight the cuts to disability benefits. It's the striking call-centre worker. It's the 16-year-old with no hope of affording university who misses class to protest in front of the Houses of Parliament and the teacher who lets her go.

“David Cameron, can't you see? We're the big society!" chanted members of the protest group UK Uncut at a recent demonstration against corporate tax avoidance. Cameron is about to meet the real big society and he's about to discover that it's more than a branding exercise. It's about real people standing together to fight real injustice. It's called socialism.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The offshore City

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

0800 7318496