Show Hide image

Mr Scotland, chauvinism and the SNP’s big-tent nationalism

In Edinburgh, Alex Salmond walks with the swagger of a man who feels that these could be the last days of the Union.


Throughout my time in Scotland I was asked, again and again, the same question, rhetorically or otherwise: can anyone stop Alex Salmond? At present, the Scottish National Party leader and First Minister seems pretty much unstoppable. A cult of personality exists around him. He is the Big Man, without political equal or rival in his homeland. He moves with the buoyancy and swagger of one who feels that these could be the last days of the United Kingdom.

Many of his old adversaries - Donald Dewar, Robin Cook, Jim Wallace, Jack McConnell, Gordon Brown - are dead or in retreat. He is the leader of the new establishment in Scotland, a formidable machine politician with the stamina, tenacity and opportunism of a Latin American charismatic. He is a kind of pale-faced, northern European Lula da Silva and his pro-market social-democratic populism, as with Lula's in Brazil, is proving to be very appealing to a Scottish electorate that had grown weary of Labour's client state and its entrenched culture of cronyism, and which long ago gave up on the Conservatives.

“When a Scotchman sets out from this port for England," Dr Johnson once said to his biographer James Boswell of the Firth of Forth seen from Edinburgh Castle, "he forgets his native country." It was never so for Salmond: during his years of exile in London as an MP he did not stop believing that he could break the British state and create an independent Scotland. For Salmond, Scotland was a proud nation without a state, if not quite a colony of imperial England's then an inferior partner in an unhappy union: exploited, condescended to. This was the grievance that fired his restless ambition and gave definition to his complaints. In politics it always helps to have conviction, as Margaret Thatcher did, and to believe in something big; to have a project and a clear and defined enemy. For Salmond, the enemy is England and the British state.

The SNP leader has never been in a hurry. He is a gradualist. He knows where his journey ends and where he wishes to plant his flag of victory - through the heart of the last British prime minister. But he knows, too, that most Scots remain sceptical of full independence, which is why in these early skirmishes over the 2014 referendum he is being flexible and pragmatic, cravenly shifting his position on the EU and the euro and exploring the possibilities of a third way between the status quo and independence, between a straight yes and no.

He operates with the freedom of one who knows that there is no one commanding opponent to challenge him - at least not yet. David Cameron, so nimble in a crisis and so fluent, is the only politician in Britain who could be his match but he has larger problems: in spite of his Scottish surname, he knows that as an upper-middle-class English Conservative - Eton-educated and plummily poised - he would in all likelihood be received with derision in Scotland as and when the time came for him to go up against Salmond in the pulpit.

Then there is Gordon Brown, who keeps his silence at home in Fife. "He's lost confidence," I was told by one of his former aides. "He keeps asking himself - 'What was that all about?' He can't quite believe what has happened to him and to Labour." Brown holds Salmond in as much contempt as Cameron and George Osborne do. But they have power and he doesn't; they ultimately won and he lost.

The scale of the defeat in the Scottish Parliament election of May 2011 was a shock from which Labour has not recovered. The proportional voting system was set up in Scotland - or rigged, if you will - to prevent any one party from achieving the kind of majority won by the SNP, and with it a mandate to hold a referendum on independence.

“The SNP victory took me completely by surprise, which feeds into a more general lack of awareness of what was happening in Scotland," Johann Lamont, elected as leader of the Scottish Labour Party in December, told me when I visited her at Holyrood. "We did not recognise what was happening to the Labour vote nor the way in which the SNP were positioning themselves, being both left, right and centre. And actually, they were putting a triple block virtually on the question of independence. It is their only policy, but that wasn't their message . . . We did not recognise the scale of the challenge in taking on a party which had constructed a coalition that included Tommy Sheridan and Brian Souter [a businessman and Christian fundamentalist]. So there is no politics there actually. This is all about identity and who is Scottish. I don't think in all honesty the Labour Party ever managed to include someone from the ultra left [Sheridan] and someone who is a right-wing homophobe [Souter]. Yes, you can strike coalitions, but if they are based on principle and politics."

For Lamont, Salmond is not a social democrat: he's a single-issue opportunist. "Are they a social-democratic party? Some of them are. Alex Salmond isn't. I think he said: 'I don't have a problem with Thatcher's economics, it was the social consequences I have a problem with.' Why would you make a distinction between the two? How can you separate off a decision to destroy the mining industry and then be sad because the mining communities have been destroyed along with it? One of his key advisers, George Mathewson, is a Thatcherite.

“What is my problem with David Cameron? He is a Tory. What is Alex Salmond's problem with him? He's English. I don't mind people being nationalists. I worry when it trips over into chauvinism and I'm frustrated when it becomes a substitute for arguing about real politics."

On the issue of independence, Lamont says that Salmond "wants it to come down to a fight between himself and the Conservatives. Alex Salmond wants to say that those who disagree with him are talking down Scotland, that our vision of Scotland within the United Kingdom is a conservative one. He is making arguments for us that we are not making . . . Alex Salmond wants to be Mr Scotland. But he is not trying to separate us all from some kind of colonial empire. It is a partnership. There will be a Labour campaign that will be making the point about why you would want to stay strong within the United Kingdom." As for Salmond, "If he gets into a place where it looks as if he is trying to fix things, or be canny or clever, or whatever, that will damage him. And a lot of people in Scotland don't agree with him."

We will find out for sure soon enough.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.