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11 August 2021

Scotland’s political rat race: Why the SNP’s centrism is failing

Ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to green and local issues is unconvincing – and starting to cause problems.

By Rory Scothorne

In his celebrated 1972 address to Glasgow University students, Jimmy Reid, the Scottish trade union activist, condemned the alienation and competitiveness that he saw seeping into postwar British culture. “Reject these attitudes,” he pleaded. “Reject the values and false morality that underlie these attitudes. A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings.”

Back then, Thatcherism was not much more than a twinkle in the eye of Ted Heath’s education secretary, but Reid – who had just helped to save the shipyards of the Upper Clyde from state abandonment – saw it developing in the common sense of the people.

The sociologist Stuart Hall, who coined the term “Thatcherism” in 1979, also spotted early on the emergence of a new, right-wing ideological appeal that claimed to free citizens from state paternalism. The Labour Party, seeking to represent the working class in government, chose to “discipline” them instead, with the result that “Labour is undividedly ‘with’ the state… and Mrs Thatcher is, undividedly, out there ‘with the people’”. Thatcher’s “new populism”, Hall argued, was vital in “making respectable the radical right assault on the whole structure of welfare and social benefits”.

In Reid’s Glasgow as elsewhere, the consequences of that assault endure to this day, compounded by a new tidal wave of cuts since the financial crisis. In 2019 a report by the Centre for Cities found that public spending in Glasgow had collapsed by almost a quarter – £638 per head – since 2009. The results are painfully visible, with not long to go until the city hosts COP26 in early November. Cuts to cleansing services mean that bins, where they can be found, often spill on to the street. In the darkest possible vindication of Reid’s warnings about the rat race, this mess now supports a booming population of actual rats.

Glasgow’s local government was once a Labour stronghold, but since 2017 an SNP administration has been the target of protests over a range of issues from equal pay for women council workers to library closures and cleansing cuts. These have reached sufficient scale for Keir Starmer to make the council a focal point of his recent visit to Scotland, attacking the SNP for the city’s “waste crisis”.

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SNP councillors have accused Starmer of “trashing a city he clearly knows nothing about”, yet the heat from protests has also prompted a more sophisticated rebuttal from the council leader Susan Aitken. Responding to the campaigns against cuts, Aitken told the Sunday Herald that she “fundamentally disagrees” with the implication that the people of the city “can’t manage unless the council is there, not just holding their hand but doing it for them”. This individualism is echoed in the council’s response to fly-tipping. Neil Mackay writes in the article that “while there are plans to give Glasgow a deep clean ahead of world leaders arriving, council sources say locals also have to take responsibility themselves for the state of the city. ‘It’s people dumping litter, not the council,’ one source said.”

[see also: Nicola Sturgeon’s Green embrace only proves the weakness of the independence project]

Though Aitken presented this as a new, radical departure from “paternalism”, there is nothing new or radical about this kind of rhetoric. It has deep roots in the SNP, whose early electoral successes in the 1960s and 1970s were built in part on an appeal to anti-statist, liberal and individualist sentiments. Attacks on the top-down postwar agendas of both Labour and the Conservatives went down especially well in small-town and rural Scotland. Yet its application to Scotland’s largest and most left-wing city sounds more like the kind of neoliberal justification for shrinking the social state identified by Hall in 1979.

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New Labour offered similar justifications for its embrace of the market. Yet the SNP’s successes since 2007 have been helped by a vocal defence of the welfare state, winning over voters disillusioned with Labour under Tony Blair. This differentiation has always been more illusory than real, but after more than a decade in government at Holyrood – or almost half a decade in Glasgow – easy attacks on the “Westminster parties” need to be augmented with more positive justifications for the SNP’s own centrism.

This isn’t an existential problem – voters in Scotland are generally small-c conservatives – but those voters still expect their politicians to portray that centrism as more principled and respectable than its equivalent down south. The SNP thus relies more than most centrist parties on the suppression of protest from its left. It has been able to do this so far with the help of the national question, absorbing more radical elements into a wait-for-independence logic. Yet in Glasgow, a city with a strong tradition of extra-parliamentary action, protesters seem unwilling to wait, and are aware of the troublemaking potential they possess as COP26 approaches.

The same problems are emerging around Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to the climate crisis. While attending Govanhill Carnival in her Glasgow Southside constituency, Sturgeon was confronted by young activists from the Green New Deal Rising campaign over her refusal to oppose the new Cambo oil field in the North Sea. Her response was a masterclass in centrist self-aggrandisement, pleading helplessness on the one hand – offshore licensing is reserved – while also emphasising the “hard questions” that were going unasked. “You can have a politician that says to you what you want to hear, because you are standing here, or you can have a politician that says I do hear what you say, and I’ve got a lot of sympathy with it, but there’s issues as First Minister I’ve got to make sure that I properly consider.”

As I’ve written before, there are several things the SNP could and should be doing to make those “hard questions” – presumably those relating to North Sea jobs – easier to answer, chiefly through a more interventionist industrial strategy. But the SNP is a party of political management, not social transformation, whose objectives are to stay in power and build a sustainable majority for independence. Neither of these goals is conducive to the kind of policy radicalism that can begin to address Scotland’s problems.

Hosting COP26 in Glasgow initially looked like a great opportunity for the SNP to boost its world-leading image, but it is now posing bigger political problems than expected. Fortunately for Sturgeon, neither Labour nor the Conservatives are in a position to take advantage as long as they have to focus on winning votes in England, a political culture increasingly at odds with Scotland’s. The only party that can seriously threaten the SNP’s reputation-management efforts for now is the Greens – a young, progressive, environmentalist party with a distinctly Scottish identity.

No wonder, then, that the SNP is currently attempting to conclude negotiations to bring the Greens into government with them. This will not be full coalition, but it may include ministerial roles for Green MSPs, and will allow the SNP to enter COP26 with their most vulnerable electoral flank covered. The deal may give some ground to Green policy ambitions on a range of areas from transport to conservation, but it is unlikely to break the SNP’s deep reluctance to intervene more proactively in the structure of the economy, be it through tax rises, public ownership or strategic conditions on public procurement and subsidies.

The deal will be put to a vote of Green members before it can be signed, probably at the end of the month. If it doesn’t impress them, we can expect to hear Green leaders and MSPs defending it with the same language of “hard questions” and compromise in which Nicola Sturgeon is already fluent. Who will be left, then, to exhort us to “reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you”, as Reid did in 1972? “This is how it starts,” he argued, “and before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat-pack.” Green members should think very carefully about who really stands to benefit from Scotland’s political rat race.

[see also: Will the SNP ever break its addiction to North Sea oil?]