The true nature of the political upheaval in Scotland

Tom Gallagher’s recent column (and follow up comments) casts a non-starry-eyed gaze over the seemingly natural procession of the SNP at the moment towards a second term in the Scottish Parliament.

For Tom, there are some crucial factors. Salmond’s undoubted sure-touch as a populist Scottish politician; a commentariat and editorial cadre, strategically placed in the Scottish media, that insistently beats the SNP’s drum; and a list of policy prescriptions aimed at “defending” the Scottish people against the worst of Tory cuts, however well- or ill-founded (or funded).

I actually like Tom’s general dyspepsia about Scottish nationalism – it’s a useful negativity. But I think he’s missing where the transformative action might be at this Scottish election.

To start with, it seems slightly churlish of Tom to reduce Salmond’s impact to the “first personality cult in Scottish political history”. Every other day I walk past a statue of Donald Dewar, first First Minister in the Scottish Parliament, in the heart of Glasgow’s Buchanan Street – Scottish Labour’s “Father of the Nation”, immortalized in bronze. More than a mild attack of cultishness there.

And other than perhaps Obama in his 2008 run-up, or Lula-ismo and its variants in Latin America, where are the recent politicians who are able to combine sound-bite mastery while resonating authentically with their constituency? Salmond is operating within the narrow range of devolutionary politics, and plays that three-octave plastic keyboard particularly well.

But in terms of geopolitics, doesn’t Tom think that there’s a much more ambitious Salmond waiting to emerge, as the possibility of independence gets closer? Identifying his range of international stances and pitches as mere exercises in “headline gathering” is, again, just a bit too grumpy. Doesn’t the idea of a nukes-free, pro-UN-aligned, sustainable-energy championing, disapora-and-immigration friendly Scotland excite him just a little? And who would you want to be taking that forward?

I might agree with Tom that there is a shared “managerialism” about the general SNP/Labour pitch – Gerry Hassan has been articulate about identifying the smug complacency of “governing” Scotland, in professions, business and civil society. But there’s more to this election than the SNP/Labour tussle for institutional hegemony.

The most recent IPSOS Mori poll held out the tantalising prospect of a slight majority of seats in the Parliament (between the SNP and the independence-supporting Greens) for a multi-option “Independence Referendum”. Everybody’s benefitting from the meltdown in the Coalition-tainted Lib Dem support in Scotland – but if one of the main beneficiaries is the Scottish Greens, then it all gets very interesting.

At the very least, Green politics is militant about community empowerment – their very critique of the growth-based development model of current capitalism, and its environmental costs, leads them to a “small-is-beautiful” approach which pretty much dominatesthe current manifesto. There’s no doubt that Salmond and the SNP’s successful attempts to build up a concertation of patriotic interests – to “take Scotland’s side” more than “take sides in Scotland” – has led to some uncomfortable corporate bedfellows: the campaign money from transport tycoon (and Christian fundamentalist) Brian Souter, the endorsement from Murdoch’s Sun newspaper.

Many of us have been happy that the proportionality in the Scottish electoral system has always allowed for left-green parties to have their voice in Holyrood – practising some degree of policy leverage, and sometimes “peebling them wi’ stanes” from inside Miralles’ beautiful building.

But the tantalising opportunity opening up at this election is a SNP-Green majority which could completely evade the current political calculus of Westminster. The Greens could provide a necessary progressive and community-oriented input to an SNP model of “green prosperity”, ensuring that the “reindustrialisation of Scotland” does not become the thoughtless “return-to-hyper-consumerism of Scotland”.

If pro-independence parties are in a majority at Holyrood, it means that a referendum will be much more likely – probably towards the end of the term. But the cultural reality of that will mean a futuristic conversation about Scottish progress – not just the sustainability of our energy supply, but the basic definitions and norms of a flourishing Scottish lifestyle – which could be world-leading in its implications. Think Baden-Wurttemberg meets Catalonia.

Tom has every right to grump and carp about the conventional nature of the SNP as a political force – his Fianna Fail caution is well-taken. But he seems to be deaf to the real upheaval that may be about to happen across Scottish politics, and by implication the whole of the UK.

Pat Kane is a musician, writer, theorist and activist. Read Thoughtland, his ideas blog on Scottish affairs.

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