Friday, 27 February 2009

The Scottish Political Scene Today

Scotland: Questioning National Identity

Presented at the Nantes Conference by Rob Gibson MSP

Held in the University of Nantes in October 2007. The transactions of the conference were published recently by the Nantes University Research Centre for National and Intercultural Identity. They were compiled by Bernard Sellin, Annie Thiec and Pierre Carboni. It is published by CRINI in 2009. ISBN 2 - 916424 - 14 - 8.

"Scottish identity is clear. The idea of Scotland as a historic nation has meant that whilst for nearly 300 years Scotland did not have a Parliament, it retained a civil society which included control of local government, the Church, the law, and it was the way in which education and this civil society perpetuated the nation that allowed the twentieth century flowering of a national movement. You will know in more detail in your history about how that developed, like the small nations after the First World War, but Scotland as a historic nation was very much involved in the Empire – the British Empire – and we can compare cities like Glasgow and Nantes and Bordeaux and Bristol, which made their money from slavery, and the cities look very similar and they were involved in a world project.

When the world project imploded, with decolonisation, Scots started to think what they had to look forward to in the future and in most of my political lifetime the battle to change Scotland from being a unionist country, as it was in the 1930s, to a nationalist country as it is increasingly today, in terms of politics, has been the backdrop that is different from the politics of Britain as a whole. So, we have as a result had the rule of the Labour Party for basically 50 years in local government in Scotland and, apart for the Tory 18 years, for much of the last 30 or 40 years in the British government. But the Labour Party had to confront, not the Conservatives who were a diminishing force in Scotland, the rise of, not an even rise, but the rise and fall of the Scottish National Party. So in 1997, when Tony Blair was elected overwhelmingly in Britain he had in his baggage, in his manifesto, the unfinished business of creating an assembly or parliament in Scotland with domestic powers, and, although he was sceptical himself, the people in Scotland overwhelmingly, by two thirds, voted in favour of the package. They put in a second question to make it more difficult, about varying the taxes, but they insured that the people had to vote strongly for it and they did. So they voted for the idea; what they received was a limited set of powers over the local economy, health, education, the environment, some transport, agriculture, fisheries, but the purse strings controlled in London, no control of tax, only receiving a block grant, allowed to make subventions through local government taxation. So this tension about how much power the Scottish Parliament has, or should have, is the underlying battle that is involved in Scottish politics today.

In the first eight years of the Parliament, after the referendum on September 11th 1997 - which of course becomes 9/11 in everybody’s mind several years later, but we have a happy remembrance of it – that’s the day in which you could say people were most united, but in the elections which followed there were expectations which led to a Labour and Liberal Democrat administration, a coalition, which lasted for four years, and then a second four years till May of this year. The voting system is a modified version of de Hondt Additional Member System, which is practised in Germany, but it is fixed, so that there is less proportionality than in Germany, and it is very difficult for any one party to get a majority. So in this election, to make any change in Scottish politics, people had to vote for the party most likely to change things, which was the Scottish National Party, which had been ahead in the sondages, in the opinion polls, month after month in the whole of the year preceding the elections; and this meant there was a squeeze on other parties such as the Greens and the socialist parties which split up, and the Conservatives went nowhere, and the Scottish elections led to the circumstance where I think about 50,000 more votes went to the Scottish National Party than to Labour. So the SNP actually won one more seat, 47 seats out of 129, and tried to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats who refused, and so Alex Salmond sought the support of the two Green Members who were left in the Parliament, and we had elected a minority government. At the same time the voting system, thanks to the Liberal Democrats pushing Labour, was changed for the local government to Single Transferable Votes in multi-member constituencies, and this actually cut the feet from Labour power in Scotland down to three or four councils instead of about 15. So, Glasgow and North Lanarkshire are the main ones with a Labour administration in local government, the rest of the country has coalitions of all sorts. So it has been a completely liberating experience which will not be changed because the voting system for local government is the one which I think eventually we should have for the Parliament.That made very important that the Scottish National Party was fighting on all fronts and because of the surge in support for Parliament they were able to gain support in many local elections as well and form coalition administrations. Where I live, in Highland, there are many Independent councillors, but there are also 17 SNP councillors, and it is the SNP manifesto which has been adopted because Independents are like a bag of cats. So, we have a situation which has developed in Scotland as a whole, which meant that a new government which had been... you know, it was suggested that with the government of the SNP, everything would be destroyed, the whole country would fall in, the roof would fall down, well it didn’t... indeed there is an enormous liberating experience of the fact that democracy can work because you can change your government. So that’s a step forward for Scotland that you can have a different government than the one which has been there for the previous eight years, and I’m sure that that will happen again, but hopefully not too soon.

Alex Salmond is undoubtedly the biggest political figure, the most prominent political figure in recent Scottish history, and his personality, his determination – he decided that we were going to win and it was possible for us to win for a number of reasons. The negativity of the last three years in the government led by Labour was “no more powers for Scotland, No, you can’t, it’s all going to be terrible if you change things”, but many people realised that Scotland’s economy is underperforming on a British level, and most certainly underperforming compared to small nations in the advanced countries of Europe. So, many people who are financiers, and business people, realised that Alex Salmond, the economist, was a better bet than Jack McConnell, the previous Labour leader and First Minister, who was a teacher, of Maths, that Alex Salmond’s idea that you could grow the economy by liberating business, especially small business, was a good idea. So the former chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Mr Matheson, supported the SNP at a critical point in February, and also the entrepreneur, Tom Farmer, gave the party £ 500,000 and, latterly also, the Stagecoach boss, Brian Souter, also gave the party this money. So for the first time the SNP with over a million pounds to spend could take on the British parties financially in an election campaign, for the first time; and that helped enormously to put over a positive message for change.

Basically the political situation is that in a minority government you cannot deliver all your policies, you’ve got to try to get the support of certain other parties, and in this respect, there is a tension with each of the different parties but some support for certain kinds of change. One change which could be achieved in the next four years is to change the system of local taxation from the council tax, which penalizes poor people - because it is a flat rate on property - and old people, and change that into a local income tax. That has the support of the Liberal Democrats, and it is possible that if we can do that many people will be freed from paying tax at the poorest levels and that will be a major gain. The second issue is that the tax on small businesses can be removed. In our powers we can do that; if we can do that perhaps a small business could employ one extra person or make some investment for the ten or fifteen thousand pounds they pay in tax at the moment. It’s a small amount, 150 million in a budget of 30 billion, so it is a lot of incentive to people, and all over the country in the election campaign, these two issues inspired people to say ‘Yes, we want to have these things, they’re fairer, they can help’; and kickstarting the economy at the local level is the sort of thing we can achieve.

In terms of the wider debate, the SNP government set out a list of aims for its first 100 days and it created an atmosphere of change. We were heavily criticised for changing the name of the Scottish Executive, which is in the Scotland Act, to the Scottish Government. We spent £100,000 on changing the signs. But the sheer fact of saying “We are a government, why call us an Executive? It’s so demeaning, that sounds like a civil servant, it’s not, it’s the elected government of Scotland”– sets the tone. Also at the national level, two critical issues were dealt with; first the First Minister launched a civil service based document to discuss the governance of Scotland, called A National conversation on the Constitution. By taking this initiative the other three parties, the Liberals, the Labour Party and the Conservatives, were forced into a situation to respond to this, and although Labour had previously said ‘no change’, the Conservatives said ‘some change’, to make us more responsible for spending money, and the Liberal Democrats wanted more powers for the Scottish Parliament. We now know that no party in Scotland believes that the powers of the existing Parliament are adequate, so the national conversation, which Alex Salmond launched, is a means to say we want to have a referendum on the constitution about independence in 2010, but we know we cannot pass it through Parliament, because the others would vote against independence; but the people can have their say in the conversation – tens of thousands of people have been entering the website to make their comments – and the other parties have now to define what it is they want more than the present.

Secondly, because Britain controls the broadcasting system we have a grave disadvantage to express Scottish opinions about ourselves and about the world directly. Indeed the spending in Scotland on broadcasting through the BBC amounts to 3% of the amount which is spent in Britain as a whole. But Scotland’s population share alone is 9%. So a major argument has ensued because Alex Salmond has set up a National Broadcasting Commission to discuss the future of broadcasting to allow a debate about what should happen. London controls the powers on broadcasting and on many other things. That would be our intention to have these things controlled in Scotland, even a one-hour news programme every evening which was produced in Glasgow and had worldwide feed from all the BBC’s other services but run from Scotland with a Scottish accent, would mean we wouldn’t need to hear about English education, health and other issues and the interesting little funny stories about people with funny hats and faraway places with strange-sounding names. We could have our own funny little people with strange-sounding names. But the point is that you cannot see Scotland through a prism of Scottish views and the world through those views without the diversity of nations. Also these kinds of issues have transformed the outlook of people in Scotland in the last few months to allow a very strong support for the Scottish Government, a very strong support for the First Minister and a belief that the change is necessary. It has got to go on, and although it is possible in some cases in the Parliament for the Opposition to gang up, and they did so a week ago on Thursday - Labour , Liberals and Tories voted about the failure of the SNP’s promises to deliver, they outvoted us – so, what does it mean? They don’t like it, but we are in government; so they have to decide if they want to vote us out of government, the process of that would have to be on some very major issue. The people outside like what we are doing, so the opposition parties in the Parliament can, they can fume about the way that we are making a change and making a difference, and indeed opening up the possibility that Scotland can look at itself in a more relaxed way, we can project ourselves into the world and we can stop being the best little country in the world, which was the slogan adopted by the last government. We are not, nor are we little, because there are about 50 countries in the United Nations that are smaller than Scotland. But if we think of Scotland as being a country which is gaining a more positive view of itself, then that’s what the politics of the present have meant. So, we can be more positive about our languages, we are also existing in politics at a time where there are changes elsewhere. For the first time ever the regional administration in the province of the North of Ireland has Nationalists in government along with Ulster patriots. In Wales, there are Nationalists in government with the Labour Party in a coalition. So Gordon Brown faces a very different United Kingdom where three of the autonomous areas which can make laws have Nationalists of their local persuasion in those governments. So three hundred years after 1707 when the Parliament of Scotland was ended forever it’s all changed.
The way in which Scotland is able to build upon the foundations of the civic state which we are in the modern world means that if we get control of our economy we have huge resources which, when we control them, will make all the difference.
I had better stop because we’re now overtime but I should say that just this week the First Minister was in the USA for his first official visit there and he is speaking with people about financing Scottish projects and the idea is that of course since Scotland’s ideas virtually created the United States of America, the economy, the ideas of government and so on, there is a strong feeling that people in Scotland are trying to do the best for our country and project the idea of being partners, being friends, then that will be a good thing for the future debate; but at the moment we are a minority government, we made a little change, and potentially in the future the people of Scotland can decide, we hope, to give us a majority in the next election in 2011."

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