CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says people will look elsewhere for the politics of hope if the SNP doesn’t step up
THIS WEEK I read a Guardian article which simultaneously lifted my heart and yet, as a result, left me both deeply disappointed and more than a little jealous.
It was simply George Monbiot (a writer and thinker I greatly admire) pointing out that for the first time in his life he was genuinely inspired and excited by an election.
Is there anyone in Scotland who could really say the same? Even the Tories (who look set to have the best night of any party in Scotland) can’t be looking back on this campaign with much fondness.
The 2017 election in Scotland has been a listless, highly forgettable affair. While the UK election has surprised us as it has strayed from the usual Westminster script, the Scottish election has felt like we’re stuck interminably in the same First Minister’s Questions.
It’s hard to come up with much that we have learned or even to think of anything we’ve heard that we’ve not heard a hundred times before.
“The Tories have tried to gain ground by polarising Scotland, by pushing people to take pretty extreme positions on the constitution and hoping that this will galvanise their voting base.”
The Tories have tried to gain ground by polarising Scotland, by pushing people to take pretty extreme positions on the constitution and hoping that this will galvanise their voting base and gather up votes from Labour.
But I wonder if this tactic is really working any more. My impression is that anyone who was susceptible to that approach was won over by the Tories a while ago and I don’t sense that people really feel sufficient imminent constitutional risk that these arguments have enough purchase.
I could certainly be wrong, but it seems to me like Ruth Davidson is at serious risk of becoming a one-dimensional caricature if she can’t find something new to talk about.
The same would be true of Scottish Labour – if they had enough personality to caricature. While at a UK level, Labour has had a very strong and distinctive message about a more just society, this is an agenda and a leadership which has been strongly opposed by much of the Scottish party.
“Scottish Labour has seen a substantial bump in the polls derived almost entirely from a surge in public interest in a UK leadership that the Scottish leadership has done everything it can to undermine.”
It is by far the biggest irony of this election that Scottish Labour has seen a substantial bump in the polls derived almost entirely from a surge in public interest in a UK leadership that the Scottish leadership has done everything it can to undermine.
The only Scottish messaging I’ve heard from Labour seems to be focused on the SNP’s education record, a subject not even up for grabs in this election. That and a desire not to be ‘out-unionist-ed’ by the Tories.
The Lib Dems fancied themselves as being on the cusp of a Brexit-driven revival. In fact, a lot of the small-l liberal commentariat both believed and hoped that a united backlash against Brexit could deliver enough Lib Dems to slow down or even reverse the Brexit process.
But once again, I am not surprised by the failure of the Lib Dem campaign to really launch. As I’ve argued a number of times, I think that the pro-Remain media simply overestimate the strength of feeling among the 48 per cent of Remainers, at least until things start going wrong with Brexit.
“People who dislike the EU do so with a passion; too many Remainers are just too ambivalent to make it the driving force behind their voting decisions.”
People who dislike the EU do so with a passion; too many Remainers are just too ambivalent to make it the driving force behind their voting decisions. On most other things, Jeremy Corbyn has been more ‘liberal’ than Tim Farron. Why vote Lib Dem?
In Scotland the answer is ‘local issues’. For quite a while the Lib Dems in Scotland have performed more like a local party than a national one, competing effectively in a small number of seats while barely scratching the sides of the country as a whole.
So I suspect there is a chance of a Lib Dem gain or two in Scotland, but once again it is unlikely to represent any kind of full-scale revival. (Though the prospect of the Lib Dems bumping Labour into fourth place in terms of seats won appears real.)
For the Greens there has been a sometimes heated internal debate about how to play this election with one faction wanting to stand apart from and to fight the SNP everywhere and another faction unwilling to split the anti-Tory vote.
The latter group are right, but it makes little difference one way or the other; this is not the Greens’ election. They remain a long way short of being ready to make a breakthrough in a first-past-the-post contest – their focus needs to be on building a strong and effective base at Holyrood and in local government.
Setting aside the irrelevant Ukip, that brings us to the SNP.
“The biggest strength the SNP has in this election is that it has been able to say with conviction that only the SNP can stop the Tories.”
What to say? For me the other great irony of this election campaign is the role reversal. When I was a child in the 1980s I can remember one of my first political discussions with my mum (who was the head of the SNP’s General Election campaign at the time).
I asked her why more people weren’t voting SNP. She explained first-past-the-post and the habit of anti-Tory tactical voting in Scotland and how people thought (not incorrectly) that the voting system would punish those who didn’t use the Labour party to try and get Thatcher out of Downing Street, no matter what sympathy they had for the SNP.
It made depressing sense then – and it does again now. The biggest strength the SNP has in this election is that it has been able to say with conviction that only the SNP can stop the Tories.
In the end I suspect it is this rather than constitutional politics which is likely to see an SNP showing that, any time prior to the 2015 election, would be viewed as utterly miraculous. That a large SNP majority may feel like a bit of a failure is in part a sign of just how remarkable 2015 was.
But I don’t think the SNP can rest too comfortably on that defence. Of course it is probably true to say that from there the only way was down – but traditionally you’re supposed to give the impression that you’re not willing to settle for decline.
“For my money the SNP has put far too much emphasis on setting low expectations and nothing like enough on providing a message of hope.”
For my money the SNP has put far too much emphasis on setting low expectations and nothing like enough on providing a message of hope. Saying that the Tories are horrible is decidedly not the same as having a clear vision for a different future.
I’ve had more than one conversation in which someone has told me they’ll be voting SNP to keep the Tories out but that it’s Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto that really attracts them. That should be very uncomfortable territory for the SNP.
But this is the territory to which the SNP has been moving since 2014. Despite the the strong instincts of its membership, SNP party managers have seemed determined to distance the SNP not only from the independence movement but from the optimistic, inspirational mood of the independence movement.
Advisers and strategists have been convinced that centrist swing voters would reward the party for being sober and moderate. Unfortunately, in this campaign it has been little more than mundane.
As I argued last week it is boldness that is being rewarded by voters; yet irrespective of the mood of the wider party and the experience of recent elections, the SNP leadership seems afraid of boldness.
“There are just too many parallels between the tone of the SNP’s campaign and that of Theresa May’s – though Sturgeon is clearly a far more capable politician than May.”
In fact, if you put side by side ‘stronger for Scotland’ and ‘strong and stable leadership’, along with a focus on the personality of the leader and a manifesto that seeks to come across as ‘serious and workmanlike’, there are just too many parallels between the tone of the SNP’s campaign and that of Theresa May’s (though Sturgeon is clearly a far more capable politician than May).
So this was always going to be a transitionary election. In 2015, the SNP benefitted enormously from the aftermath of the mood and the tone of the indyref. An energised Scottish population led to believe that a real, hopeful, different future for Scotland was possible rewarded the SNP with a hope-inspired vote.
That result was very unlikely to be matched; some return to normality was probable. But before the SNP pats itself on the back for ‘winning 40-plus seats in difficult circumstances’, it should ask itself what this election might have looked like if rather than spending two years lowering our expectations the Scottish Government had tried to exceed them.
“This election will be decided in England, and Scotland is at best a side plot. It is the Scottish Parliament where the crucial developments in Scottish politics will take place.”
None of this will matter too much. This election will be decided in England, and Scotland is at best a side plot. It is the Scottish Parliament where the crucial developments in Scottish politics will take place, not least seeking a second independence referendum. The urge to shrug our shoulders about this election may be high.
But it would be foolhardy to imagine this can continue for much longer. If the SNP wants Scotland to vote to become an independent country, it is going to have to find a new way to go about things. Our expectations can’t get much lower and we’re going to be looking for somewhere we can find the kind of hope and inspiration George Monbiot is writing about.
For a brief period Scotland was one of the most exciting European centres of political debate and discussion. In this election that legacy all but disappeared. SNP party managers will be telling themselves that tonight’s result will be ‘good enough’.
But for a party with such a big goal in life, good enough just isn’t proving good enough.
Picture courtesy of Documenting Yes
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