Robin Mcalpine: Scotland – a big country cursed with a small politics

Ben Wray

Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine says a holiday to Sweden has brought home to him the extent to which Scotland’s political leadership is insipid and much too comfortable with the status quo

I RETURNED from a family holiday in Sweden this week to the farcical sight of the SNP’s annual conference agenda. It has left me with worrying conclusions.

That conclusion is that Scotland is a country which, for whatever reason, has failed to produce a political culture or a political leader with any real ambition in the almost 50 years I’ve been alive – and that we’re living through a low point in a half-a-century of low points.

Let me start on a tour boat. Sailing under the many bridges of Stockholm, on a fascinating cruise round the city and through its history, something kept hitting me. It was the off-hand way that the guides talked about massive and ambitious social programmes; almost like they were normal.

In the mid-sixties Sweden just decided it would meet its housing problem by building a million new high-quality public-rental houses in ten years. They did it in nine.

You sail pass Hammarby Sjöstad where, in a short period around the millennium, they built a new neighbourhood for 25,000 people which genuinely leads the world on eco building. There are no bin lorries – every house has a vacuum tube that sucks rubbish directly to recycling or incineration, which produces a good chunk of the development’s electricity. And that’s just two housing examples.

I’ve not been to Stockholm for about ten years. In the interim I’ve been subjected to a lot of Scotland’s ‘Nordic Deniers’ who claim the achievements of the Nordic countries are either fictional or historical. I wondered if that would feel true.

It doesn’t. Coming back you just feel embarrassed. Propose that Scotland builds ten thousand public rental houses of a real and substantial quality and our leaders suck air through their teeth and tell you to be more realistic. I emailed a friend with strong links to Denmark and mentioned this. She replied ‘I know, every time I come back from Copenhagen I feel embarrassed too.’.

READ MORE: From rhetoric to reality: How do we make a Scottish Green Deal happen?

From the second I got off the boat I knew I was going to write on this. I felt kind of angry, but I was determined to be positive. I was going to explain how easy a step it would be just to, you know, do something. Or at least bloody try.

I was going to write, with enthusiasm, that it is not too late for Scotland to do something worth a damn in my lifetime if only we’d get started now.

Then I got back to my email inbox and the agenda for the SNP conference. It reminded me that despair is voluminous – it leaves no space for anger or enthusiasm. It just makes you want to curl up in a ball and weep for the state of your poor nation.

This is a moment of unprecedented crisis. The world is on fire and the UK is about to run straight into the flames. The two big issues of our era in Scotland should now be clear to you all – escape and repair, independence and then a Green New Deal.

I know for a fact that both these subjects were put forward by the party’s members for discussion. You’ll know about Angus Brendan MacNeil and Chris McEleny’s motion (the contempt with which they’ve been treated is abominable).

But I know of at least two substantial motions on a Green New Deal which were submitted. (I was asked to comment on one – I’ve copied the text at the bottom of this so you know what you’re NOT getting to talk about.)

Of course neither made it on the agenda. The First Minister’s ‘referendum announcement’ and ‘climate change emergency’ are PR charades I’m no longer willing to go along with. This agenda shows what the party is really about – control of its own members. That’s the real ambition.

READ MORE: David Carr: Our friends in the north – will Scotland really be joining Scandinavia?

Let me put this into perspective. In the 20 years directly prior to my birth, the following things happened in Scotland.

Five New Towns were built based on radical and visionary planning guidelines. Massive volumes of council housing was built. There was very major structural regeneration of the cities (the M8 expansion might have had its downsides but imagine Glasgow without it now). Selective education was ended and the comprehensive schooling system was introduced. 

There were world-leading revolutions in the juvenile justice system and social work. The Highlands and Islands Development Board was set up (which was a transformation in taking that region seriously). An enormous and forward-looking restructuring of local government was agreed (implemented just after I was born). Just very slightly into my lifetime the highly innovative Scottish Development Agency was created.

And to put this into perspective, the biggest part of all of that was delivered in a timescale about the same as the SNP has been in power at Holyrood.

What we get instead are vainglorious boasts about being ‘the best’ or ‘leading the world’ which bear no relationship to reality. It breaks my heart but on social issues Scotland is leading the world on very little and we’re the best at not much. It’s all just press release fantasies.

We’re stuck in a loop that goes ‘make big announcement – set up talking shop – repeat’. Our current political ambition seems to be to pretend to be ambitious but under no circumstances do anything. It’s a fraud.

And it’s a fraud which is also being inflicted on Scotland’s independence supporters. I’ve known for a long time now that the pretence of some sort of plan to deliver a referendum was nothing more than that – a pretence. When good people in the movement tell me ‘there’s a brilliant, secret plan’ I have stayed quiet out of consideration to them.

READ MORE: Scotland set for largest tidal turbine in the world

No more. There is no plan. There has never been a plan. Ask not what your career can do for Scottish independence, ask only what Scottish independence can do for your career.

I and many, many others said after 2014 that we should ‘act as if we are independent’ . Over and over, act like the self-satisfied marketing division of a regional stationary supply chain is closer to what we got.

Irvine Welsh was wrong in Trainspotting. We weren’t colonised by wankers, we were colonised by middle managers – and their tiny imaginations have set the boundaries of what Scotland can hope or wish for.

No more. I refuse to curl up in a ball and cry. Coming off that boat it hit me quite hard, doing the arithmetic – a real transformation of Scotland will take 25 years. Even if we got on with it soon I may not see it finished. But I’m fucked if I’m not going to at least see it started.

Just now I’m buried deep in the work to produce a proper, costed, detailed Green New Deal plan for Scotland. The Common Weal team is talking about some kind of initiative to pull our work together and show again how it is the best way for us to get to Scottish independence. I am most certainly ready to work – and ready to fight.

So go to Aberdeen if you’re a party member. Pass the handful of worthy-but-minor resolutions on the agenda. Definitely pass the resolution backing a Common Weal inspired proposal for a Scottish Energy Development Agency because that really would be a big deal. Pass the swathes of self-congratulatory pap and the complaints about Westminster if you must.

But don’t kid on that you’re at a conference with the courage to face up to the really, really big issues of our age. And don’t kid on you’re in a party which displays a vision that gets any bigger than the payslips of its middle managers.

READ MORE: Campaigners welcome Sturgeon’s ‘Scottish Green Deal’ pledge but urge real and radical follow through

They pull on their ‘Big Cheese’ costumes, bully those they consider less powerful than themselves and prostrate themselves to anyone they suspect is more powerful. They undermine any of the many good people in the party who shows any independence of thought. ‘Look at me, look at me – I’m a big deal!’ they say over and over to themselves. This’ll do, this’ll do.

Scotland is a country every bit as amazing as Sweden. We have everything we need to be a truly, wonderfully amazing place to live. Everything except some national confidence and some political courage. 

It doesn’t have to be about ‘great leaders’ – it shouldn’t be and should never have been about ‘great leaders’. It was the fetishisation of ‘great leaders’ which enabled the broad, diverse, wonderful independence movement to be distorted into an absurd imperium. 

Change is collective, not the gift of some emperor. So its down to you, because there’s bugger all sign that any of the middle managers are going to stir from their comfortable slumber any time soon.

We’re better than this. We’re a better nation, a better movement, a better people. I know I’m not alone in wanting to see something to be really proud of in my lifetime. I know there are few of you who think that, give or take, this Scotland will do.

Let’s do something brave and real. Please, let’s do something before it’s too late.

Green New Deal Motion rejected from SNP annual conference agenda

The world faces a climate emergency and Scotland’s wealth and abundant natural resources mean that we should be leading the response. Neither markets alone nor individual action can solve this problem and the cost of ensuring a sustainable future for our children and their children will be substantial. We call on conference to commit to a large-scale, coordinated programme of public action funded through Scotland’s fair and progressive tax system which will decarbonise heating, transport and electricity, make all homes genuinely energy efficient, move towards a zero-waste economy and ensure that all activities including agriculture regenerate our environment and ensure the survival of all of Scotland’s diverse wildlife.

We also call on conference to recognise that an adequate response to climate change will be different in different countries depending on their weather, geography, natural resources, economy and domestic politics. Scotland’s conditions are different from those of the rest of the UK, not least our political will to act now and our enviable renewable energy and other natural resources. But our efforts to become a world-leader in climate change are severely restricted by a lack of political will at Westminster and a range of policies which may suit the rest of the UK but do not fit Scotland’s needs. A truly transformative Green New Deal for Scotland will require Scottish independence and the power to invest which comes from having your own currency.

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