Robin McAlpine: This is a chance for Holyrood to be better than Westminster – so why isn’t it happening?

Ben Wray

Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine says compromise to agree a Scottish Budget would be a great signal that Scotland still has a shared project – but that opportunity may have been blown

THE problems the SNP seems to be having getting its budget through is a valuable reminder of something we’ve forgotten in Scotland – our democracy was designed with the expectation of at least a degree of ‘togetherness’. We would all do well to remember it.

The Parliament arrived at a time when Scotland was very much in consensus mode. All but the Tories (still very much in a hard Thatcherite position with Michael Forsyth at the helm) were devolution supporters. All had broadly similar social policy aims. Scotland had a ‘settled will’. 

There was always some degree of mythology about this – but much less than some think. It is genuinely the case that no political party not broadly aligned with a solid social democratic philosophy has had so much as a whiff of power in Holyrood. There is no sign that this is changing.

Because, despite differences over the constitutional question, it is still hard to find much space between the broad political positions of the main parties in Scotland. Fairness, equality, good public services, mixed economy – Lib Dems, Labour, SNP and the Greens all propose themselves as some kind of route to that kind of outcome.

READ MORE: Analysis: The grim plight of austerity in Moray Council could be just the start unless big change comes to Local Government soon

And we should really be celebrating this in Scotland right now. At the heart of the problems in the UK is a complete collapse in ‘togetherness’. Anything that looks like post-war consensus seems to be in trouble in the UK.

In fact, it is easier to see division than unity – by social class, by race, by geography, by age, by culture and by politics. There just don’t seem to be majorities in the UK. Everything is fragmented.

And as a sociologist I find that particularly alarming. Societies can cope with all kinds of upheaval and crisis, but to hold together they really need enough people to feel like the society is a ‘shared project’. Only a fantasist would say that the UK in 2019 is a shared project.

But Scotland still is, if not among its political parties then much more so among its population. Outside the constitution they’re still all voting for the same things, give every impression of retaining hope for the ‘shared project’ which is Scotland.

And yes, there are a load of committed unionists pulling out their social attitude surveys to prove this is wrong. Of everything which is unattractive and off-putting about a certain strand of unionists, their desperate desire to talk down a sense of commitment to social welfare ideals in Scotland is just about the least attractive.

READ MORE: #ScottishBudget Reaction: Patrick Harvie, Poverty Alliance, IPPR Scotland, Child Poverty Action Group, PCS + more

They seem threatened by the idea that Scotland has a commitment to being a ‘better’ country, as if despair or some kind of wild moral relativism would be a better backdrop for their arguments. So they argue that an opinion poll of a few hundred people disproves the democratic choices made by the entire nation.

And you know what? I think they’re right about the threat. I think that one of the strongest arguments that there is for the next indyref is exactly that Scotland has a chance of achieving a degree of togetherness, a flicker of possibility of social cohesion and shared values.

This leads them to be petty and incapable of behaving constructively. I almost respect the Tory decision to stand apart from the consensus in Scotland and so can entirely justify their ‘reject all budgets from social democrats’ position.

The Lib Dem position is frankly abhorrent. To say that you’d be quite happy to cause the funding for all Scotland’s public services to be cut to make a petty point about a policy which has nothing to do with the budget is a disgrace.

I mean, I would even have sympathy if there was a line in the budget setting money aside for an independence referendum. But there isn’t. This line of ‘change your political philosophy or we’ll sack all the nurses’ is truly pathetic.

READ MORE: Analysis: Scrapping Council Tax, not tweaking Income Tax, should be the progressive test of next week’s Scottish Budget

Labour is less clumsy in its refusal and they make some points which (secretly, in private where no-one can hear) many independence supporters will have sympathy with. The Scottish Government has consistently underfunded local government for a decade and this is not a good thing for Scotland.

But it offers no compromise, no option of ‘here are some (achievable) conditions which would make this budget acceptable to us’. Without that you’re just playing student politics, which I’m afraid is about the level the Leonard leadership has reached.

Because the only party in Scotland which I think comes out of this affair with any credit is the Greens. What they say is right – the underfunding of local authorities cannot continue. Much of the fabric of society is looked after by local authorities and everyone will pay a price as that fabric frays and decays.

And equally, anyone who thinks the Council Tax is fit for purpose can only be described as ‘confused’. It isn’t – and would have been reformed a long time ago if successive governments hadn’t simply ducked the issue.

So offering two sensible asks (one just to have a commitment to come up with a process that would lead to a proposal for a replacement for the Council Tax) and doing it well, well in advance is a clear sign of mature and constructive politics.

READ MORE: 4 things the Fraser of Allander report tells us about @ScotGov’s Budget challenges

Which begs the question – why are we here? Why hasn’t the Scottish Government achieved a compromise? Of course I’ve not been in negotiations so I don’t know if one party or the other has simply been unreasonable.

But from the outside I can’t help but feel that Nicola Sturgeon’s administration has not come to terms with being a minority government. The first Salmond administration (particularly though John Swinney) played a lot of hardball but behaved like it was a minority.

The current Scottish Government often gives out the impression that there is no problem that can’t be solved by whipping and threatening. It is alarming that the First Minister really does give the impression at times of having every bit as much a sense of entitlement as those in the dog-days of the Labour era.

There are those in ministerial positions in this administration who have recognised the need to take on the Council Tax problem and worry about Local Government. That they are dismissed out of hand makes the dismissal of the Greens perhaps unsurprising.

All we get are two blunt strategies – blame everything on everyone else or threaten the Greens with a backlash from the indy movement for ‘threatening the mandate’.

READ MORE: Threats, debt collectors and nervous terror: the reality of Council Tax in Scotland

Both are doomed. It’s not an opposition party’s job to get a budget through, particularly when there is a sympathetic partner offering a reasonable compromise position. And it is more than unwise to keep using the ‘independence mandate’ as a policy which you don’t deliver but which you hold hostage to try and force your other policies through.

It is crucial that the SNP doesn’t start behaving with exactly the same kind of arrogance that turned Scotland away from Labour. You didn’t get a majority and you didn’t form a coalition. So you keep all the glory, all the power and all the jobs – but its then your job to recognise the reality of that position and behave accordingly.

And in any case, this failure to work towards a deal does something else that independence supporters should not want to see – it further undermines the sense of ‘togetherness’ that remains a source of hope for Scotland.

READ MORE: SNP Youth conference urges @scotgov to back council tax replacement and reform

I know public finances are tight, but I believe that something could have been done here that would have produced the sight of two political parties working constructively together to deliver smooth government in exactly the way Westminster doesn’t any more. The SNP should be making a virtue of compromise, showing a little bit of humility alongside a success (a good Budget Bill passed).

Instead it looks like compromise is treated as weakness, as failure, as if only ‘hard man’ politics bestows the respect of the public. But fear of compromise isn’t strength.

This was an opportunity for Scotland to be better than Westminster. This is written before the vote so we may yet see that happen. A bit of togetherness is just what the doctor ordered in these dark January days of 2019.

But it looks like we might end up with more posturing, more pettiness and more grandstanding. In UK politics, that market is already very well served and we ought to be better than this.