Monday, 23 January 2017

Dispatches From Paisley At 10: The New Municipalism

In the second of the posts looking back at the Scottish Political scene since the inception of this blog 10 years ago, we look at the development of the SNP.

There have been, in my lifetime, three politicians who have had what music writers call ‘an Imperial phase’.  Thatcher might have been in office for 11 years but her ‘Imperial phase’ lasted from victory over the Argentinians in the Falklands war to her third election victory 5 years later.  Blair’s went from his election to the afternoon of September 11 2001.  Nicola Sturgeon’s probably the most fortunate of the three, as her Imperial phase was her inheritance from her predecessor as Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond.

Salmond congratulates Sturgeon on her election as
Scottish First Minister, 19 November 2014
If the SNP’s own Imperial phase had a starting point, it would be the crushing defeat of the Independence referendum.  Unlike the other two politicians, Sturgeon doesn’t show as much inclination to use the powers she currently has at her disposal, craving more powers (in the shape of Independence).  If anything, this version of the SNP bears only a passing resemblance to the SNP today.  Like seeing an old colleague from 10 years ago, it’s the same but different somehow.

The thing that sticks out about the SNP over their years in government is how much they’ve gone to the New Labour playbook.  In 2007, Scottish Labour attempted to win an election by appearing to be the responsible politicians making tough decisions that would benefit the voters…  err, well sometime.  Under Alex Salmond, the SNP triangulated by simply parking their tanks on the ground vacated by Scottish Labour in the name of ‘responsible policy making’.  They promised to scrap tuition fees, they promised to scrap prescription charges and they promised to keep hospitals at risk from closure open.  When the SNP got into government and enacted those changes, people took note – the thought occurring that this was what Labour was supposed to do.

Triangulation certainly was enough to get them through their first term in office with only one seat more to play with than Labour.  If anything, minority government suited the SNP as it seems like they ran the country better than they did under their second term.  What probably helped the SNP though was the conduct of Scottish Labour.  If Thatcher and Blair were lucky to have faced such poor opposition figures, then Salmond’s SNP government had the good fortune to be up against a Scottish Labour deep in a sulk without a roadmap back to power.  They still don’t judging by the unreconstructed criticism of the SNP which now has it’s own twitter hash tag - #SNPbad.

If the SNP did operate on autopilot during their second term, that’ll be because there was only one story in town – the Independence Referendum.  While the SNP didn’t make the progress the wanted to – only holding their six seats in the 2010 Westminster Election and winning seats but not the flagship Council’s in 2012 – failure to win 2014’s Referendum had the curious by-product of catapulting the SNP past Scottish Labour and into their current position as Scotland’s dominant political party.

Yet if one thing link’s both Blair & Thatcher it is that they both suffered during their third term in office.  The third term is where things fall apart.  The Tories also found this in the 1960’s when MacMillan lost it towards the end of his first full term and resigned during the 1963 Tory Party conference.  The only Prime Minister to survive their third term, Harold Wilson, only did so because both his first and third terms barely lasted 2 years combined.  Already we are seeing the SNP get into trouble over next year’s budget.

The SNP’s problems didn’t start there though.  You can argue that the SNP’s conservative manifesto for last years Holyrood election has put them on a defensive back foot.  Rather than advocate radical (and much needed) solutions for public services that are not exactly working as they should which you would have expected from an avowedly left wing leader like Sturgeon, the SNP went for another trick from the New Labour playbook - safety first.  Hence the reticence to talk about tax rises and the u-turn regarding the SNP’s flagship policy from 2007 – scrapping the Council tax.

The logical conclusion of the SNP’s similarities with New Labour is that they will campaign just to stay in power rather than advocate any real changes out of fear of losing votes.  For the SNP, this chasing of ‘middle ground’ voters just for the sake of it is done for just one reason – the means to an end to facilitate a second Independence referendum.  If the SNP are not in power, they cannot legislate for a second referendum.  The problem with that is two fold.  Independence has already blinkered the SNP to the job in hand of governing Scotland during the second term and looks likely to be the case during this term too.  The prize also appears to have clouded the SNP’s judgement regarding the best way forward.

There does not appear to have been any kind of post-mortem on how and why the SNP failed to carry the country two years ago.  Worse than that, the desire for Independence appears to have clouded the judgement of both the SNP and pro-Independence supporters.  The current ongoing example of this is the SNP’s obsession over the result of the EU referendum and their belief that Scotland is being ‘dragged out of Europe against its wishes’.  I’ve argued previously that Brexit is not the material change that the SNP would be hoping for, that the 62% pro-EU vote encompassed not just EU enthusiasts but Eurosceptics voting against the right wing Leave campaign.  Essentially, Sturgeon is on a sticky wicket if she thinks that the 62% will happily transfer to her position.  I think to have made ‘Material change’ stick, she needed a Scottish remain vote upwards of 65%.  Subsequent polling has only proved this synopsis correct.

In the meantime, the SNP’s big selling point in 2011 – that they were the best people to run Scotland – is being eroded.  Standards in our Education system is falling, satisfaction with the way the NHS is being run is also falling (both are run indirectly by the Scottish Government) while flack is also heading the Scottish Government’s way over the performance of Scotrail.  While there is an argument that the SNP have put referendum’s over the running over Scotland, I would argue that as a by-product of running the Scottish Government on Autopilot since 2011 that the SNP have fallen into running Scotland in the Municipalist style of Labour under McConnell.

McConnell had, of course, used the phrase “Do Less, Better” as a motto, maybe to do the simple things well first.  Its clumsy phrasing became a millstone around his neck as the SNP used it to pinpoint McConnell, and Scottish Labour’s lack of ambition.  Yet the style of government favoured by Scottish Labour – short-termist policy making with no long view being taken with how public services evolve or are reformed – has been taken up by the SNP.  Maybe they genuinely think that it’s a matter of time before people see the error of their ways before coming to their senses and signing up to Sturgeon’s MacNewLabour vision of an Independent Scotland.  If they carry on governing Scotland in second gear, they’re going to be very much mistaken.  

The BBC version of House of Card’s, broadcast the Sunday before the fall of Thatcher, started with Urquart, ominously, telling us that “Nothing lasts forever” before taking a picture of that particular leaderene and putting it face down on his desk.  For the first time since they took power at Holyrood the SNP look vulnerable and not in control of events.  They’ve already lost votes at Holyrood, but the EU Referendum has forced decisions on Sturgeon that she possibly didn’t want to make, yet, regarding a second referendum.  I’d suspect that a second referendum won’t become winnable until after Brexit has taken place.  I’d also suspect that’s not a timetable that the more one eyed pro-EU Indy supporters will have the patience to go with. If Sturgeon fly’s in the face of all logic and calls the referendum for sometime in 2018, I think it’s likely to fail and usher the end of this era of Scottish Politics.

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