Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Sticking to principles, or political pragmatism?

People like certainty, or so it seems.

In politics that definitely appears to be the case. Jeremy Corbyn is steaming ahead in the Labour leadership race largely because party members - and sections of the general public - feel that they 'know where he stands'. Undoubtedly a good principled man, where Corbyn stands includes a wish to reopen our flooded coal mines despite the potential environmental impact, opposition to electoral reform, ambivalence over Europe, and a rather odd relationship with some unsavoury Holocaust deniers.

Ah, but they’re ‘principles’. ‘On principle’, Corbyn has voted against his party’s position about 500 times since he was elected (an approximation, not an accurate calculation). One wonders how he could run a government if his own colleagues took a similar approach to party loyalty and the Labour Party whip. The fact is that where Corbyn stands has changed not a jot over thirty years, despite the whole world order having been turned upside down during that period. Corbyn stands for certainties, even if they are very old-fashioned certainties, in a world of constant change. As such, I can see his attraction.

I find the whole question of the place of principles in politics and in life generally, very interesting. I come from a family which used to pride itself on its principled stance on a whole range of issues, political, religious and social. You name the issue and my family had principles about it and, yes, they stuck to them.

I was the embarrassed child whose parents DIDN’T stand for the national anthem at a time when such behaviour was unheard of. My parents wouldn’t buy raffle tickets because to do so was ‘gambling’, a game of chance not skill. For most of their lives they were teetotal. Yet, laughable though much of their behaviour seems now, their principles had a basis in reason and a deeply held set of beliefs. In their own way, their principled position was admirable.

Similar intransigence on certain issues of ‘principle’ has often been built into Scottish family and community life, particularly in the west. Centuries-old sectarianism based on religious principles has separated communities and resulted in deeply rooted prejudice and, indeed, actual physical violence, remnants of which still survive today.

Those of us who have spent most of our lives in the north and east of Scotland can find this obsession with religious differences puzzling and often repulsive. The commonly asked question, ‘What school did you go to?’ is not an innocent one in the west. Your answer indicates whether you are from a Protestant or Catholic background. (In Edinburgh, the answer would indicate your social class – state or independent school.) My husband, born and brought up in the west, claims to be able to judge someone’s religious affiliation on the basis of their pronunciation of ‘where’, 'there' and similar words!

Nowadays, obsession with such limited religious ‘principles’ is rightly considered unacceptable. In fact, it is simply tribal. Similarly tribal, again in the west and other parts of industrial Scotland, is how you vote. Whole housing schemes used to vote Labour ‘on principle’: not much thought needed, just an automatic cross in the box. You would have to have been a determined and thick-skinned individual to own up to choosing anything else.

Recently, when voting patterns in Scotland began to change, those same housing schemes almost simultaneously changed their voting preferences, this time choosing nationalism. Again, standing out against the crowd would have been very difficult. If displaying a Better Together poster resulted in dog dirt on your doorstep in Edinburgh, what would the effect have been in Glasgow?

Tribal loyalties of this kind can make it very difficult to adopt a more modern approach to political behaviour which involves working together, collaboration and partnership. This is particularly true in education, which aims to prepare young people for adult life. Most schools encourage children to work in groups and listen to those with whose ideas they disagree. Compromise and cooperation are praised and rewarded.

Indeed, that is also the way practical politics works. Parliaments have a committee system where most of the work of government is carried out. In these committees, members of different parties work together, usually quite amicably and productively. Personal friendships develop across party lines. People even, dare one say it, start learning from each other, seeing things from other people’s points of view. All this the new nationalist intake to Westminster are just beginning to learn. However, when the television cameras appear, the old rigid demarcation lines reappear.

One of the most publicised reasons for Labour voters turning to nationalism during the Scottish Referendum was the fact that Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative party supporters campaigned together on an issue on which they were in agreement. Instead of this being seen as an admirable example of cooperation, Labour Party members in particular were seen as having ‘betrayed’ their socialist principles. How ludicrous would an alternative approach have been, a movement which believed in partnership and collaboration choosing to operate separately ‘on principle’? What bigotry is it that regards standing next to an able, well-informed and thoughtful politician such as Ruth Davidson as ‘treachery’? Why were the Better Together campaigners so apologetic when they should instead have condemned such hateful narrow-mindedness out of hand?

This obsession with ‘principle’ over the pragmatic and achievable has never affected the Scottish Nationalists' own behaviour, only their judgements of others. Theirs is a very fluid political movement. It is very difficult to pin down any of their principles, apart from independence of course. Having cannibalised the Labour manifesto and won an election on policies developed by their main rival, they are now colonising the territory their erstwhile comrades, the Greens, occupy in the hope of garnering their votes. Fracking, anyone? (Kicked into the long grass, a decision to be made nearer, or even after, the Scottish election.) GM crops? (A decision made without scientific advice.)

The SNP’s first act on entering Westminster after the opening of the current parliamentary session was utterly cynical. It involved threatening to vote against a change in the foxhunting law in England which, ironically, would have brought English practice into line with practice in Scotland. Not only did they go against their ‘principle’ not to vote on issues which only affected England, they did so on an issue that virtually none of them give a toss about. Why? To undermine the elected government and manipulate the democratic system. So much, so unprincipled.

The new form of populist tribalism which is infecting Scottish politics makes speaking out particularly difficult. The Scottish Thought Police are everywhere, but particularly online. Even the most minor criticism of Nicola Sturgeon is seen as spitting in the face of the Virgin Mary. No one questions the nationalists in the way that even Jeremy Corbyn, the latest golden boy, is questioned. A couple of weeks ago I watched fascinated as Channel 4’s Jon Snow positively cooed at a female nationalist politician, his toughest questioning being along the lines of ‘why do you think you and your party are so wonderful?’

The SNP has been in power in Scotland for eight years. Their record is mediocre at best. There have been no new ideas, no dramatic change. Their three main areas of responsibility – education, health and justice – are in trouble. They are pursuing a programme of privatisation of NHS services and waiting lists are growing. Police Scotland, centralised by the current government, is in disarray. Nicola Sturgeon has just announced a programme to ‘close the gap’ in educational attainment by reintroducing a form of national testing, a programme which her own party discontinued several years ago. She says that this is because the country needs national data on performance. Indeed. The decision to abandon testing was made shortly before they decided also to dismantle, de-tooth, re-form and re-name the education watchdog, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education. The Herald’s education correspondent Andrew Denholm unbelievably argued today that the Scottish government was 'not responsible' for education standards because that was the job of the local authorities.

Eh? Who is in charge of Scotland? Who provides the funds for the local authorities and can call them to account? Can someone ask this government some difficult questions please? Isn’t that the job of a newspaper?

No opportunity for positive PR is neglected. Sturgeon recently jumped on the floor of an increasingly crowded bandwagon by announcing that if England did not want increased immigration, Scotland did. How true these words are... And what a pity underfunded support services are currently being dismantled across Scotland. Will the Scottish government use its financial flexibility to support the asylum seekers England doesn't want? No, I guess not. That would be a vote-loser, for recent surveys show that Scottish voters (yes, including SNP voters) have a very similar range of views about asylum seekers and welfare claimants (a separate issue, as asylum seekers don't receive benefits) as English voters. Scotland is not the socialist utopia it is sometimes made out to be.

Being the daughter of a pair of obstinately principled parents, I feel the need to make a stand of my own, no matter that this does not improve my popularity (no surprise there, then...). Many current nationalist voters are, like St Peter, denying their socialist past and smearing the party they once supported with the one-size-fits-all term ‘Blairite’, now an unforgiveable insult. I too voted for the previous Labour government. In a moment I will tell you why I voted this way and also why I refuse to be made to feel ashamed. First, I will dispose of a potential elephant in the room.

I opposed the invasion of Iraq. I marched against it, applauded Robin Cook and did not vote for Labour at the next election. It was an immoral war and resulted in the current parlous state of the Middle East (though that is hindsight speaking). The SNP, of course, and the Greens and the Liberal Democrats have never been faced with such a decision because they have not been in charge of foreign policy or the Westminster government, and are never likely to be. (David Owen was a long time ago.)

Right, having got that out of the way, this is what I am not ashamed of. Indeed, this is what I am very proud of. This is what was achieved by the last Labour government because people like me voted for it, 'on principle'.
  • I am glad that there is now peace in Northern Ireland because of the work of Mo Mowlem and Peter Mandelson.
  • I am proud of Sure Start nurseries and sorry that they are now being closed down.
  • I support the safeguarding of trade union rights through the adoption of European legislation.
  • I am pleased that the Education Maintenance Allowance and child tax credits were introduced and condemn their reduction.
  • I am proud that the minimum wage was introduced.
  • I am delighted that two million children were lifted out of poverty, despite the fact that they are now being returned to it.
  • I applaud the founding of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.
  • I am pleased that a start was made to reforming the House of Lords, although a lot more needs to be done.
  • I am glad that spending per pupil was doubled (and no, my nationalist friend who claimed that 'none of the Gordon Brown money came to Scotland', you are wrong. Scotland cannot always glory in its victimhood.).
  • I am glad that spending on health was trebled.
  • I am glad that Milosevic was removed from power following our intervention in Bosnia (though Jeremy Corbyn disagrees with me).
  • I am happy with the creation of paid holidays and statutory maternity and paternity leave, and sorry that zero hours contracts are now undermining all these. 
Oh, and I am sorry that so many of my nationalist friends now claim that they didn't 'really' support Labour at the time.

No, I am not ashamed of voting Labour when I did. I am not a Labour party member. I do not vote automatically for one party, but choose according to individual party policies. I disagree with the Labour Party on a number of issues, dislike the class-based attitudes of the Scottish Labour Party and was depressed by the dismal leadership of Johann Lamont. Good luck to Kezia Dugdale, the new Scottish leader, who, given her background, is less likely to demonstrate the tribalism of some of her predecessors.

However, I do believe in cooperation, in working across party lines, in collaborating with those with whom one has a shared interest. I don't regard this as 'betrayal' or 'treachery'. It is pragmatism. It is necessary. Acknowledging that it is all right for other people to hold different views from ourselves and to seek to find common ground is the only way our society can progress. Change is more sustainable when built on cooperation and consensus building. Perhaps if Jeremy Corbyn becomes Labour leader, he will learn that too.

Finally, not all Conservatives are demonic, not all Nationalists are saintly, and I am not a Red Tory.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

After the election, aligning myself with the Axis of Reasonableness

Finding the best fit: thoughts about the run up to the election

Making Scotland an inclusive nation: the aftermath of the Referendum

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