Sunday, 8 May 2016

Done and dusted: my take on the results of the Scottish Parliamentary elections

Those of you who know me quite well may have been a bit surprised by my silence over the recent Scottish elections.  My family are probably quite relieved. These days, expressing political views in Scotland, even with friends, can be pretty much a kamikaze exercise unless they are those of the dominant party. In fact, expressing any view that may imply even mildly that Scotland isn't necessarily the best of all possible worlds can be controversial. Or that wicked Westminster or 'toxic Tories' aren't responsible for all the evils of society. Or that the population south of the border, indeed even those in the south east, may not be entirely made up of rich wastrels, self-serving plutocrats or aristocratic numpties. I'm exaggerating, I know, but that is what it sometimes feels like.

So, I have kept quiet, partly from cowardice, partly from exhaustion as work has been pretty demanding, but also because I really have nothing much new to say that I didn't say this time last year. One significant effect of the aftermath of last year's Westminster election, however, is that while my views remain much as they have been for some years now, my political allegiance has changed. My family and trusted friends have known this for months, but it is not something that I have been jumping up and down about.

For me, voting has always been a choice between the Liberal Democrats and Labour, a choice made at the time of each election, for until now I have never been a member of any party. I mostly voted Lib Dem when I lived in the north east and the Highlands, but have been pretty solidly Labour down here in Edinburgh. Post-Iraq was probably the exception. I have never voted Conservative but have occasionally voted Green. I once voted SNP in a European election, but that was an aberration based almost entirely on the personal qualities of the candidate.

This year, however, I pinned my colours to the mast and joined the Liberal Democrats and it was for that party that I actually got out of my chair and campaigned during this last election. Yes, I was one of those people delivering leaflets in Edinburgh Western, to notable success. Less so in my 'own' constituency of Edinburgh Eastern, which was not a surprise.

Why the Lib Dems, though? Well, for a number of reasons.

Of all the Scottish parties, the Lib Dems are the most outward looking. A network of liberal and Liberal political and social thinkers on international affairs and human rights extends across Europe and beyond. I am sick and tired of the parochialism of only ever considering 'what's best for Scotland'. Every time I hear Nicola Sturgeon bang on about 'the Scottish people', I want to throw something at the television. In our families we don't bring up our children to consider only what's best for them. We bring them up to be considerate, compassionate and generous members of a far wider society, not just that of their own family but their community and the world beyond. Ours is a very rich and privileged nation, though one in which we have consistently failed to deal with inequality. The 'what's best for Scotland' mantra encourages young people to set selfishness and insularity as the highest goods and to regard with suspicion, distrust and envy even their neighbours on the other side of Hadrian's Wall. I cannot believe that what this world needs is yet more barriers, walls and fences.

The major issues facing all parts of the world are international. Constant conflict in the Middle East destroys lives and livelihoods. Climate change is overwhelming countries like the Maldives, Vanuatu and Bangladesh. Migration, the issue of which we are most aware because it potentially affects us, is caused by both these factors. Though life expectancy in developing countries has improved enormously over the last twenty years, the grudging and restrictive terms under which we in the west import goods from them strangle entrepreneurialism. The impact on revenue starves public services of resources and stifles the talents and aspirations of countless children. I want to support a party which confronts these issues head on. Only Labour and the Liberal Democrats have Westminster parties with that broad perspective. The SNP by definition is only concerned about its own geographical patch. (Let's not pretend that twopence halfpenny spent on Malawi counts as serious support, though it makes for good PR.)

Within the UK context, the nationalist narrative of grievance is destructive and belittling. It needs to be challenged head on. During the Scottish election, only the Liberal Democrats and the Tories made that challenge. The Labour Party largely avoided the issue because of their own internal divisions on the subject. Independence is the only issue in Scottish politics today. Forget right and left. Politics here is yes or no, and the 'once in a generation' pledge at the time of the Referendum eighteen months ago isn't worth the paper it wasn't written on. Indeed, Alex Salmond is now saying that if Boris Johnson became leader of the Tories, that would be sufficient material change for a new referendum!

It was quite interesting that up here, very little of the election debate was about policies.

One of my Liberal Democrat colleagues told me of visiting a house where a woman said, 'I completely agree with your policies.'

'Oh good,' said my friend. 'You'll be voting for us then.'

'Oh no,' she said, 'I want independence.'

And so the discussion continued, but to no real end. This election was supposed to be about the policies to be pursued by the next Holyrood administration. In fact, it was about whether or not there is going to be another referendum on independence. Does no one in Scotland care about how this country is governed? It seems not.

Willie Rennie, the Scottish Lib Dem leader, has been one of the few Scottish politicians apart from Ruth Davidson, the Tory leader, to take on Nicola Sturgeon and, in particular, to challenge the record of the SNP over their last nine years in government. The nationalist response has always been to use the same slippery, accusatory tactics - blame the previous administration of ten years ago, blame the Tories down south, blame Westminster, blame anyone and everyone else but accept no responsibility whatsoever.

In Scotland, we have seen the loss of 150,000 badly needed places in further education colleges and pathetic levels of funding for disadvantaged students. Levels of literacy and numeracy are falling. Educational inequality is rising. Waiting times for hospital treatment can be worse than in England. Unnecessary centralisation of the police service has cost lives. Everything that matters is put on hold so that the government can concentrate on preparing for another referendum. The poor will vote SNP anyway, so instead of concerning themselves with social policies which will make life more bearable for them, the nationalists make sure that middle class voters are happy. They do this by making a song and dance about university tuition fees while ignoring those students who really need opportunities to develop vocational skills. The eight-year nationalist freeze on council tax has starved councils of resources which would have been used for social care. As with their refusal to adjust income tax, the SNP will do nothing to upset middle class voters because they are the ones they need to please to win the next referendum.

And always, always, they keep a hold on the media and make sure that only positive messages emerge, so no reporting of the rifts between the right and the left of the SNP. No reporting of administrative cock ups. We still don't know what has happened to the £45 million held back by the European Social Fund because of 'accounting irregularities'. The trouble with many nationalist politicians is that they are far more interested in campaigning than in governing. Running a government department is dull, hence the administrative inefficiencies, the delays in making grants, the tardy decision making. The Scottish government of the last nine years has not been 'terrible'. It has, however, been mediocre.

Why not vote Labour again then?

I have no quarrel with the Labour party. It is the only party which is really serious about significantly reconfiguring society to support the weak and powerless. However, in Scotland Labour has not articulated its new role beyond a nostalgic folk memory of Keir Hardie. At least it is not sounding as class-obsessed as it did a year ago. Nevertheless, during last year's leadership campaign poor Kezia Dugdale felt the need to apologise for her parents being teachers by saying that they were 'really' working class. Who cares? Why should anyone be judged by the jobs their parents did? And if Dugdale can be seen as 'too' middle class, what about me? None of us chooses our parents or our family background, but for both Labour and SNP it really seems to matter.

During the election, I think Dugdale did as well as she could in the circumstances. Her arguments were good. Her central idea was not that different from the Lib Dems: raising taxes to improve public services. She argued well, if not as passionately as Rennie and Davidson. However, she hasn't got the killer instinct of Sturgeon. Indeed, her own wobble on independence was a fatal mistake. It meant that her party lost votes to the Tories and Lib Dems because it wasn't clear whether Labour could be trusted to support the Union.

Why not join the Greens? After all, I agree with quite a few of their policies. The Greens tag along on the nationalists' coat tails. I just don't agree with their independence argument and independence is the only debate in town. How a party committed to combating waste can support the diversion of precious resources so that they can be used to dismantle our current systems and construct new diplomatic and political structures parallel to those in the rest of the UK, I do not understand.  There are so many more worthwhile causes in this country and abroad for which this money could be used.

Given the continuing constitutional debate in Scotland, my final reason for joining the Lib Dems is their commitment to federalism. I don't deny that there could be tricky issues to deal with, given the differences in size of the constituent nations, but I don't doubt that these could be addressed. It will be interesting to see what the new Act of Union, currently being drafted, comes up with.

What about the negatives, though?

Am I not bothered by the Liberal Democrats' role in the previous coalition government? Actually, we are now seeing how much good the Lib Dems achieved in holding back that Tory government from the kind of excesses we are observing now. The SNP government under Alex Salmond collaborated with the Tories for years, indeed produced four budgets with their support, but have campaigned as if that partnership never happened.

The final argument you might bring up is the story of Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and previous Scotland Minister. He got into trouble with the nationalist rent-a-mob because during last spring's Westminster election, his office leaked a note of a meeting in which Sturgeon was quoted as saying that she would prefer the Tories rather than Labour to win the election. The implication was that Scots would hate the Tories so much that they would demand independence (the usual muddle of constitutional with political issues). The problem was not what was on the note, though it was embarrassing for Sturgeon. Senior SNP politicians had been publicly quoted as saying the same and it is highly unlikely that a civil servant working at that level would deliberately make up a detail like that in his/her notes, though s/he could have been confused about whether the statement was for the official record or not. However, no one is really challenging the accuracy of the note itself. There was also nothing particularly untoward about the leak. Leaks are common. Journalism wouldn't function without them. Nobody is overly concerned about the leak of the Panama papers, for example. No, it was the fact that Carmichael stupidly denied the leak that was his undoing: an error of judgement which has led to appalling levels of bullying. He and his family have been hounded by SNP activists even in his Orkney home. This nasty incident was similar to the bullying of the respected BBC journalist Nick Robinson during the referendum because of a poorly expressed question during an interview with Alex Salmond.

Why would I join a party in which a senior politician was found to be telling a lie?

Well, I don't think there is an MP in the country who hasn't told a 'lie' or bent the truth on occasion. What about during the referendum campaign, when Alex Salmond claimed to have consulted the EU about Scotland's membership once the country separated from the rest of the UK? Completely invented. He did not approach the EU about the issue and receive a positive response. Yet, no one has harassed Salmond in the way Carmichael has been harassed. It was actually during the Carmichael incident that I made the final decision to join the Lib Dems. Alistair Carmichael is a good man who made a stupid mistake. And last week, I was so glad that Orcadians voted overwhelmingly for the Liberal Democrats as a kind of vindication of Carmichael. Bullying is something nationalists are very good at and I can't stand it.

So that's it, then. This is where I stand now. Glad that the Liberal Democrats in Scotland did well. Glad that I had a tiny part in that.

Here are some recent newspaper articles you might be interested in.

It's time the SNP's terrible record in government was exposed (New Statesman)

A force awakens in Scotland: the Union strikes back | Coffee House (Spectator blog)

What now for Nicola Sturgeon and the rebels who became the Scottish establishment? | Martin Kettle (Guardian)

Nicola Sturgeon faces demands to rule out repeat referendum as SNP's mandate claim "utterly shredded" (Herald)

IFS warns Scottish deficit has become three times greater than UK's (Guardian)

David Torrance: The Ulsterisation of Scottish politics is complete (Herald)

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