This is not who we are
Imagine, the Scottish people as if they are a Peter Howson portrait, all simmering anger and grimy masculinity, a crowd scene of shared mistrust, the washed-out neutral tones of a dark memory. Imagine us like we are extras from an episode of Mark McManus-era Taggart, the only brightness coming from the gaudy colours of the beer can we grip in our hands and the glow of the cigarette hanging from our mouths. Imagine yourself standing beside the shipyard where you used to work, barely containing your rage as the modern world moves on without you, ready to lash out at the cause of your woes – foreigners, the English, Tories. Or as the wife at home, only there to show solidarity in this lost war and collect the essential rations from the supermarket – the carefully wrapped-up packets of saturated fat and sugar, the crutch-cigarettes and those cheap units of alcohol-induced amnesia.
But this is not who we are. Scotland showed on May 5 that it is not a caricature, it is not the physical embodiment of a stand up comedian’s routine, it is not fossil dated circa 1979. Scotland is still alive and we should breathe more freely now we know it for sure.
This is why Labour lost the 2011 Scottish Elections; it is also why the commentators struggled to understand it. Scottish politics has been patronised by the professional politics-watchers for a generation (“put a Labour rosette on a monkey and they’ll vote for it”) and it has distorted the political story we tell ourselves. The received wisdom of many people is that Scotland is still in a sort-of post-industrial, post-ship-yard, post-mining twilight in which people will not vote Tory because ‘they did this to us’.
This story was the only way a political class trained only to understand a neoliberal, Thatcherite narrative could make sense of Scotland. If the Scots have just as much to gain from the individualism agenda of Thatcher as the English, why won’t they embrace it? Surely they must be politically, historically, socially and culturally retarded? That must be the only explanation.
If you think the world was created by Margaret Thatcher then perhaps Scotland does indeed cause you problems, like a Christian missionary who cannot understand how a giraffe can possibly fit into God’s Plan. Scotland has consistently shown itself in favour of public provision, universalism and moderation of private and commercial power. Since this does not fit with the New Order of political philosophy in which we’re all aspiring capitalists, it can only be seen as a throw-back, a failure in evolution.
The general London-generated vision of Scotland is that it hasn’t ‘moved on’ from resentment at de-industrialisation and that we are somehow unthinkingly stuck in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Our ‘failure of political maturity’ in resisting the ‘modern’ ideologies of Thatcher and Blair explains away the ‘Scottish anomaly’. Scotland is a fossil which proves (rather than disproves) that the world was created by Maggie in seven days (no rest for her…). The idea of a genuine post-industrial rejection of neoliberal doctrine by all but a small group of activists is impossible and so it must be a sort of zombie pre-modern remnant.
And this seems to be what many in Labour themselves believe (at least at the altitudes inhabited by their ‘strategists’). They seem to believe that this sort of social democracy can only exist if it is attached like a conjoined twin to a crude Populism. To understand this it is important to understand what Populism with a capital ‘P’ means. It does not mean ‘popular’ but is recognised in political theory across the world as a process of identifying the majority as being an ‘us’ which is being threatened in some way by a ‘them’. It comes from ‘populace’ rather than ‘popular’, from the Latin root meaning ‘the people, nation, race’ and so on. It is a political philosophy based on the idea of ‘us and them’ and is designed to draw the ‘us’ towards you, to identify with you as ‘not them’.
On national television Labour strategist John McTernan tells us all that supporting things like ‘international aid’ while not being tougher and more vindictive at all times with anyone deemed to be a ‘criminal’ “goes down like a cup of cold sick with people”. Us (‘the law-abiding British’) versus them (‘poor black foreigners and mainly poor perpetrators of crime’).
Many people know that McTernan was Blair’s Director of Political Operations (the two years running up to Blair losing his job), and may just remember that he was brought up to run the 2007 Scottish Labour election campaign (which they lost). But will they remember that he was Head of Policy in the Labour Scottish Executive in 2001? This view of ‘the Scottish people’ as a sort of lumbering, knuckle-dragging thug has been all-too prevalent in Scottish Labour’s positioning. It was of course to the very great credit of Jack McConnell that he rejected John Reid’s ‘but these council-house-dwelling poor people need their wee perks like cheap fags’ stance and banned smoking in public places. But the gamble that rejecting minimum pricing for alcohol and standing on a ‘cheap booze’ ticket would play to this audience is the same game. And worse still is the blatant Tory tactic of trying to manufacture fear and loathing among ‘us’ of crime. Labour’s knife crime stance seems like a policy designed exactly for the caricature of a throw-back Scotland.
Labour in Scotland simply rejected the idea that there were any thoughtful, tolerant, thinking votes to be won. Megrahi? Hang him. Ban Trident? For the middle classes. Resist more nuclear power? What about Working Men and their Jobs? We know where our core votes lies (they thought) and they don’t care about these things. In the Labour mind it seemed that jobs, jobs, jobs, crime-vengance, cheap-booze and fear-of-independence were all that was needed to get out their core vote. And worse still, they thought ‘Scotland’ was their core vote.
But this is not Scotland. Scotland is a broadly tolerant and thoughtful country with a good record on education, a very strong and thriving university sector with a high proportion of graduates, in which many people are professionals but in the public sector where they see and understand the real stories behind crime and violence, who care about things like international development and social justice and can understand the complicated arguments behind crime and punishment. They do not like military intervention and time after time support the principles of universalism and social democracy; and not in a crude or unthinking way. It is decades since the Church of Scotland shrugged and said ‘why not let women be Ministers?’. Scotland has shown strong support for many things which are not Populist – the evidence suggests that even people who have never been to university are proud of the fact that Scotland has maintained and protected a free university system. Labour simply wrote off all of the people David Blunkett called ‘muesli-eating Guardian-readers’ (perhaps vegetable-eating Sunday Herald-readers up here). And they paid a price.
Labour – and many in the professional political classes – have simply misunderstood Scotland. You do not have to go far to find professional commentators who will tell you what ‘working class people’ think, but who probably don’t have a phone number in their iPhone for a single working class person.
I live in a small town and many of my friends are working class and – here’s a shock for many – some of them thought that releasing Megrahi was the right thing to do. The knuckle-draggers? Supporting criminals? And worst of all, black, foreign criminals? Not possible. But it is possible.
As the Editor of the Scottish Left Review I try very hard to be ecumenical and have no party affiliation. But I will not make any effort to hide the elation I felt on 6 May. Scotland rejected a vision of itself as an unthinking fossil and screamed out ‘This Is Not Who We Are’ to a media and a political class much of which just doesn’t understand. Of course there is prejudice and narrow-mindedness in Scotland – there is everywhere. And of course this is not some sort of liberal utopia. But it is the home of a wide and varied people who are not ready to troop behind simple, negative messages designed to make us feel bad about ourselves and our neighbours. Scotland is better than that.
So now? Well, it is up to us all to try and paint a better picture of Scotland. I’ve heard a lot of talk about a ‘positive campaign having won the day’ but nothing is won yet. Scotland has much to do to shake off the political culture on its back – the real national throw-back. But it is not a foregone conclusion. Those of us who care about what Labour is supposed to stand for must feel disquiet that people like John McTernan still seem convinced that the problem with the Labour campaign was that it wasn’t negative and thuggish enough. Let us all hope that Labour can be led out of this dark place by its wiser and more thoughtful members. It deserves better than this.
In the meantime, let us start to forget about all these things we’re not and let us start to celebrate what we are. Scotland is no longer ready to be patronised for thinking and caring and demanding better. So welcome to Scotland. We’re not what you may think.
Robin McAlpine is Editor of the Scottish Left Review