The Losers: Anger in Post Referendum Scottish Politics
After a significant and contentious vote in the House of Commons, I tend to try and stay off twitter. My timeline is filled with a range of Scottish political types and is not particularly pleasant. In fact, it starts to resemble a bunch of monkeys flinging shit at each other in the zoo. Except not as much fun, because monkeys are cute, and visitors can get an ice cream at the zoo.
It all seems so very angry. This is understandable to some extent. Social media is an easy outlet for venting, and we all vent when we get frustrated at moments of high tension. It should also be remembered discourse on twitter, is not the same as all political discourse. Social media is not society.
Discussions around kitchen tables and water coolers lack, at least I hope, the bitterness and bile that permeates social media. However, I feel these snapshots are illuminative to some extent. It is now well over a year since the referendum, and the anger and bitterness that it generated doesn’t seem to me to be abating. In fact, I sometimes feel like it is getting worse.
I’ve been pondering this and my pet theory is that we’re all so angry because we’re all losers. Not losers in the way a hipster might just judge someone drinking Tennents’ wearing a Ben Sherman shirt, but in the sense that, consciously or unconsciously, everyone in Scottish politics feels like they have lost.
Supporters of the SNP might read this and think this is preposterous poppycock, and it may well be, but let me explain as best I can. The SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. They have a majority in a Parliament that isn’t supposed to allow for such a scenario, and another potentially larger one on the way. This popularity comes after being in Government for nearly a decade. This political domination is quite so dizzying, because it is so violently opposed to how politics is ‘supposed’ to work.
Yet this domination,in a way, is merely a grandiose consolation prize. The ultimate prize and goal for Scottish Nationalists was fought for on 18 September 2014, and they lost.
Mhairi Black’s Maiden Speech in the House of Commons has received over ten million views on YouTube. Think about how many views Alex Salmond would have for his first speech as the leader of and independent Scotland. As impressive and sweeping was the the SNP’s success in May’s elections, in a sense it is all relative. Ultimate victory for the SNP is defined by not sending any MPs to Westminster at all.
So for all of the current political strength of the SNP, I cannot help but think that this loss must still nag. The talk of being the real opposition at Westminster has a grain of truth, but it can feel like an overcompensation. The SNP are winning certainly, but they aren’t getting to choose the rules of the game. That is the real prize.
Scottish Labour are losers, in a rather more literal sense, but this loss is about more than just elections. It is about a loss of identity. For most Scots, we are no longer the standard bearer of progressive values, and if we aren’t that, then what are we? What is the point of Scottish Labour exactly? It isn’t great fun asking that question, and it isn’t great fun not having a fully developed and compelling answer.
Kezia Dugdale is doing great work in rebuilding the party, but it is arduous and slow going. This is why it is so easy to fall back on comfortable tropes like ‘Tartan Tory’ and ‘Rabid Nationalist.’ It is easier and frankly more fun to attack straw men, than engage in the slow and painstaking process of internal renewal.
It can be argued that John Swinney should made different choices in his budget, last week. It can argue that we should have raised taxes. These are important and substantive debates to be had. However, it is far too easy to claim this as evidence that the SNP have been Tartan Tories all along, rather than go for the more nuanced critique that this is a left leaning Government reaching the limits of its political courage and imagination.
And when people do trot these lines out, are they doing it because they honestly think it is true, or because it makes them feel better? And when they trot these lines out, do they think that is really politically advantageous to tell over half the electorate that is either craven, irrational or just gullible?
It is easier to reject the idea that the SNP are authentically left wing in any way, shape or form, than to accept and understand Scotland’s messy and cluttered progressive politics. We haven’t just lost seats, we have lost the way that the country once saw us and our identity with it.
A party is of course made up of many different individual activists. For someone like me, as a Labour moderate (whatever that means) in Scotland, the sense of dislocation is even more pronounced. My political party is firmly in the minority in my country, and I’m suddenly in the minority inside my own party. One minute I was at a soirée surrounded by a bubbly hubbub sipping prosecco and listening to Noel Coward in a velvet jacket, and suddenly it is four am, Leonard Cohen is on repeat, and I’m drinking flat bitter in the foetal position.
The Peat Worrier, in a tremendous piece for the drouth discussed how our sense of identity is derived from our sense of history. I’ve written before about how Scottish Labour is trapped not enabled by our history. As he touches on, I don’t think that the conception of Scottish politics held by some SNP supporters is as up to date as it should be. They are no longer plucky underdogs snapping at the heels of Scotland’s dominant party, they are the dominant party. There is a nobility in the glorious defeat of the principled outsider. That has been lost as well.
The thing about becoming become established, is that a party becomes to some extent, the establishment. I have wondered why this new establishment cannot be a little more gracious and kinder sometimes. Over the last few months is they haven’t always appeared like good winners. Part of this is just sour grapes on my part, but I also wonder if there is ever a TNS poll that can exorcise a nagging sense of loss in SNP supporters.
Look, this might all be total pish. Cod psychology masquerading as political analysis. However, I’ve been thinking recently about the Christie Commission, because in the run up to Christmas, who doesn’t? The report concluded that: “Scotland’s public services are in need of urgent and sustained reform to meet unprecedented challenges.” That was four years ago. I don’t think we’re genuinely exploring potential reforms to meet those challenges. I think a politics that is bitter, polarised and angry destroys the space for radical and innovative policy debate to flourish. We can try and move on. We can move focus on what we do have, from our natural resources to the potential of our people, and exorcise the demons of what we have lost. If we don’t, then we really all will be losers after all.