In most countries in the developed world politics is about left versus right. Broadly speaking the left tends to believe in equality of opportunity in a society underpinned by strong public services which are funded by progressive taxation. The right believes in a small state and giving people the freedom to generate and retain wealth.
Throughout my life, politics in the UK has been fought along these lines. With the Conservatives always keen to reduce public spending to a minimum and Labour keen to invest in the NHS, education and training.
Whilst the traditional battlelines have changed little at UK over my lifetime, in Scotland they have been shattered. The debate here is no longer about right versus left for many, it is about independence. This suits the nationalists nicely as they have always followed an ideology free populist agenda.
Indeed, one of the nationalists’ great successes has been to turn the debate away from socialism versus toryism to unionism versus nationalism. Politics is no longer about ideology, it is about identity. For many Scots identity and nationalism have become more important than policy or record in government.
For hardcore nationalists, failing hospitals, falling numeracy in our schools and broken bridges are either overlooked or accepted as the price worth paying for having a nationalist government. The pseudo left in the nationalist ranks even attack Labour heroes such has Gordon Brown (he took 2 million people out of poverty) whilst defending nationalist policies which make the rich richer (APD cuts, council tax freeze and cooperation tax cuts).
In “unionist” ranks there is a similar problem. There is an intransigent hardcore which oppose our nationalist government just as strongly as nationalists blindly support it. Scotland is polarised.
Caught in the middle between entrenched unionists and angry nationalists are the people who don’t define themselves along the redrawn political battlefront in Scotland, but simply want the country to be run well. They want their children to have a world class education. They want to know the NHS is working well and will be there when they need it. They want pothole free roads. They want their bins collected.
Also in the middle ground between unionists and nationalist are many people like me. I want Scotland to be a fairer place where every child has an equal chance of reaching their full potential. Like many Scots, this outlook defines my politics, not the constitutional debate. I voted No in the referendum as I thought that was the best way of delivering that vision. Although I still feel that that was the right way to vote, it does not define my political outlook. I know Yes voters who feel the same.
Although we frequently hear that “Scotland has never been so politically engaged”, the fractured political landscape I have described is actually stifling debate. Week-after-week we see calls from the left to make Scotland a fairer place shut down by the nationalists by claiming the debate is driven by anti-nationalist zealotry. Discussion of failures in the NHS, Police Scotland and education are avoided using the same tactic.
This week Magnus Gardham discussed this problem in The Herald when he highlighted the propensity of nationalists simply dismiss legitimate questions and comment as “SNP Bad”. He summed it up like this:
“SNP bad is one of the year’s most striking phenomena. It began as a meme on social media, as Nationalists took to dismissing anything critical of or embarrassing for the SNP government as “SNP bad”. It was eagerly picked up by tweeting MPs and MSPs and has now entered the political lexicon at Holyrood, trotted out by backbenchers and even ministers answering parliamentary questions. It’s not a good thing.”
Even as a member of the Labour Party, I am happy to accept that Scotland’s nationalist government is doing the right thing in some areas. For example, I am broadly supportive of their review of university governance and give up a great deal of my time to support their Construction Scotland Innovation Centre. However, even the staunchest nationalists must also recognise that, after almost nine years in government, there are some real problems in education, health and policing in Scotland.
Given the lead that the nationalist have in the polls, and the majority they have in Holyrood, more than ever they have a duty to be honest with Scots about the problems Scotland faces. They must show that they are not above admitting their failures, smart enough to benefit from the lessons learned from them, and strong enough to correct them.
Some examples of SNP bad:
The nationalists have had responsibility for the FRB since 2007. They cut its funding and privatised its maintenance. When it fails, Pete Wishart MP says:
A nationalists responds to this question “How do you market a product? What’s the best way to get funding? Got any business questions for @bbcr4today experts?”:
The Guardian points out education is being cut to fund healthcare in Scotland. This alert reader says:
A journalist points out that the nationalists have cut the grants for the poorest students: