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Let’s get together

February 4, 2011

A friend of mine is bedrock Labour Party; he has supported them through thick and thin through Callaghan to Milliband. While cowards have flinched and traitors have sneered he has been a committed party man. His default political position is: if you’re not in power you can’t affect change, so you do what is necessary. I suspect he is quite a common phenomenon in the labour movement, and, indeed, where I to vote in England, without the choice of SNP, I might well subscribe to that rather pragmatic philosophy. It did, after all, power the New Labour Project. However, I live, and vote, in Scotland, and I find it to be an approach that lets down the folk who count most – the people.

Last week he came out with a statement which could well be a definition of the coming Election campaign in this country. He said: ‘What about Salmond then, eh? What do you think of that?’

Now we do engage in political banter now and then, both realising that we are never likely to change our views, but on this occasion, I was genuinely mystified at his comment. It was a ‘What’s your point, caller?’ moment.

He elucidated: ‘Going to Gerry Rafferty’s funeral? What on earth is he doing that for? Typical!’ Then realisation dawned: he was suggesting the First Minister attended Rafferty’s funeral as a political gesture, to court popularity.

I found this genuinely depressing, but predictable, in light of the early tone that’s been set in electioneering for May. I don’t know what Eck’s motivation was in attending the obsequies for a man known as Scotland’s greatest singer songwriter. Maybe it was a political manoeuvre – or maybe it was a political leader choosing to recognise one of the Scottish arts world’s most famous figures. I would like to think that I live in a country where politicians hobnobbing with the arts has at least as much currency as them befriending global media tycoons.

However, I detect a meanness of spirit in areas of Scottish politics that does not speak well of our aspirations. The constituency my pal represents – not as a politician but as a mainstream Labour thinker – surfaced again in the same conversation when he made an uncharitable remark about Rafferty’s connections to Paisley and how he hadn’t lived there for years. I’m not sure how a nation that has sent its sons and daughters across the world to achieve, in all kinds of ways, can be so dismissive of those who widen their horizons, but retain their links: it certainly doesn’t seem to bother the Irish, where a candle burns perpetually in a window at the President’s Residence, Aras an Uachtarain, as a sign of welcome for the diaspora.

In politics, this mean spiritedness is not confined to Scots Labour: all parties have their moments, but it is starting to seem as if it is the key note in their attempt to regain power at Holyrood.

In his attempts to present himself as a First Minister in waiting, Iain Gray has rubbished a whole range of small countries as examples of why Scotland could not sustain independence, made personal attacks on Scottish Government Ministers, and tied himself in knots with his own party down south, in terms of which measures to support and which to oppose in parliament: the guideline seeming to be SNP bad, Labour good. Labour’s connections with the retail grocery trade have led to them opposing all expert opinion in voting down minimum pricing and supermarket tax. Nobody, even in their ranks, has come up with a defendable explanation for this, other than the need to oppose the SNP as a proof of Opposition. Even when their colleagues down south support the same initiatives as the SNP, Scottish Labour can’t help a kneejerk negative reaction north of the Border. We seemed to have moved from a situation where a Scottish Labour administration under Jack McConnell was hamstrung by orders from down south, to an era where, in opposition, they have become almost self regulating in putting party concerns before those of the people. From the set up agenda, where Labour seemed to actively discourage their brightest and best from running for Holyrood, to the petty usage of ‘Scottish Executive’ rather than ‘Government’ by leading English Labour politicians, Scotland has been poorly served by the very folk who should be carrying the banner highest.

I am happy to concede that, in many areas of policy, the Labour party made advances for ordinary folk during their time in Government at Westminster, certainly more than we could have expected from a Tory administration, but they also missed many opportunities to change the UK for the better, and, in Iraq, civil rights, the use of PPP and their relationship with parts of the media, they left a pretty devastating legacy. To return to my friend’s viewpoint: they certainly said what they had to say to get into power; the problem was with what they actually did when they got that power.

There are large areas of central Scotland where voting Labour has been a habit for generations but that unopposed power was used for personal and party advancement and cronyism rather than for the good of the people, and the poverty of resources and ideas in those areas still is a living testament to that failure.

However, in Scotland, we are now in a new situation. The ConDems are operating to an agenda which is clearly inimical to the vast majority of Scots, and Labour and the SNP are the only show in town north of the Border.

At this point, I make the claim that, strange as it may seem, this is not meant to be a party political attack. I consider myself a member of the labour movement – left wing, socialist and republican. You could not put a sheet of paper between most of my political views and those of my friends in the Scottish Labour party – especially those who predate and disown New Labour. It seems to me that if politics is not about serving the ordinary man then it is corrupt. And yet, I suspect, in fact, I know, that Labour and the SNP will spend the coming campaign tearing each other to shreds. Labour will claim the SNP are bad men because they want ‘separation’ and the SNP will bad mouth Labour because they are more interested in London power than Scottish self determination. It will get personal and banal, and will, without a doubt, turn off the Scottish voter, whose instruction from the Scottish popular media will be ‘Eck is smug and Gray is grey’. Meanwhile, activists in both camps, who chap the doors and listen to the people, will watch the leaderships hurling bricks at each other over their heads and perhaps wonder why they give so much of their time to political activity.

While this is happening, a steady stream of small businesses and factories will be closing all over Scotland. In Fife and Moray, the sound of a jet on take off will come to resemble a harbinger of doom. Parents will be feeling the fear of school closures and cuts, redundancy will trend on Twitter, fishermen will break up their boats, communities will lose post offices, community centres, and local health provision, more and more resources will be privatised, the media moguls will stealthily increase their thought control, and the millionaires in the London Government will continue to tell us ‘we are all in this together’.

In Egypt, people are risking death and injury in an attempt to gain the government the country wants; in Scotland, we could do it through a series of meetings.

Labour and SNP are at least consistent in both telling us how much Scotland will suffer under the ConDems; both offer, or would like to offer, a broadly strong public service based, left leaning, social democracy. Some commentators claim this is a model which is past its time and is not workable in the current climate – but I see that more as an argument for the type of climate change that a united front in Scotland could produce.

If we accept, for a moment, that both SNP and Labour have the best interests at the people of Scotland at heart, then the only argument is the means of pursuing that. In many areas there is even partial agreement on this; the stumbling block is independence versus devolution. I often wonder if Scottish politicians ever look at the relatively harmonious front presented by Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson across the water, or even the tears of white South Africans outside the hospital where Nelson Mandela was feared seriously ill; and I wonder if they don’t maybe think that their own differences are a tad over emphasised.

So here’s the proposition: the policy wonks of the two parties get together – with or without George Mitchell – and agree a shared political agenda. The only precondition is that it shall be driven by what is indisputably best for the people of Scotland, particularly the poor and the dispossessed. To reach this agreement, there will be two necessities: the SNP cannot predicate everything on it being a step towards Independence, and the Labour Party need to accept that some things in Scotland can be done differently without that being a push towards separation. ( I suspect many already have this position; stating it publicly would be the hard bit).

A joint programme is then put to the Scottish voters; a national Government is proposed which will have a distinctive left of centre, Social Democratic hue, and be suited to the needs of Scotland over the next five years, addressing the most obvious needs in our infrastructure and amenities. There would inevitably be an overwhelming majority for this government who could then eschew party rivalry and work for the people of Scotland, confident of the support of the people. Who knows, maybe even some embarrassed Con Dems might sign up to it!

Linked to this, an idea I have long pondered. It seems to me that, when politicians retire from active service, their old party loyalties and certainties dwindle, while their political convictions grow. Certainly, Labour politicians like Henry McLeish and John McAllion, in their post parliamentary lives, seem to have spent less time attacking the Nats and more on promoting policies for the good of Scotland than they ever did previously. As Scotland’s parliamentary system doesn’t run to a second chamber, perhaps a Council of the Elders, operating outwith the constraints of party, might provide a useful thinktank to promote vision, and encourage collaboration in the interests of the Scottish people.

And what’s in it for the political parties? Well – the proof of the pudding is in the five year term. If such an approach proves positive and the people react approvingly, then the SNP would have some justification in saying Scotland can do the business and would have a stronger plank for Independence; those in Labour who have unionist sympathies would either find their fears assuaged or need to readjust their arguments. On the other hand, if it didn’t work, if the national government failed to protect Scotland from the ravages of Westminster policies, Labour could claim with some justification, that, as they have been telling us, we don’t have the talent to go our different way, we need a voice at Westminster, and their point for the retention of the union would have been made. The SNP would have to readjust their justification for seeking independence. Either way, it seems to me, the people of Scotland gain. The only risk is to party political agenda.

The reaction to such a proposal is, of course: ‘That’s just naïve!’

The reaction to that, then, is ‘Why?’

If we are at a stage where party politics will always trump (no pun intended) the best interests of the people, then we don’t need expenses trials to tell us our system is corrupt.

If politics doesn’t serve the people, what is it for?

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