During the Decade of Dissent, the potentialities of democracy could be witnessed in streets being blockaded against warrant sales, or in the ditches were anti-nuclear activists hid whilst waiting for the next nuclear warhead convoy; it could be witnessed up in the trees and down in the tunnels; in the occupied community centres and the council offices as men, women and children demanded they be listened to. But these campaigns were not the only medium by which Scots expressed their dissent. If the Scots were proving to be bold and boisterous protesters, they were just as a bold and boisterous when it came to elections; put a ballot box in front of a Scots voter and there was no telling what manner of trouble would arise.
Having voted for, but been denied, a Scottish parliament in 1979, Scots used voting in an increasingly sophisticated way. At first votes were simply seemed best placed to shake up Thatcher. Those with long memories will recall that an early beneficiary of this tactical voting was neither the SNP nor Labour. Rather, in the 1982, Roy Jenkins won the Hillhead by-election for the SDP.
Over the 80s and into the 1990s, the party that benefited most from the ‘kick the effing Tories’ culture was the Labour Party. However, whilst Labour was top dog in Westminster elections, voters were happy enough to lend their vote to the SNP at by-elections. The SNP also began to make slow inroads at local elections; whilst the left wing individuals and groups that would later coalesce into the Scottish Socialist Party also had surprise victories at local level.
The warning signs were there, if only Labour chose to read them. Scottish voters wanted the Labour Party, but they wanted a Labour Party that was left wing and that put the needs of Scots and Scotland at the top of its agenda. Yet, after the Labour victory of 1997 and the reconvening of the Scottish parliament in 1999, it became increasingly obvious that Scottish Labour lacked the will to stand to the New Thatcherism of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Incapable of creating its own autonomous agenda and under constant surveillance and interference from UK Labour loyalists the party in Scotland began to rip itself apart. The beneficiaries of this were left-wing Independents, the SNP, the Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party. By 2007 the SNP was in control of the Scottish parliament, though as a minority government.
In the 2010 general election the Tories and Lib Dems formed a coalition government in Westminster. Labour again won the most Westminster seats in Scotland. At the following Scottish parliament elections Labour assumed that they would win power in Scotland, as Scots would want a united anti-Tory front in Scotland. Labour expectations were high and, in part its analysis was correct: Scots did vote to send a strong signal to Westminster. However they chose to do this by backing the SNP. The overall vote though remained low, at just over 50 per cent. Nonetheless the SNP won a clear victory, taking votes from Labour, Greens and the Scottish Socialist party.
It would appear that Scots, rather than being settled into set political blocks, were content to switch between SNP and Labour, to use one to give fair warning to the other. One possible explanation could be that most Scots (like many people in the UK and internationally) believed that there were certain aspects of society - education, health, social housing - that should be protected from the vagaries of the markets and the interference of private corporations. To many Scots this simply seemed common sense.
Though it had become much debased over the decades, Labour had a long heritage that chimed with these values. In the early years of the Scottish parliament the Labour and LibDem coalition reflected these values. When those values came under threat by the UK Labour government, the SNP was given a chance. The SNP in government not only protected but built on the original socially progressive legislation of the Labour and LibDems.
Scotland’s SNP government looked and acted very different from the austerity dominated legislatures of the UK and Ireland: scrapping student charges, freezing the council tax, creating new apprenticeships, extending free school meals, building council houses and affordable houses, ending the right to buy council houses, and promoting renewable energy – by 2014 an incredible 40 per cent of Scotland’s energy was from renewable sources. All which was achieved with a balanced budget within the restrictions of the devolved parliament.
Yet, there were glints of an anti-social justice streak in the SNP notably the centralisation (and increased arming) of Scotland’s police, treating sectarianism as a class issue – rather than as anti-Irish racism institutionalised in the politics and policing Scotland – and of course the desire to lower corporation tax. When challenged on these matters, SNP ministers would often display an irksome arrogance.
Nonetheless, both SNP and Labour provided Scottish voters with political options that spoke the language of a socially just society and provided proof of having legislated to create such a society. If Labour was a party that had betrayed its social justice heritage , it retained for many voters the potential of rediscovering its roots. Conversely, while the SNP was seen to have partly fulfilled its own social justice heritage, the potential remained that this could be compromised.
For many voters the ballot box was not then a place then to choose between unionism and nationalism; it was an instrument to promote a socially inclusive society by using either party to warn the other of the electoral consequences of failing to stand up for a just society in Scotland.
The SNP understood this. Labour, blinded by a vision of itself as the majority party in Scotland, did not. Nor did Labour understand that there were other performers on Scotland’s political stage. While Labour and the SNP performed up front in the shiny lights, those other actors (as well as the prop hands, make up staff, cleaners, set designers, lighting engineers and a fair chunk of the audience) were already weighing up the advantages of exiting stage left.
Stay tuned for more in this series
All these blogs can be read from beginning at: Social Justice & Scottish Independence
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