Gerry Hassan says last week’s watershed election north of the border is a sign of a deep, long-term transformation underway in his country’s political culture
It has been a very Scottish revolution. Peaceful, considered, calm, the mood almost indiscernible. And yet something profound and long lasting has changed.
To the sages and cynics who said this was a ‘boring’ or ‘dire’ election, Scotland has spoken. This is a dramatic shift, a watershed and re-aligning election, and one which is the product of immediate and long-term factors.
We have witnessed our ‘Were you up for Portillo?’ moments, although Andy Kerr and Des McNulty hardly cut it in class or importance. We have seen the West of Scotland Labour heartlands where the SNP for years could never win, except in the odd historic by-election, utterly changed possibly for good.
This is about more than one election result. This is about a deep, long-term transformation of Scotland which has been occurring for decades. From the age of Labour identification, and seeing the world in terms of workplace politics and class. Away from the visceral anti-Nationalist politics which shaped so much of urban Scotland for so long. And towards a new era of SNP support, identity politics and sense of national purpose.
The SNP’s political nous and strategy has been proven. The long haul safety first approach of Alex Salmond and his mixture of populism, opportunism and gradualism vindicated. This morning the entire Nationalist camp are Salmond revisionists; fundamentalism carries no traction anymore.
This is the greatest moment in the party’s history, one which tops everything else which has come before it: Motherwell, Hamilton, Govan 73 and 88, and 2007. And vindicated that long journey.
Paradoxically, Scottish Labour, the party of home rule and the one which delivered devolution has never worked out what is the point and purpose of all this constitutional change. Instead, it has focussed on making devolution seem to be about as little change and imagination as possible.
On the other hand the SNP have found a convincing account of what devolution and the Scottish Parliament is about, its purpose and story beyond electing another layer of politicians. That is about the expression of confidence, belief in ourselves and a sense of our collective purpose and potential as a nation.
This change became explicit when Alex Salmond came back as leader the second time around in 2004, and changed his own and the SNP’s mindset in the run into the 2007 elections. The new, positive, upbeat SNP in the last contest changed everything, and in so doing completely flummoxed and confused Labour, used as they were to their nasty, chippy ‘Nats’.
It has all happened again. At first the SNP lost their new found raison d’etre at the time of the global crash, only to refind it earlier this year as the polls closed and they realised the election was open. Rather bizarrely, second time around Labour were equally caught off guard by the new found spirit and sense of hope in the SNP campaign, which tells us a lot about Labour prejudice, bunkerdom and their detestation of Scottish Nationalism.
This is, if I can use the analogy, the modern SNP’s 1997 ‘New Labour’ moment, the point where Alex Salmond and his colleagues capture and redefine the national mood. And from this moment onwards things will begin to get a little bit harder and more difficult.
Politics cannot be about catch-all parties forever. Politics is fundamentally about making hard choices, about saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and defining yourself by who you choose your allies and enemies to be.
The nature of the public spending constraints will put pressure on this huge nationwide Nationalist coalition of hope. This will challenge the expectations and tensions among different groups of voters who have hardly been educated by any of the parties of the winter of cuts heading our way.
There is, though with Alex Salmond’s leadership and the statecraft and elan of the SNP Government and election campaign, a real opportunity even in stormy waters. That is to lead, invoke and involve the genuine, real hunger out there in Scotland for change, leadership and a different Scotland.
This will require adeptness, fleet of foot and navigating the power brokers of institutional vested interest Scotland, holed up across large swathes of our public services, quangos and local government. Lets call time on the Labour entitlement culture once and for all.
Then there is the SNP’s ultimate mission, its purpose in life and vision for Scotland. This is sometimes inaccurately described as ‘independence’, but it is something more real and far-reaching than that. The SNP’s soul, its sense of utopia, is the idea of Scottish statehood, the reaffirmation of a Scottish sense of the public realm, space, institutions and nationhood.
That notion of statehood is a much more radical, far-reaching and dynamic concept than just talking about when the date of the independence referendum is; it does not preclude eventual independence, but shows that the SNP in its membership and heart is relaxed about the length of the journey.
This requires that we as a nation imagine and create an independence of mind and action that rises to the historic occasion before us. Which puts away our partisanship and which tribe we are from, and says that what unites and holds us together as Scots is more important as citizens and human beings than what divides us.
This entails finally junking the grievance, cynicism ‘chip on the shoulder’ culture which has harmed and disfigured so much of Scotland, and which Scottish Labour has become a leading embodiment of, and the Nationalists before them.
All of this involves opening a new chapter in the history of Scotland and closing an old one. Goodbye to Labour authoritarianism, telling us what we cannae dae, and acting like a mean minded parkie out of a DC Thompson comic. Farewell to the turf war kings and queens who think they have the right to be self-appointed gatekeepers and guardians of how they interpret the public life of Scotland. Good riddance to caution, conservatism and time-serving do nothing ways; and bon voyage to the jargon invested, official claptrap of so much of public Scotland.
We have a once in a lifetime story to create the Scotland we know we are capable of. To reconnect the dangerous degree of disengagement which sees Glasgow turnouts of one-third of voters, and which champions the voices and interests of forgotten Scotland, the people who have not counted for decades in our political and economic system.
This is the time for a national movement for change led by Alex Salmond’s Nationalists, but including radical, genuine people in Scottish Labour, Tories, Lib Dems, Greens and of no party. Our small, beautiful country has given so much to the world, told so many wonderful and captivating stories, and created many imaginative ideas and inventions; but maybe, just maybe, the next chapter in our nation’s rich history will be our most exciting! Maybe Scotland can truly create its own future!