4 August 2015

"Left, left, left, left, left..."

A canny friend of mine recently asked me a question which has got me thinking. "Why is it," he wondered, "that Scotland has so many newspaper columnists who are not left wing, but who incessantly slag off the SNP for not really being left wing?"

He's right. The logic is mad. Such a critique would make perfect sense from the hard left. The Scottish National Party are social democrats. They maintain that a compromise with market forces is possible, but contend that political power should be leveraged to intervene and mitigate the perverse consequences of those markets. For the impatient democratic socialist, this will seem like a milquetoast regimen. Feeble, deluded about the evils of capitalism, delusional about the ability of the state to effectively intervene within a capitalist economic model, marginalising and misdirecting the political agency of confrontational class politics. These are old ideological battles. Agree or disagree with the arguments - the SNP is clearly open to such a left-facing critique. 

But to hear it articulated again and again from centrists, the soft centre-left, the right and the centre-right, seems barking. "Why won't you embrace a policy platform which is further away from my own political preferences, so I can disapprove of you and condemn you properly as an odious Corbynite sect?" "Why don't you adopt policy solutions of which I and 'middle Scotland' would disapprove?"

This strange tendency was perfectly embodied by Brian Monteith's column in the Scotsman yesterday. Monteith, a former Tory MSP, is not left wing. He presumably supports Osborne's spending cuts. Presumably, he welcomes the idea of a smaller state, cutting public services, and all the cognate consequences of these policy choices. While the question of resources is - to a limited extent - separable from the performance of our public services, it is pretty rich to hear a Tory sympathiser bitch about the logical consequences of cross-departmental spending cuts. Doing more with less is the public policy wisdom of the numpty. You almost always tend to do less with less. Quod erat demonstrandum. 

The Herald's David Torrance - whose critical sensibilities and muleish, contrary attitude I broadly approve of - has a fine line in these kind of articles. Although often dismissed as a Tory - David understands himself as a creature of the centre left. Let's take him at his word. But even embracing his own self-diagnosis -- why does it seem to niggle him so much to find the SNP more closely aligned with his own declared preferences, than the far-left perspective which would make many of his criticisms intelligible? I'm bemused.

A personal example illustrates the strangeness of right-wingers' and centrists' bashing of the SNP from the left. As regular readers of the blog will know, I am significantly more preoccupied by questions of individual freedom and a liberal politics than most Scottish Nationalists, and certainly than the Scottish government. I don't agree with the SNP's more authoritarian justice policies. I find the party's commitment to fundamental rights to be a bit shakier than it ought to be -- though I have been hearted by recent rhetoric in defence of the Human Rights Act.  But it would be perverse to slag off these promising developments which draw the party hierarchy closer to my own convictions, by sneering that the SNP's occasional flashes of illiberal communitarianism are half-baked and less than thoroughgoing. "Call that tyranny? This is tyranny."  Though this is precisely the logic of the party's critics on the centre-right and left. 

Is it simply rankling at perceived hypocrisy? "You talk a good game, but, my Nationalist friend, you are a toom tabard." Perhaps. But the breadth and depth of this critique seems to me to go further than simply reflecting an intolerance for sleekit political rhetoric which successfully gestures left and governs centre-left. This theme seems to have become a niggling preoccupation, returned to again and again, in column after column. I didn't have a decent or convincing answer for my friend. It perplexes.


  1. You have raised an interesting point here. You are right in saying that such an approach would be more plausible were it to come from a commentator to the left of the SNP's 'centre of (political) gravity'.
    I should like to offer two thoughts for consideration. Firstly, the target audience is voters whom the commentators perceive as being to the left of the SNP, such as the huge number of disenchanted former Labour voters. The commentators are attempting to flatter their target by implying they want a more red-blooded and 'principled' socialism than the 'progressive' policies which the SNP espoused, simply to win their votes. Their is also an implication that the SNP is simply posturing. So, if such an approach can cause some voters to drift away from the SNP, the opposition to the Tories becomes divided and more easily ruled.
    The second point relates to the anti austerity critique which the SNP and others within the pro independence groups have been advocating and developing. Such a critique is also being espoused by groups across Europe. It is a potent attack on the neoliberal capitalist hegemony which the mainstream parties of Europe support, but with little that is significantly different between them. They have become the handmaidens of globalised finance. The widespread public disenchantment with politicians and shrinking participation in elections suits those who are busily redistributing power and wealth to themselves. However, as the referendum showed, people ARE interested in real political issues, they engage in debate and they vote. And, even when they come close, as YES did, they do not slink away, but continue to debate and to join parties like the SNP and the Greens. So, the weasel words, well-exemplified by Mr David Torrance, are designed to obfuscate, smear and ultimately, disaffect those who are undergoing a political awakening.

  2. It wasn't meant to be this way. SNP was supposed to collapse and Scottish politics would reset itself back to normal. Normal being Scotland voting labour, giving yards of column inches from the likes of Hassan, Deerin, Torrance and Massie, etc etc for the Scots to query, deride or just nod knowingly. It didn't happen and the old certainties got thrown out along with Scottish labour. In fact its true to say that British politics got a back handed slap from the Scottish electorate that day.

    For Torrance - his stated conviction that Scotland is no different from the UK in its leanings, had his favored shibboleth blasted out of the water. For Massie - he always bemoaned his parties unpopularity and Scotland's determination to vote labour no matter what...only to see that blasted apart as well. For the likes of Cochran, he is beginning to fear that the Union wasn't so much 'saved' as it got a stay of execution.

    Whats left? The bizarre image of these men desperately trying to convince folk who stopped listening a wee while back, that the SNP are not really left wing. Why are these men standing up for the left - Cynical old me suspects that they are simply engaging laying the ground for Corbyn - who they hope can slay the SNP beast who so badly mauled the their parties in May. In much the same way as they did for Murphy, they are becoming propagandists for UK labour - in the hope of resetting Scottish politics to a playing field they are familiar with.

    The realist in me, suspects they are doing this, because there are few remaining in Scottish labour capable of defending the UK left wing for Scotland.

  3. It's clearly an attempt to delegitimise the SNP, to imply that their voters are defrauded or deluded, voting for a party that doesn't truly represent their interests. They know they're not going to get left-wing voters to vote Conservative - but they might be able to disillusion left-wing voters enough so they don't vote for the single strongest left-wing party in the UK. It's the only thing right-wing commentators can say which left-wing voters might actually listen to - which is why it's the drum they'll keep banging until we're independent.

  4. I'd capitalise it, personally. Eg. "Upon introducing the NEP, Lenin knew that he'd betrayed the Left. He felt as worthless as a Scottish nationalist."

  5. I think there is an answer to your friend’s question but it’s not a pleasing one.

    Alex Massie pointed out just the other day in The Times that Kenny Macaskill can get away with admitting that the SNP is willing to do the wrong thing, eg on voting rights of prisoners, for the ‘right reasons’, ie it helps the greater cause, that of independence.

    As Massie says, this is an astounding admission. It is rumoured that politicians may lie on occasion, but admitting to it with no fear of comeback is decidedly uncommon anywhere.

    Andy Wightman's latest blog deals with the failure of the SNP govt to grasp the thistle of foreign land ownership. As Andy says, even Private Eye - which keeps a constant wary eye on the SNP - praised Sturgeon for her apparent enthusiasm for reform -


    'Last month, Private Eye revealed that over 750,000 acres of land in Scotland – an area larger than Ayrshire – was held in tax havens. It applauded Nicola Sturgeon for taking a lead in tackling the problem. Their enthusiasm was premature.

    Prime Minister David Cameron has announced plans to publish details of offshore corporate ownership in the English and Welsh Land Registry and pressure from NGOs like Transparency International to clamp down on the use of offshore shell companies is proving effective in westminster. The Scottish Government, however, now finds itself being outflanked by the Tories in efforts to crack down on secrecy and tax evasion. The Scottish Parliament has an important role in scrutinising exactly why this has happened.

    Other parts of the Bill are broadly welcome though important matters remain to be debated further as the Bill proceeds through Parliament.'

    To return to your friend's query, it seems to me that the answer lies in a mixture of embarrassment and disappointment felt in the media at how the Scottish polity is working out. As Tricia Marwick pointed out a wee while back in Holyrood magazine, the Holyrood committee system is not what it was hoped it would be.

    Neither - the exceptions are few - are our politicians across the board. I like Kezia Dugdale. Still my preferred Labour leader but watching her burble about saving Gregg’s macaroni pies was mortifying - surely it is time the shamprole shtick passed into history?

    It is always nice to imagine that some of your foes are admirable - Afrika Corps Syndrome - but desert foxes seem in short supply at Holyrood.

  6. You got there at the end Andrew. It's the hypocrisy issue. The SNP holds itself out to be a party of the left. It wins votes on that basis. Yet it has reduced spending on health and education relative to England during its period in government (see John McDermott's excellent article in Prospect a couple of months ago). You also point out the party's well established authoritarian leanings (see everything done by Kenny MacAskill whilst in office). I think that the centrist/centre right commentators (I assume you are referring to the likes of Massie, Monteith, McDermott, Deerin, Martin, Wilson etc.) are highlighting the issue because the rhetoric v reality contrast is so glaring but yet goes unnoticed by most voters. So many people assume that the SNP are now almost as left wing as the Labour Party of Tony Benn (see Miss Black's recent speech in the Commons), but anyone who looks honestly at the party's record in government must surely concede that this is nonsense. More than anything else, the recent articles by the centrist / centre right commentators are an exercise in public education. By constantly highlighting the SNP's dishonesty, it is hoped that it will seep into the public consciousness.

    1. "I think that the centrist/centre right commentators (I assume you are referring to the likes of Massie, Monteith, McDermott, Deerin, Martin, Wilson etc.) are highlighting the issue because the rhetoric v reality contrast is so glaring but yet goes unnoticed by most voters."

      "Recent"? These commentators represent the vast majority of Scotland's media, and have done for decades, since before Holyrood was even established, and they've harped on the SNP for as long as I can remember. Scottish newspaper sales continue to plummet, despite all your warnings. At what point do you stop blaming the voters for not listening, and start looking at why your message doesn't seem to be getting through to the voters?

      The SNP has been in government for two parliamentary terms now, and have had almost the entirety of the UK media against them - especially the Labour-friendly Scottish press and media. Yet their popularity has actually *risen*, despite this apparent phalanx of scrutiny and highlighting of their supposed "dishonesty."

      New Labour spent the last eight years doing nothing but attacking the SNP, pointing and shrieking at the speck in the SNP's eyes oblivious to the redwoods in their own. They saw their vote share go *down* from 29.16% in 2007 to 26.31% in 2011, and look to be lucky to break 20% next year if current trends continue.

      Taking individual policies and statistics out of context like health spending and specific laws (surprised you didn't bring up Corporation Tax) while studiously ignoring policies like free education, free elderly care, free prescriptions, bedroom tax mitigation and so forth is typical of the pathetic straw arguments Worrier cites in the article. It's so very People's Front of Judea, and it's so very tiresome.

    2. Ms Black has of course has been greeted in the media as some sort of working-class angel with a flaming torch. Even Paxman - who should know better, with a Dalmarnock great-granny - seemed to regard her as such. In reality, of course, her parents are maths teachers and she lives in a comfortable middle-class area. The poet Tom Leonard calls this sort of fantasy 'bunnet hustling’.

      The speech was an excellent rhetorical exercise yet full of hot air. Ms Black claims to be a Bennite. Yet of course Tony Benn (that most English of aristocrats) feared both nationalism and the EU. Ms Black’s claim that the SNP is picking up the Bennite mantle was one of the most ridiculous things ever said at Westminster. Yet the media north and south of the border are in ecstasies over her, praising her as if she were Caratacus addressing an admiring Senate. Amazing.

    3. It is curious that she claims to be a Bennite, considering that Benn was opposed to the very existence of the Scottish parliament.

    4. Taranaich, well said. The SNP might be 'centre' left in the eyes of some, but they are the only party in this dysfunctional and unfair union, who have even spoken about renecting austerity. They have cushioned the blows to the poor from westmonster as much as possible and as much as they are allowed, yes allowed to do. This is still only a sticking plaster and without more powers things will get a whole lot worse in the not too distant future. Things are bad, but in parts of England they are really dire due to bedroom tax, removal of council tax benefit etc, and of course very high unemployment, which is hidden from the books by way of sanctions, and forced labour and of course sending people on 'courses' for 2 yrs, punishment for having to rely on their £70 a week handout, while paying part of their council tax out of it, and if you can't well you can to prison for debt in England, not so in Scotland.

      I see the SNP as the only remotely left wing party in even the wider sense of Europe, it's an uphill battle for sure. Not all of what they do I agree with, but they can be held to account at least, unlike westmonsters regime, who are absolutely corrupt to the core, with a compliant electorate, automatons...

    5. The hypocrisy element is the lightning rod which seems to coalesce the opinions of many of these commentators and I think that Taranaich is correct when he points out that many of the SNPs more left-wing policies are ignored when the arguments against them are being constructed. However, the reason the criticisms persist is twofold: Firstly, because they are largely correct. Free education for example is a policy that may be considered progressive, but is implemented in a manner that suggests that being progressive is not the priority. Rather that the priority is to gain and keep votes. Secondly, there is a lack of an effective opposition to the SNP as a party that holds a majority at Holyrood. The commentators cannot understand why the electorate do not see the dissonance between the SNPs rhetoric and their actions. But this is not the fault of the SNP, it is the fault of a weak opposition and a distinct lack of accountability within the Holyrood system (sorry Hetty but Holyrood is far less accountable than Westminster with its second chamber). To put it another way - under the political system which most of them grew up in it would be very hard for the SNP to behave as they do without the opposition making political capital from their actions, or for the upper chamber to return their legislation for revision. But where the opposition is outclassed and the committee system apparently ineffective none of the above occur, hence they keep banging on in the hope that someone will pay attention.

  7. I'm with the Rev Stu and Craig Murray on the issue. We are being set up for the introduction of the income tax replacing some of Barnett. Once the Scottish govt can, theoretically, increase its income then these criticisms of 'why don't you do this left thing?' will begin to bite. As more cuts come down the pipeline, as more people's lifelines are slashed the Scottish govt will be told to 'raise taxes' to cover the shortfall.

    That is of course how the income tax powers are designed to work, they are a trap. Well these attacks from the left by right wing colonists are to set the trap. Every column ratchets the spring that bit more, all the better to spring and break the SNP's neck. Or so the logic goes.

    1. Holyrood has always been able to vary the rate of income tax. Back in 1999, the SNP campaigned on the slogan "A Penny For Scotland," promising to raise income tax and spend the proceeds on health and education. They lost that election, the pledge was dropped, and ever since the SNP have kept very, very quiet about Holyrood's existing powers over tax.

    2. There does come a point, however, if you believe in a higher tax, higher welfare economy when you have to bite the bullet. This may be a trap in one sense - trying to pin the SNP with responsibility for choices which will inevitably alienate some parts of Scottish opinion. That is clearly part of the thinking behind it. But if Osborne is cutting taxes - even to maintain the current level of tax-take will require some kinds of hike. That is politics and mathematics. Gordon Brown's fate remains a salutary example of what happens when you try to avoid publicly defending the case for your social democratic reforms. Tax credits, swept away, without a murmur.

  8. Interesting question. A couple of points no one has picked up on yet:

    As you point out, the SNP is good at talking left but governing centre-left. Its actual policies are cautious, moderate, and only a little to the left of Labour under Ed Milliband. During the general election campaign, Labour complained the SNP manifesto was nearly identical to its own.

    That is true but beside the point. The SNP is trading not on dry policy detail but on identity, solidarity, and optimism. Miliband-era Labour was incapable of making that kind of convincing emotional appeal.

    However, Labour and Labour-inclined commentators don't see it that way. To them, the SNP has taken over "their" natural heartlands using their own policies. Much anger and confusion ensues. What the SNP have done to Scottish Labour is very much like what Labour did to the Tories in the late 1990s.

    The SNP's ambition for independence raises the stakes. The Hague-era Tories were confused, bitter, and disgruntled, but could trust that eventually, the wheel would turn and their party would be back on top.

    For the SNP, popularity is a means to the end of independence. If they ever succeed in that aim, there will be no going back; the results will be permanent. So unionist commentators (of whatever political stripe) are particularly enraged by any appearance of hypocrisy on the part of the SNP. Agree with them or not, I think it's understandable where they're coming from.

  9. I think it's just the same thing as that old meme of someone sitting at a computer being asked:
    "Are you coming to bed?"
    "I can't. This is important."
    "Someone is WRONG on the internet."

    These commentators know that the SNP aren't left wing - after all, they are very, very clever clever-clogses, and they understand politics the bestest (which is why they're able to rise above the kind of childish notions inherent in left-wing politics, and instead back proper grown-up political ideas, like keeping all your money instead of helping to fund public services). So when they see people being wrong, they simply must correct them.

    And by golly, those bloody SNP voters just won't take a telling, will they? So the Enlightened Ones must keep telling us how wrong we are until we finally admit it, because nothing is more annoying than seeing someone being wrong.

    I'm just glad we have websites like Medium, providing space for such people to publish their views, because there simply isn't enough room in the papers as it is for these centre-right commentators to get all their centre-right "why you are all wrong about the SNP and I'm right" (no pun intended) articles into the public sphere. Can anyone imagine a world where even a week went by without at least one such article being published by each of them? It doesn't bear thinking about.

  10. It's easy for SNP to be soft left,when UK gov is hard right

    I think after Scottish Elections 2016,fracking will be the decisive issue,SNP will commit to it for jobs employment and a larger Green Party will strongly oppose.

  11. All successful political parties need a robust streak of hypocrisy. The SNP have lots of success, and lots of hypocrisy. Supporters of other parties that may be less brazen, but are definitely less successful, are jealous.

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