Here's my latest column for the Caledonian Mercury - as the Holyrood election day gets closer, I got a new take on things from a business visit to Catalonia. How do we build an effective bridge between the SNP and the Scottish Greens, such that both drive Scotland towards sustainable flourishing? Might a new focus on urban development help? All comments welcome.
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Coming back from a few days doing media business in Barcelona to election-fever Glasgow sets up some interesting resonances in the mind. In some ways, the Catalan capital feels like Scotland about, say, five years ahead.
My conference was a cutting-edge, London-originated event about social media and journalism, with a cast list including everyone from WikiLeakers to Al Jazeera, the Guardian to Amnesty, held in a futuristic media-arts building.
Yep, as cosmopolitan as it gets – a feeling reinforced as the credit-card-ready taxis barrel you through Barça’s amazing 19th century urban grid, which in any case looks like a mash-up of the best bits of Glasgow and Edinburgh’s tenements and monuments.
But this wasn’t just a stylish, switched-on Anywhere, but a particular Somewhere. In order for the conference to function at all, we had to wear our trilingual headsets (Catalan, Castilian and English) to understand each other. The local newspeople attending were as feisty and crusty as any of the senior hacks might be from our own Scottish national newspapers. And on the way there, I’d been listening to a podcast by the illustrious former mayor of Barcelona Joan Clos, whose vision of the city’s sustainable development has led him to a senior UN position on the future of world cities.
Of course, like Scotland (but for a lot longer), Catalonia has had a constitutional argument running that wants more national powers – macro-level tools to help realise the historic modernisme and progressive culture that has marked Catalan identity for the last century. As I returned into the mild blitz of the SNP’s manifesto launch – with its flurry of actors, writers, movie-makers and general imagineers in support, and a prospectus which (whether you believe all its details or not) is undoubtedly a serious and comprehensive programme for government – the Catalonian parallels seemed obvious.
Well, let’s see. Certainly a re-election of the SNP government would signify that left-of-centre civic nationalism has become the natural political expression of mainstream Scotland. Perhaps what’s being instituted here is that decades-long hegemony of progressive nationalist government that so characterises Catalonian politics.
But it’s fascinating to note where things are in Catalonia. A recent movement of local, city and town elections – organised from the grassroots and without constitutional “legitimacy” – has culminated in a Barcelona city vote where nine out of ten participants supported independence. Are bottom-up and community passions for independence equally as vibrant in Scotland, even if Salmond’s political charisma is given another “kick of the ball”?
In Catalonia, the decision of the Spanish constitutional court to actually pull back some powers from their parliament led to clear majorities in independence polls (with Barcelona FC’s head rallying to the cause; surely that’s a better use of a big-city football director’s energies than… well, you know).
Will some similarly ham-fisted move by the UK coalition government trigger a similar town-by-town referendum culture here? If the Salmondistas have ambitions beyond seeming like the natural managers of a devolved or federal Scotland, an “independence movement” is something they should be thinking about fomenting and supporting, when/if they return to their ministerial desks.
Yet this again indicates a deficit in the strategic and policy culture around the SNP which many commentators (such as Gerry Hassan and, more acerbically, Tom Gallagher) have pointed out. One pays due respect to the Scottish Independence Convention, pulled together by the ex-Herald columnist Murray Ritchie. The SIC has doughtily tried to create a space in which those who support a nation-state for Scotland, from a range of ideological positions, can find a way to discuss tactics towards that end (their election blog is a fine example of this).
But some of us would like to see a platform or process that allows a fully mature independence policy debate to take place – one in which the full powers of a small European nation-state are presumed, but where we can have vigorous discussions about the challenges that sovereignty faces.
For me, as I’ve written here and elsewhere, the most vital relationship would be between the SNP and the Greens. (I’d love to think that there were a few non-tribal social democrats in the Labour party who could join in, but that might be asking too much.) In the same way as the socialist parties (pre-Tommy Sheridan’s meltdown) were able to nudge previous Holyrood administrations towards social justice, I’d like to see a strong Green contingent keep an SNP-led administration focused on the low-carbon agenda.
But I think there needs to be some moderation and wisdom on both sides, if such a relationship was to be fruitful and effective. On the SNP side, they should realise that the mix of social justice, localism and a genuinely planetary perspective on our daily lives represented by Green politics could be one of the strong elements of an “independence movement”. We need a real push towards empowered communities – where people are supported to “co-create” their services, living conditions and energy. This autonomy will generate a natural ambition for wider social – in the Scottish context, constitutional – change.
Sure, football heads, transport tycoons and engineering buccaneers can get on Salmond’s sustainable bus (deliberate pun) towards a planet-friendly economy – but the “reindustrialisation” of Scotland must not be misinterpreted as the “back-to-consumerism” of Scotland. We have to begin, however gently and convivially, a discussion about a change in the Scottish lifestyle that plays its part in a low-carbon society. A firm foot in the European and global discussions about green futures should arise from a good relationship with a Green cohort in Holyrood.
But on the Green party side, I think there has to be some give-and-take too – and coming back from the hustle and brio of Barcelona makes it clear what that should be. Much of the Green’s policy agenda on energy generation and conservation, on examining how we are taxed locally and environmentally, on support for small enterprise and free education, are only slightly to the left of the SNP.
But there’s also a puzzling modesty about their support for independence – where a stronger and clearer commitment would increase their credibility on how macro-policy could serve their ideals, surely largely frustrated under a devolution settlement.
Also, strangely for such an idealistic party, there is too much fist-waving and opposition, and very little joy and aspiration – no real flavour of the different “quality of life” that a transition to an ecologically oriented society might bring (their arts, culture and sports policy, for example, is gestural at best).
My favourite Green gurus (such as Tim Jackson, Juliet Schor and Kate Soper) try to use positive terms like “plenitude” and “prosperity”, “hedonism” and “flourishing”, to invoke the richness of the change towards post-consumerist living.
Very little of that uplifting language here – and not enough of the recent recognition among environmental thinkers that city and urban life, in all its mess, scale and diverse excitement, is actually one clear path to low-carbon living. Greens might need to accept that the price to pay for the SNP’s no-nukes and pro-renewables policies, its high-level commitment to green economics, and its willingness to push for collective lifestyle changes, is one more bridge over the Forth.
But it’s a “bridge” in a wider, deeper sense. It expresses a historic commitment to personal mobility, and “shovel-ready” infrastructure jobs, that plays well to a Scottish electorate. We’re clearly enjoying our narratives of “positive” change for the country. The problem with much Scottish Green rhetoric (particularly evident in Patrick Harvie’s often censorious and lecturing performances in public debates) is that it places them outside the feel-good festival.
Of course, the dice might fall completely differently in the next two weeks or so, and all this will be moot. But sometimes you have to columnise as if you were living in the early days of a better nation...