This is the first of two pre-General-Election essays I wrote for The National - this one on April 29th, 2015 - which prepared the way for my new culture-and-society column in its pages. Second one is here. Somewhat poignant: they anticipate a "progressive majority" at Westminster... which the UK Labour Party couldn't ultimately deliver.
The balance of power ... how we can create a more progressive society
IT could have gone disastrously wrong. But it ended up ridiculously appropriate.
Over the weekend, surrounded by paparazzi, Nicola Sturgeon took to a gymnastic high-bar in a photo-op with kids. Not only did the FM not fall off, but she looked like she was very much enjoying her careful progress along a narrow beam of solid possibility.
Metaphor City, as the satirists used to say about William MacIlvanney’s voice-overs. There’s no doubt that the Westminster advance of the YeSNP – that is, the SNP swollen with the participants, energies and agendas of the Yes movement – will be a balancing act between various forces, requiring focus, skill and not a little bravery.
But what happens when you get to the end of the beam? Do you swivel round, and just stay on? Or do you try to execute an elegant, intricate exit manoeuvre, one which – if you don’t get it right – could leave you flat on your arse, bruised, broken and maybe crocked for life?
Ok, enough hack symbolism. But I’m sure I’m not the only Yesser who keeps asking themselves, ever so quietly: what are we supposed to do with this balance of power in the palace of Westminster, if it realises itself fully?
Of course, take the settled centre-left agenda of Scots society to the heart of the British state. Yes, defend Scotland’s interest – not just by trying to secure more powers, but by also playing an active part in pushing UK legislation away from the neo-liberal norms of the past 30 years.
The more spluttery London commentators must try a bit harder, and see the recent continuities here. An independent Scotland as a “progressive beacon” for the rest of the island didn’t happen.
But a YeSNP-represented Scotland as a “progressive intervention” in Westminster is only a shift of focus, not of essence, for the Yes movement.
So what to progress, while on our tour of duty? My sense is that, however currently well-matched the manifestos of the SNP and UK Labour are, the tendency will be for the Westminster Nats to keep pitching to the left of wherever the minority Labour government is.
There are many reasons to do this – but there’s one that none of our UK-oriented centre-left pals should be mistaken about. Demonstrating reason, fairness, competence and principle in a brightly-lit political theatre is what convinced many Scots both to vote in two SNP governments in Holyrood, and to nearly break-up the British state via the multi-party Yes movement.
THE long game of the Scots Bloc at Westminster is to build confidence among No voters in Scotland that their country has the capacities and potential to thrive as a nation-state.
It might end up quite a longer game than many of us expect. But what better display of virtue than to be glowing, bright-eyed Nordic social democrats, in the cynical, crepuscular gloom of the great Palace by the Thames?
As Sturgeon keeps saying, there’s no point in not being straight about this. Yet even from the perspective of indy realpolitik, a period in which strong-minded Scots MPs engage in some major reforms of the political, social and economic fabric of the British State is in a Yesser’s direct interest.
The one that may seem, on the surface, most perverse is for the Scots Bloc (and allies) to vigorously support calls for UK-wide electoral reform. Very early in the process, the YeSNP has to walk its talk here. Yes, you play the system as it lays before you.
But how can it be remotely just when the SNP may well get the same number of votes as the Greens, and less than Ukip nationally, yet benefit so prodigiously in terms of Westminster parliamentary seats compared to both those parties?
If they wish to maintain their increase in credibility and attractiveness to the UK audience (and No voters at home), I’d recommend that the SNP either promotes, or responds to calls for electoral reform, very early in the next session.
The party manifesto makes that a clear possibility – and not only that, but expresses a preference for single-transferable votes as the preferable system.
But to lead on it will have a very important long-term impact. It’s a marker laid down, to be called in when we appeal to a future UK electorate or state, asking them to respect the wishes of the Scottish people for full independence.
WE nearly won the first indy ref by being impeccable, constitutional democrats. If our legacy to the UK is to help bring about a lasting improvement in their own democratic culture, then that augurs well for future relations between two sophisticated, progressive countries.
A New England is the best context by which we get to an Independent Scotland, by the procedural and legitimate manner which marked our first attempt.
What are the “material conditions”, in Sturgeon’s words, which could even prompt another indy ref? Some imagine that the urge for independence will be dissolved in a progressive mush in Westminster.
But I think the very definition of indy – that is, a full-empowered nation-state dealing with the wider world on its own terms – will receive a very early test in this Westminster parliament.
What if, despite all the progressive entreaties from the SNP, Labour turns to the Tories to push through a vote on the recommissioning of Trident? In my view, far too many commentators are shrugging their shoulders here.
On the contrary, if it happens this will be a spectacle that lays a seed in the minds of a potential majority for independence. A growing realisation that, without stepping up to the demands of full sovereignty, the most egregious, wasteful and endangering expenditures can happen – no matter how thumping the Scots presence in the Westminster system.
So if the Unionists wish to both modernise and preserve their realm, I would suggest they think seriously about the non-renewal of Trident. Meanwhile, Nicola will be on the beam, carefully preparing herself for a full-points dismount. I wouldn’t bet against her.