THE Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, is a typical member of Boris Johnston’s Cabinet, a man of much bluster and no ideas. Little enough of the manifesto on which they and their colleagues fought and won the General Election of 2019 has survived the events since. Those events could not have been forecast, but even so the level of cluelessness and contradiction that greets them has been truly remarkable.
Scotland anyway figures little in their calculations, of course. Yet one part of political wisdom is to think about problems that have not yet entered into public consciousness, and to have answers ready for the day when they do.
This, however, is not Boris’s style. He would rather surprise everybody, including himself. The sole non-surprise in his Government’s programme is letting Alister deploy a single answer in one word (no) to every bright idea on Scotland. This seems to be the master plan for the run-up to the election for Holyrood next May.
Committed SNP voters are unlikely to be affected by this. But I wonder if it does not stake out a new and true battleground for Scottish politics, for the votes of those who see their real choice as lying between nationalism and conservatism.
We do not hear much from or about such people in public debates. The official SNP line is in effect that they are worthy only of contempt if, faced with the choice of two nationhoods, they choose the wrong one. And there is nothing in between.
But there should be more to it than that. I was one of these people myself at an earlier stage, when I look back to the time before the 17 years during which I have never voted anything but SNP. And there must be many like me.
During that period, constituencies outside central Scotland, on either side of the industrial belt across the middle of the country, have changed hands several times. They were part of the gradual build-up of SNP majorities at Holyrood to 2017,
and in the setbacks since have headed the retreats.
The shifts have in part followed wider developments in British politics: coalition under David Cameron and Nick Clegg; government of Theresa May; Brexit referendum; rise of Boris Johnson. But they also had a Scottish momentum of their own, as the SNP moved to the left.
Alex Salmond was a man of the left, yet also one with a thorough understanding of the capitalist system and how it can be turned to serve Scotland’s interests, as happens in any sensible country.
Nicola Sturgeon, on the other hand, has no such understanding. This is why she says things like “I think unregulated capitalism is a force for bad and I think we need much more regulation, and I am not opposed to more state ownership where that is appropriate.”
In fact what she wants is near-as-damn-it socialism. The fact there is not a single successful socialist country in the whole world does not seem to damp this desire.
The only concession Nicola makes to the realities of political and economic history is that she does not talk about socialism as such but rather, on most occasions, about equality. This may be because socialism is not in fact as popular in Scotland as we often assume. It may be more popular in Scotland than in England but that is not saying much.
More striking is how socialism has never won an absolute majority in a Scottish election, as Unionism has. Scotland consists of more than its industrial centres, and its parties represent more than manual workers. National majorities can be sought in other places too. Look at the present electoral situation, galvanised by the fact there has been a sudden shift in the opinion polls after five years of immobility. During that time, Yes votes have hovered between 45-50%, yet never pushed decisively through the upper limit. Today the question is whether they can breach 60 per cent%, Nicola’s target.
WHO are these new Yes voters who next May could give the SNP an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament? It seems unlikely they are closet Nats who have waited to declare their true allegiance till this decisive juncture. Perhaps there are more of those disillusioned with Labour? Except that a new leader of their old party appears to have given it a modest boost. LibDems? But there are not enough left of them to make a difference.
I’d like to suggest that the most interesting proportion of voters are those for whom the choice between nationalist and Conservative is a natural one, because these are the two parties most active in the Scotland of swings and roundabouts, the volatile regions unused to one-party rule. Labour are repulsive to them anyway, so when a Tory government makes a mess of things, the SNP comes across as an acceptable alternative.
If we look carefully at the voting returns of the last decade, it seems these Tory-Nat swingers may make up around 10% of the electorate. In other words, they are enough to cover Scotland’s vital margin between a Yes majority and
a No majority.
In the First Minister’s position, I would be trying to consolidate and hang on to that vital margin for the election in May. I do not think I would spend much time praising the concept of nationalised industries and pointing the way to an independent Scotland that would have plenty more of them.
After the widespread privatisations of the 1980s, the companies that emerged into free markets have mostly done well. Now, by contrast, the Scottish Government’s initial trials with nationalisation
Ferguson Marine, the last remaining shipbuilder on the lower Clyde, has been brought into public hands because it is years behind on its current orders and far over budget. Burntisland Fabrications, or BiFab, did not even get as far as winning new work, but lost out to companies in the Far East in a massive round of orders for renewables manufacture.
Prestwick Airport awaits being sold back into the private sector as the aviation industry goes down the tubes. It might be more profitable to dig up the runways and plant them with Ayrshire’s excellent potatoes.
None of this, neither the rag-bag nature of the nationalised portfolio, nor the casual attitude to profit and loss within it, suggests official Scotland has any coherent plan about the future of the public sector in our economy, except that it should be ample and free of normal market disciplines.
The Scottish National Investment Bank, about to start operating, makes known it is ready to hand out patient finance, that is, money for projects with a prospect of return only over 20 years or more. All the entrepreneurs need to do otherwise is conform to certain non-economic principles (“equality”) that the Scottish Government will let them know about.
I begin to see why Alister Jack is so chipper despite an outward political position that looks so dire. He’ll see that one thing all this will do for Scotland is make its economy grow more slowly, more slowly than England’s especially. Little by little, then, we will turn comparatively poorer.
Will a Scotland in that state really vote for independence? I’ll leave the answer to my readers.