Corrosive identity politics has no place in council elections

Corrosive identity politics has no place in council elections

by Grant Simpson
article from Wednesday 8, March, 2017

AS THE NEVER ENDING noise of Scotland's constitutional argument drones on, I've been wondering where the wise, principled Scot has gone?

Politics used to be defined on the left/right scale. Small state, free market capitalists at one end – and large state, nationalising socialists at the other. (This is a sweeping generalisation but you know what I mean!) The debates were straightforward. You could think about how you felt about each of the issues; about how your own attitudes, experiences and values would position you on that scale.

There were always those on the wild, outer fringes at either end of the scale. But the vast majority held the views they did because they thought they were likely to create the best economic and social results for their countrymen. Political debates and battles were grounded in the solid belief that your version of left or right was just and measured. They were debates and battles that could define our standards of living and, crucially, how we thought they could be improved. If not about that, what else is politics for?

Barring those from the outer fringes, we rubbed along pretty well. Right balanced left, and left balanced right. For me, that was / is part of the great success story that is the UK. Ours is a moderate, liberal and tolerant democracy. It has meant that whilst that political pendulum has swung over the decades, the consensus generally fell around the centre. That's what keeps the UK so stable and such a safe, desirable place for the many immigrants who have chosen to make ours, their home also.

Unfortunately, Scottish politics has been diverted off this path. Most external observers would look in on us and recognise what defines our politics now: identity. We rarely seem to have intellectual discourse on which approach to economic policy would derive the best results for Scots citizens. Scotland's politicians are elected according to whether they support the UK remaining intact or whether it should be broken up. The economic reality isn't the meat of the debate. Rather, it's whether you are Scottish or British, and Scottish nationalism has decreed that you cannot be both; they are mutually exclusive. You don't have to look much further that former First Minister, Alex Salmond for evidence of this.

Last weekend he embarrassed himself ranting on a television interview about the "Yoon media". Yoon being an intended derogatory term for non-SNP aligned individuals and the "Yoon media" being any newspaper or broadcaster with the temerity to report something unflattering about the SNP. The inference to supporters, of course, being that information prepared by such parties is always wrong, simply because it has been produced by "Yoons". It was quite a spectacle.

The rise of nationalism in Scotland has nurtured and developed identity to become the defining issue of our politics. On occasions when economics or social policy matters are introduced into the debate, they are spun beyond any reasonable reality. Black is argued as white, in order to support the identity argument. Even when presented in logical, clinical fashion it is quickly rubbished (I am thinking about some of the excellent analysis by, amongst others, Kevin Hague, Neil Lovatt and Fraser Whyte), often as a sleight to Scotland; "talking Scotland down".

Mostly the response to reasoned argument moves straight to ad hominem attacks from the nationalist "intelligentsia" led by the likes of Stuart Campbell (Wings over Scotland) and his faithful followers. Some of those followers, of course, include SNP MPs and MSPs.

But our politics used to involve interrogating such analysis, presenting alternative assessment and debating how a situation might be improved. That involved applying policy from either side of the centre but with an intent to improve our people's standard of living.

Today though, that doesn't happen. All debate seems to revert to identity. If that isn't the case, how can Brian Souter and Tommy Sheridan possibly have common cause? Maybe they are bad examples, coming as they do, from the wilder, outer fringes of traditional left / right politics. But examples they are, of what nationalism has done to our politics. It has degenerated our debate. It is no longer about the great principles and ideas of how our standard of life might be improved. It is about whether you have identity X or identity Y. It's about your allegiance to one flag or another.

As others have said before me, you can't eat flags.

This depressing, backwards step in our politics is even manifesting at local level. As we approach May's council elections, I find constitutional politics interfering even in my own thinking with that. I don't want SNP Councillors. Doubtless there might be some good community orientated people I am discounting, but discount them I will. I do so because by standing as an SNP candidate, and passing their Party's vetting system, I know that their over-riding political principles are about identity. I can't trust them to make decisions based on what is best for constituents because that is not what motivates their political position. Their identity as a Scot, or perhaps more simply, not British, is their defining political characteristic and driver. If not the case, why would any be an SNP candidate? They will vote or act in every matter according to the party line, as defined by what best promotes their identity politics. At a local level, I don't see how that best serves our communities.

I don't want to have to think this way. I'd like all UK citizens to live productive lives with increasing standards of living. But that can only happen for us here in Scotland if we, and particularly our politicians, start concentrating on the right things. No matter which side of the traditional political centre you see yourself, the things that won’t improve our economic fortunes and standard of living are flags and identity politics.

This shift from policy-based politics to identity has, of course, worked superbly well for the SNP. Its members care about identity above all else. As Nicola Sturgeon herself said, "independence transcends everything else". There's an obvious reason this has worked so well. A majority of Scots who care about real politics and issues affecting our standard of life still vote on the left/right spectrum. Thus the Scots who don't see identity as the defining political raison d'être are largely split across Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat. The wise, principled Scottish vote (in my view) is therefore split according to the kind of economic and social policies they believe could improve our standard of living.  For the moment, the proponents of identity politics have the whip hand and, as a result, are beneficiaries of that oldest of tactics - divide and conquer.

I say "for the moment" because there is hope that we might find a way back from all of this. The SNP have had a decade of power. During those ten years of identity driven politics and policy, we must ask ourselves if education, health and other devolved matters have improved or declined. All but the most partisan of observer will be stretched to think the former is the case. As the inherent wisdom and principles of Scots begin to re-surface through the fug of populism and identity politics, and they will, I hope we will again progress.

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