Beyond Personality Politics
It is easy to see how personalities can influence voters in the run up to polling day. We are usually seeking to elect an MP or MSP, a Member of the European Parliament or a local councillor who we think will most represent our views, or even who we most like and respect. With the Independence Referendum on 18 September there is a danger that voters will be driven by personality politics rather than looking beyond the people currently leading on the Yes and No campaigns and those in power at Holyrood and Westminster at the present time.
I would suggest that this vote is far more important. It will determine the future of the Scottish Nation, not just who will hold power for the next parliamentary term. We have other opportunities to exercise our vote in the shorter term, significantly at the Scottish Parliamentary Elections in 2016 and the UK context in May 2015 for the election to Westminster. Like many others, I have a baggage cart full of opinions and long-standing prejudices that I need to overcome and this paper has been prepared, in part, to help me achieve that goal.
I can well understand how our politicians’ personalities can have a huge influence in our thinking. From my own experience, being brought up in a working class village on the outskirts of Falkirk, voting Labour was part of the birthright. The sense of community was strong and socialist principles were evident in family and community expectation.
At University in 1974 I was comfortable celebrating Harold Wilson’s election victories whilst remaining uncertain as to whether or not I actually liked the man. Despite his faults, his successor Jim Callachan seemed like a nice man and I had a heartfelt wish for success for him against the odds in the 1979 general election. I recall the despondency that settled on our social work office on the day after that poll. Margaret Thatcher (milk-snatcher!) had become prime minister and we were not looking forward to the next five years (little did we know it would be much longer) under a Tory government led by herself. I still believe that the jingo-ism surrounding the Falklands War turned the tables on a potential Labour resurgence and increased Thatcher’s popularity in the South.
Fast forward to the 1990’s, John Smith as Labour leader heralded great expectation with the left wing. For me, here was a man I could both respect and trust to take over the helm from Thatcher and Major’s version of Toryism which had clearly run its course. Devastation after John’s untimely death was felt up and down the country though come the 1997 election New Labour ended 18 years of Conservative rule with a resounding victory. After the pit closures, the Poll Tax and other Tory policies which showed the Conservatives really didn’t care about Scotland, it was very pleasing that there were no Tory MP’s returned north of the border at that election!
The theme tune of Things Can Only Get Better accompanied the Blair ascension, though my own preference for a Scottish successor to Smith in the form of Gordon Brown, rather than the new kid on the block, wasn’t realised. In hindsight, perhaps it would have made little difference as the party had moved significantly to the right. Things did get better for a while with devolution back on the agenda and a greater awareness of health inequalities and the social determinants of health replacing the victim blaming tendencies of the previous administration.
With New Labour established as a centralist party, my earlier aspirations turned to disillusionment with the final nail in the coffin coming when the country was misled over Iraq and the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ debacle. The desire to jump into bed with the Americans and, for some reason with GW Bush, seemed to result in a severe case of blurred vision in our leaders. Afghanistan and Iraq, morally wrong and costly in terms of young lives, not to mention the UK Treasury led me to conclude that the Labour Party had lost the plot. Blair, Bush and Brown – beware the three Bs!
My work in public health led me to participate in the training of groupwork skills and as an experienced trainer I was asked to participate in a series of training sessions to enable new trainers to become familiar with the course and the methods used. The course leader advised us that we would use many of the exercises from the groupwork training course to aid participants’ learning. The exercise that sticks in my mind was the one where we were asked to take something from our bag, describe its meaning and talk about it for a few minutes. I produced a biography of John Smith, explained that I had great respect for the man, but was just re-reading his biography before going out to vote for another party. It was suggested that I had moved my political views to which I was honestly able to reply that they had stayed pretty much the same and it was Tony Blair and Gordon Brown who had moved the goalposts by removing socialism from New Labour. Although I recognise that Brown becoming Prime Minister was a poisoned chalice filled and handed to him by his partner in crime, any vestige of sympathy I had was eroded by Brown’s emphasis on his Britishness and his pathetic appeal to woo the voters of Middle England. This came, after all, from the author of The Red Paper on Scotland.
Not only were the wars galling in the extreme, the failure of successive Labour Chancellors of the Exchequer, namely the aforementioned Gordon Brown and the front man for the No Campaign, Alister Darling, to control the banking sector resulted in the financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures (public sector cuts) we are still living with today. The position of the NHS in England and the potential impact on services in Scotland has received much coverage of late. Up to the end of last year I was a member if the Board of Trustees of the African Health Policy Network, a UK charity based in London providing services for people from Africa living here. My colleagues, many of whom were employed in the NHS were extremely critical of what they saw as the dismantling of the NHS in England, started by Labour and carried on under Tory Secretaries of State for Health Andrew Lansley and Jeremy Hunt. Make no mistake, what is happening in England will impact on Scotland’s ability to sustain the NHS north of the border under the present Barnett formula arrangement should there be a No vote.
I suppose the result of the 2010 election should come as no surprise that no outright winner was determined. As inevitable perhaps, as Thatcher’s election in ’79, that a coalition government was the outcome, given the parties had all moved closer together in terms of their policies and philosophy. Whatever the format, the best we could have hoped for was a centre right coalition but in my view, this was not on the wish list of the people of Scotland. My view of the Liberal Democrats had been that they did have a number of very good people in their ranks; people of integrity and worthy of respect. Generally well-meaning and usually harmless, there seemed very little prospect of them being able to govern alone during the time I have followed politics. There was even a sense of charm about some of their profiling. When the current Chief Secretary to the Treasury burst on the scene in my own are of the Highlands, the Lib Dem literature highlighted ‘Danny, Talk of the Glens’. Most of us wondered what he had done! In truth, I can always cite the old adage to bring someone down to earth that ‘Ah kent his faither’.
As I understand it, The Lib Dem leadership was not prepared work with Gordon Brown. Fair enough! But the spin for their getting into bed with the Tories was that it was for the good of the country. I remain somewhat more sceptical, as it was an opportunity for them to get into power, with Nick Clegg sidling up to like-minded public school cronies like Cameron and Osborne for his own ends. At the risk of repeating myself, any sympathy I felt for them evaporated as I felt they had sold out on their principles. History may prove me wrong, but we have already seen the impact this has had on their as a party at the local elections south of the border and I expect they will suffer major losses in the 2015 General Election.
For me, the growth in feigned interest in the north by the UK parties and by the coalition in particular led by the ‘we love Scotland‘ brigade doesn’t ring true. There are clear benefits to the UK in economic terms of hanging on to Scotland, not to mention the inconvenience caused by the removal of trident. The main reason in my book is their desire to hang on to power, ignoring the benefits that will be gained by Scotland having control over our own resources. The party line from Labour is also difficult to understand. With the move to the right south of the border, Labour are unlikely to gain power at Westminster in the foreseeable future. I hope that Labour voters in Scotland will be able to realise that their best chance of government will be in an independent Scotland. They can also regain some of the socialist principles which disappeared under Blair and New Labour and stop poor old Keir Hardie burling in his grave!
For our current leaders in Holyrood, none of them would claim to be perfect and there is doubtless a full range of opinion amongst the electorate in relation to the personalities plying their trade in the Scottish Parliament. What does disturb me is the danger that many will be tempted to cast their vote on the basis of personality. My argument will fall on deaf ears with many people. For example, I have no doubt whatsoever that the lady intent on abusing the First Minister at last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival event with Willie McIlvanney, until halted by Ruth Wishart, will be voting no based on her view of the First Minister.
For the referendum we need to take a long term view and recognise that the current key players will be not be around for ever. Voting should be determined by weighing up the prospects for independence or remaining part of the UK. It is important to separate out what can be achieved following the vote unclouded by the personalities of the people promoting their arguments for and against. Granted, there are many uncertainties and many issues can only be resolved once the vote has been counted and negotiations start over Scotland as an independent country or the additional powers which will be devolved in the event of staying part of the UK. Will the Barnett formula be maintained in the event of a No vote? I suspect that something very less favourable will be imposed, again pressurising our hard pressed public services. The impact this will have on the crucial work undertaken by the voluntary sector can only be imagined. Traditionally, a consequence of statutory services under pressure means a cut in grants to charitable agencies.
My own Yes vote will be made on the basis of policies on nuclear weapons, defence (or in Westminster terms, should that be attack?), welfare reform and the need to protect the NHS and the potential for a fairer immigration policy. For Scotland as a wealthy nation there is also potential for us to make a greater impact on international development which is currently a reserved matter, suffering like the welfare state from the austerity measures of the Westminster government. My wish is to see a more egalitarian society in Scotland than seems feasible with the move to the right we have seen in England in recent times. Personally, I would not be keen to see a Boris Johnson or, God forbid, a Nigel Farage as Prime Minister but such prejudices should not be the prime reason for placing my X in the appropriate box next month.
The vote next month is not a vote for the here and now. It has to be made on the basis of the kind of future we want to see for our children and for future generations. A Yes vote is only the start of the hard work required to build the future the next generation and their successors deserve. If we look to history and what the Scots have given the world we should have no fear about what we can achieve through self-determination and control over our own destiny. If we take the words inscribed on the mace of the Scottish Parliament: wisdom, justice, integrity and compassion there is little indication that that these principles will be achieved when if we remain thirled to Westminster.