A few months before the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections, I came up with a ripping wheeze. I decided I would write an article for a prominent daily newspaper calling on Labour to set aside its differences with the SNP. In the event of our becoming the largest party after that May’s elections, I would suggest, Labour should form a coalition with the nationalists based on the broad policy agreement which I knew already existed between Scotland’s two most dominant parties.
Two major roadblocks to this strategy ultimately emerged: the Scottish leadership would have none of it, and I was asked to to refrain from setting quill to parchment; oh, and also we got well and truly gubbed by the SNP, which went on to win an overall majority without anyone else’s help.
Scotland’s political arena remains dominated by angry references to Thatcher, “cybernats”, “Red Tories”, “BritNats”, “blood and soil”, and much, much worse. A newcomer watching TV coverage of Sean Clerkin’s latest attempt to harass a leading Labour politician in Glasgow city centre might be forgiven for thinking that the political schism in Scotland is profound and wide.
And here’s the thing: it’s really not.
Yes, there’s independence, to be sure, and differences of opinion on that totemic issue will take a long time to heal, if they ever do.
But what else?
On the main devolved areas of policy, it’s very difficult to see much difference in the approach of Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Government to that of Jack McConnell’s Scottish Executive. That’s not to say we don’t try. Scottish health and education are not the success story the SNP would like us to believe. But then, neither were they under the last Labour-LibDem regime. Policy is still pretty much the same, and in an alternative universe where Labour were still in power at Holyrood, the budgets would be indistinguishable too.
Certainly, there are disagreements at the fringes, on emphasis. But in broad principle? Not remotely.
But modern politics demands “red lines” and “clear blue water”, even where they don’t exist. Which means that, in order to retain the attention of the public and the media, they have to be created artificially.
So the SNP accuse Labour of letting Scotland down and Labour accuses the SNP of screwing up NHS waiting lists and exam results, and everyone accuses the Tories of being generally evil and uncaring…
It’s all a little tiresome. And dishonest.
Take the Scottish Tories, for example. You really expect people to believe that Ruth Davidson is a modern incarnation of Margaret Thatcher? That she regards the poorest in our society with the kind of cold contempt most commonly associated with a pantomime villain? Get a grip!
Nationalists may not regard Jim Murphy as their political hero (!), but he’s a good guy, with a strong moral core who maybe likes to pick fights a bit too much, but then again, he’s Scottish, so…
And contempt of our First Minister on the basis that she’s Scotland’s most successful politician ever is hardly justified. No-one can deny that once you set aside her commitment to independence, Nicola Sturgeon is a committed social democrat with values that the vast majority of Scottish Labour members would share.
I was reminded about all this while looking through Twitter on the night the new SNP MPs voted for Full Fiscal Autonomy in the Commons. Well, why wouldn’t they, since they were elected on a manifesto commitment to do exactly that? The problem, apparently, was the company they kept while doing so. A number of right-wing Tories, defying their own party whip, trooped into the lobbies alongside the 56, giving some Scottish Labour supporters the opportunity to crow about nationalists voting with the Tories. I get it, I really do. It’s payback, apparently, for all the “Red Tory” smears during the election campaign.
But seriously? We’re reduced to basing our political analysis, not on our opponents’ arguments and principles, but on which other MPs vote walk into the same lobby as them? So Tommy Shepherd, the former Deputy General Secretary of the Scottish Labour Party, is now a right wing Tory because John Redwood may have voted alongside him? (I don’t know if Redwood did, by the way, I’m just using that as an example).
The other side were just as bad, of course, inferring during the referendum campaign that if you campaigned on the same side as the Tories in the independence referendum campaign, well, you might as well wear a Thatcher mask and punch a striking miner’s child while you’re at it.
Isn’t it good to know that the political problems facing Scotland are so insignificant, so negligible, that our political parties can afford to spend their time, not addressing them, but in manufacturing absurd differences between themselves and their opponents?
Here’s the bottom line: the vast majority of people who stand for election, from every mainstream party, are good people. They have far more to agree about than to disagree about. Yes, we’re let down by the fringes, by the abusive who use Twitter to make up for their own lack of friends. But they can be so easily ignored. Instead we raise them up to the full glare of publicity and invite the world to regard them as typical of whichever party they represent.
They’re not. They’re dicks. Now move on.
Maybe it’s easy for me to say all this now I’m no longer an elected politician. And maybe (certainly, actually) I’ve been responsible myself for a fair amount of the bad feeling that exists between Scottish Labour and the SNP. And for that I genuinely apologise.
But think of the huge expenditure of resources, of energy we spend picking needless fights, energy that could instead be diverted into solving some real, actual problems.
There are no circumstances in which I would ever vote for Scottish independence. So what? On every other policy area that’s been devolved to Holyrood (so, every policy area that’s been devolved to Holyrood, in fact), there’s room for agreement.
Is there any grown up reason we all can’t start using that room?
This article was first published at LabourHame.