One of the more surreal episodes in Scottish political life occurred seven or eight years ago when Motherwell was nominated for the annual ‘Carbuncle’ prize. The architecture magazine Urban Realm (formerly known as Prospect) gives out this award with a view to encouraging discussion and debate about the quality of development in Scotland's towns and cities. Their editorial line is that "the truly depressing places are the ones which could be great, but are stifled by a lack of imagination, creativity and passion. The towns shortlisted … must have real potential, which local leaders for one reason or another are failing to exploit."
The leader of the Scottish Labour party at the time, Jack McConnell, thought that it was a disgrace that Motherwell town centre had been allowed to get into such a state. He described it as ‘dirty’ and ‘untidy’ and criticised other towns for failing to show enough ‘civic pride’. He said that Scotland had a problem with “small provincial towns like Motherwell, Wishaw, Paisley, Alloa, Cumbernauld and Dunfermline” and argued that the neglect of these town centres symbolised “something in the public realm that has a lack of commitment to quality of life.”
It was hard to disagree with such noble sentiments.
But this was Jack McConnell speaking, the Labour leader and a North Lanarkshire MSP. That's North Lanarkshire, the region that had been run by Labour since dinosaurs roamed the earth, the place where a blow-up doll in a red rosette would command a good majority in any of the constituencies. You couldn’t help but feel that perhaps Jack was suffering from a touch of the old cognitive dissonance. He thought that our town centres (generally run by Labour) were disgraceful, but went on to cite the “Tory economic decline of the 1980s” as a major factor. Of course … it was all Thatcher’s fault.
It was no real surprise that he could so nonchalantly absent his cronies from anything approaching ‘blame’. For more than half a century, the Labour Party in Scotland operated like the Cosa Nostra, but without the glamour, the violence or the intellectual depth. Mired in class-warrior dogma that was at least a generation past its sell-by date, the ‘natural’ party of government in Scotland could coast along in what was, effectively, a one-party state. When bad stuff happened it was never their fault, because those perfidious Tories in Westminster were always to blame and -as long as enough of the electorate fell for that line- everything was more or less peachy for Labour; it could take a pliant electorate for granted, happy to peddle the myth of Scottish exceptionalism. Scots vote Labour, so the argument went, because we have a more developed sense of social responsibility. That may have made some folk feel good about themselves, but it was -and still is- utter tripe.
Voting habits are always influenced by a variety of factors. Under the last Labour administration, there were parts of Scotland where the public sector accounted for more than 70% of all economic activity. You don’t have to be a genius to work out that if a large chunk of the electorate is -either directly or indirectly- on the government payroll, then a greater proportion of that electorate will invariably vote for the party that advocates a bigger government payroll. Nor do you need a degree in economics to understand that the continuation of government largesse, on those non-wealth generating percentages, is not merely unsustainable; somewhere down the track and around the bend, it’s going to be a train wreck for which your kids and grandkids will be picking up the tab.
To get an understanding of just how successful the long Gramscian march through the Scottish institutions was, all you have to do is watch a TV debate, listen to a radio phone-in or loiter for a while on the social networks. You’ll soon notice that our overwhelming political orthodoxy is both statist and leftist. For a large section of the public, anything that involves spending money on ‘public services’ is unequivocally good, while anything that involves spending rather less of that money is not just bad; it’s disgracefully immoral.
A couple of years ago, the right to buy council houses, as introduced by the Conservative government in 1979, was described by The Herald columnist Ian Bell as an ‘atrocity’. Some of you may think that ‘atrocity’ is a word you’d use to describe fifty people being blown up in a Baghdad marketplace, or perhaps a group of fanatics indulging in a bit of ethnic cleansing, but no. According to this respected columnist, it was an ‘atrocity’ that working class people had been allowed to buy their own homes. Bell articulated the disdain of the patrician, authoritarian left: How dare these folk get so uppity as to want to buy their own home? Where was their sense of class solidarity?
But if you say something often enough, some people will start believing you. In 2015, when someone talks about enterprise, self-reliance or public spending restraint in the land of Adam Smith’s birth, it sounds to great chunks of the electorate like white noise. It’s not that these arguments are being lost; rather, they hardly ever get made, because that language no longer makes sense to people who appear to believe that politicians have the option of ‘abolishing’ austerity, as if there was a secret switch in an oak-panelled room somewhere in Westminster or Holyrood:
Press button 1 to abolish austerity.
Press button 2 to abolish the deficit.
Press button 3 to abolish the national debt.
Maybe there's a button for the weather, too.
If the opinion polls are correct, Labour will get a thrashing in Scotland at this election. It’s hard to feel sympathy for a party that has been quite so complacent, quite so content to showboat its spurious sense of moral superiority, quite so unwilling to accept the fact that it is economic activity that lifts people out of poverty, not government programmes. Another party may be wearing their clothes now, but that unflagging commitment to the ‘tax and spend’ expansion of the state still makes perfect sense to those who would consider economic literacy to be an over-rated concept.
Yet even as the SNP pull the collectivist rug from under their feet, those high priests of profligacy, Miliband and Balls, are hamstrung by the knowledge that, to have any hope of winning at Westminster, they must concede that our national debt and deficit have to be addressed at some point. But they are discovering that this won’t wash with an electorate weaned on five decades of an unending statist narrative. The people want an end to ‘austerity’, so someone must promise to push that magic button.
And now the monster that Labour helped create is preparing to tear down a once-impregnable fortress. As they survey the auguries of electoral Armaggedon, I wonder if any of those Labour apparatchiks, purveyors of the old tribalist dogma, might have cause to recall the words of WB Yeats:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?