Caledonian Spring: a way forward, or ‘bottling’ it?

So – again – I have to confess that somebody else came up with the idea of the ‘Caledonian Spring’, to parallel the Arab Spring, over a year ago, so my apologies for shamelessly lifting it.  And it is more than just something that sounds like bottled water, it represents a migration of the public away from the mainstream media or ‘MSM’ as it is often abbreviated to: the creation of a vibrant, online, social media, mirroring moves away from the state broadcasters during the Arab Spring throughout North Africa. This disillusionment comes from a number of sources – a BBC that noted that there was no requirement for it to be impartial until the official campaign period started, a sense that perhaps not everything was being reported objectively, and a feeling (commented on a few times by BBC Scotland broadcaster Derek Bateman) that perhaps much of the news was being viewed through the selective filter of the prism of Labour in Scotland.  In a response to the first academic study demonstrating bias in the BBC and STV coverage of the Referendum, one BBC Scotland executive dismissed the idea that independence should be treated as a normal option, as the Union had been in place for over 300 years and therefore surely this was the only ‘normal’ choice? Against a background of declining newspaper sales across Scotland, one survey showed 35 (amongst No voters)-45(amongst Yes voters)% of people trusted online sources more than TV, radio, press or official representatives of either campaigns.

This move away from mainstream media sources comes in parallel with a move away from trust in Westminster.  In the June 2012 Social Attitudes Survey, participants were asked who they trusted to act in Scotland’s interests, with 71% (up 10 from 2010) saying Holyrood as opposed to 18% (down from 35 in 2007) plumping for Westminster. Polls of political leaders tell a similar story, with one survey in September 2013 giving the three Westminster leaders all a minus rating for satisfaction, ranging from -46 to -53 from Cameron to Clegg (with Milliband in between) and +11 for Alex Salmond, who has been both leader and in government for considerably longer than the three Westminster leaders.

One reason for this apparent disillusionment might be the revelation of the McCrone Report of 1974. Commissioned in 1973 by the Heath government, it looked into the economic implications for Scotland, in the wake of North Sea oil discovery and exploitation. Completed in January 1974, just before the February general election recorded the SNP getting 30% of the Scottish vote, with Labour’s Harold Wilson getting a hung parliament. A year later, the Report was still being discussed in terms of Scotland becoming the “Kuwait of the western world”, and it was decided to bury the report, in case it provided ammunition for the SNP to continue to rise under the slogan ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’.  Successive governments at Westminster continued to keep the report secret, until in 2005, the first year that the legislation was fully operational, a Freedom of Information request revealed the existence of the McCrone Report. Perhaps the most surprising aspect for many, was the willingness of all governments, whether Labour or Conservative, to suppress information that would have allowed people in Scotland to make an informed decision on what would be best for their future.  Perhaps it might be expected for the Conservatives to have maintained a secrecy around such information, but that even a seventies Labour government appeared to have no compunction about placing it under wraps, not only surprised many, but perhaps exposed how much they were governed by their self-interest as a political party in Scotland.

Once you see that this is how this ‘family of nations’, this ‘equal partnership’, really regards one section as being a child nation who are either (uniquely) incapable of making such decisions for themselves, or who simply should not be allowed to make such decisions, then you start to realize that perhaps the democracy of Westminster has been failing many of us for some time.  If Conservatives really cared about their political representation, then they would have worked hard to make the party relevant to the people of Scotland throughout the eighties and nineties, as the numbers of their representatives declined.  But in fact the reverse has happened.  They have been content to remain a ‘toxic brand’ – because strategically they have absolutely no need to ‘win Scotland’ in order to get elected at Westminster.  The 139 MPs in the SE of England are what matters to win them the election – and in that scenario, Scotland will always be surplus to requirements, and thus expendable in terms of policies.  What is more depressing is that Labour has very much followed that lead, as soon as it started taking Scottish support for its MPs (and MSPs) for granted, and started chasing those same votes in the SE of England in order to take power in Westminster – whilst at the same time deploying the myth of Scottish political support being essential to get them into Downing Street (where they seem to have done precious little for their constituents in Scotland once they got there – but that is a separate issue). But the truth is that that has actually only happened very rarely: Scottish votes have (marginally) changed the complexion of the ruling Westminster Government for a grand total of 26 months (over two shortlived governments) since the end of the second world war, up until the 2010 general election, when they prevented an overall Conservative majority (but it is a little unclear whether that has really made much of a practical difference to the policies of the coalition government) – in other words, the Scottish vote in Westminster is no ‘kingmaker’.

And that is without dealing with our declining influence: from the peak of 79 Scottish MPs in 1983, the current representation is 59, and after the full implementation of Calman, this will fall to 52 in 2015 (some have also speculated on a further fall if the Barnett Formula goes) making Scotland’s democratic impact on Westminster even more peripheral:  Scotland’s opinions become even more irrelevant, its political needs an afterthought – and certainly not a priority.  And in the context of a post-referendum backlash, with representatives of elsewhere in the UK crying for the stripping of even the reduced financial return (although above average for the UK, it is still a net loss for Scotland, given Scotland’s much higher contribution to UK taxes per head, than the rest of the UK, save only for London and the SE) that Scotland currently receives, then that sets a really unpleasant tone for what comes after.

“What sort of disrespect would we be showing to English voters if we said it doesn’t matter if you didn’t vote for a Labour government – you’re getting one anyway? That would simply create a disjuncture between the governed and the governing, the reverse of and many times greater than the one we see in Scotland now.” (Tommy Sheppard, former assistant secretary-general of the Scottish Labour Party under Jack McConnell)

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