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A Tale of Two Books – Scottish Review of Books
by Iain MacWhirter

A Tale of Two Books

October 29, 2009 | by Iain MacWhirter

I HAVE BEFORE ME two books of the same name. They are called Grasping The Thistle but they are very different works, the first being what Michael Russell and his co-author, businessman Dennis MacLeod, really wanted to publish, the second what a political party allowed them to publish.

Now, normally, one would not review a publisher’s proof copy, even if, as in this case, the publisher had actually sent it to you to review. You would, of course, wait for the final version that goes on the shelves. However, there is a public interest case for reviewing both books, if only because the bowdlerisation of Russell’s first version of Grasping The Thistle serves as an illustration of his central thesis: that the dictates of party discipline cripple the creative political imagination.

Russell has creative imagination coming out of his ears, and he wants nothing short of a new form of direct democracy in which the people, rather than the political parties, would be in the driving seat. However, there was rather too much imagination in the first Grasping The Thistle for the Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond.

You see, Michael Russell is the former Chief Executive of the Scottish National Party, and an SNP candidate for the forthcoming Scottish parliamentary elections. The SNP did not come out of his review unscathed. Indeed, Russell called on the SNP to abandon its introverted and ‘statist’ political ways, change its name, and embrace the free market in a way even Margaret Thatcher would have considered extreme.

The SNP should, Russell believes, abandon formal independence in favour of a “new Union” with England. The first version of Grasping The Thistle calls on the party to have a nationalist ‘Clause 4’ moment, effectively giving up on social democracy. It should slash the welfare state; cut taxes by up to 30 percent; introduce vouchers for education and hospitals; and dismantle the NHS in favour of an insurance based health service.

Russell went on to call for a separate currency for Scotland, called the ‘ducat’, in accordance he insists with Scottish history. Moreover, he called for the ducat to be devalued by 5%, and for the Barnett formula, which calculates Scotland’s share of UK public spending, to be scrapped in favour of something less generous.

Finally, and most heinously, Russell described Alex Salmond as: “A leader brilliantly suited to guerrilla opposition but much less well attuned to the disciplines and demands of any new politics”. When Salmond saw this, he flipped. Scissors were procured and he went through the text chopping. Pieces were labelled “Dangerous”, “Very Dangerous” and “Relatively Harmless”.

It was made clear to Russell that if he thought so little of his own party’s policies, and the character of its leader, he might not be suitable as a candidate for the SNP at the next election. In the final published version there is no mention of guerrillas, of devalued ducats, health vouchers or name changes, though a good number of dangerous thoughts remain such as Russell’s proposal that hospitals should make a profit or close down – an idea that his Labour opponents will have fun with in next May’s election campaign.

So, much of the thistle went ungrasped. All of which Russell would, I am sure, see as living proof of his claim that political parties have become a barrier to radical ideas and independent thought. He longs for a day when parties become loose associations of autonomous politicians under the control of local electorates, subject to instant recall, and obliged to come up with new ideas to survive.

“Membership of a political party” says Rus-sell, “should not permit that party to dictate the manifesto of a political candidate, or the voting choices or activities within the Parliament of any individual MSP”. Russell wants to invert the existing relationship between parties and politicians. Voters would choose the individual not the party, which would be reduced to a kind of support mechanism.

This presumably would allow independent spirits like, well, Michael Russell, to thrive, instead of being ground down by the party machines. Russell, one of the SNP’s most experienced politicians and gifted orators, was dumped by his local party organisation before the last election. In the wilderness, he has been thinking deep thoughts.

Sometimes, they are very deep. Russell doesn’t carry his learning lightly. We are given a panoptic account of the history of democracy from the golden age of Periclean Athens to the Scottish Parliament under Jack McConnell. He likes to quote classical scholars, like the Roman commentator Polybius. Though Russell is surely the only commentator who will ever cite Polybius and Geoff Hoon on the same page.

Russell says that political parties are products of the industrial age, and that the digital revolution opens the way for a new form of participatory democracy. He compares parties to trades unions, under the closed shop – they may have served a purpose in establishing industrial democracy, but in the end they became a restriction on freedom. Now, with modern technology, they are redundant.

He isn’t the first person to say that the internet could create a new direct democracy, but he is the only person to have actually worked out a constitution for an e-parliament. His would have three chambers. The First Chamber would be the people interacting electronically, who would not only elect MSPs, but would propose and initiate legislation and have the right instantly to recall the legislators if they don’t cut the mustard.

The Second Chamber would be like today’s representative parliament, composed of elected members, though without the whipping system through which political parties enforce ideological discipline. The Third Chamber would be the government and ministers, appointed by a directly-elected Prime Minister, on a four-year term. The PM would be expected to choose as ministers people from any walk of life who happen to have the intelligence, imagination and competence to run a successful government.

The overall idea, and it is an attractive one, is to wrest control of the state from the kind of ‘numpty’ politicians who seem to thrive in political parties like, well, the Scottish Labour Party. Many supporters of devolution have despaired at the poor quality of politicians who seem to gravitate to the top of our party system.

Scotland has many able people, but they don’t go in for politics, and it’s not too difficult to see why. People are repelled by the closed mentality of political parties which select on the basis of cronyism and conformity. The Scottish Labour Party’s candidate selection process for the first Scottish elections in 1999 still casts a shadow over Holy-rood. Independent spirits were systematically weeded out by tribunals of party hacks.

However, I’m not sure that Russell’s new model democracy wouldn’t bring its own deformities to the body politic. It seems to me that his democratic cat’s cradle would in practice be dominated by the personality of the Prime Minister. He or she would be elected as a kind of benign four-year dictator, while the rest of the parliament is as shifting and transient as an internet chatroom. A kind of Myspace parliament, a playground for attention-seekers and exhibitionists. The legislators in the Second Chamber, since they have no fixed term, would be forever watching their backs against the threat of instant deselection by disaffected local groups who they would have to buy off in some way.

Parties are clearly a problem, but one of their functions, as well as imposing discipline on the membership, should be to exert some democratic control over the executive. I know that the Labour Party hasn’t been very good at holding Tony Blair to account recently, but that only makes my point. I fear that Russell’s parliament would be an ideal forum for charismatic and headstrong individuals like Blair.

Russell seems almost to welcome this when he writes: “Political parties will eventually be transformed from being ideological political platforms to becoming supporters of the sharp edged visionary ideas of their more enlightened leaders.” Somehow, the image of Silvio Berlusconi immediately came to mind.

Do we really want people like Richard Branson or Alan Sugar being given personal control of the nation? Or Brian Souter, who is repeatedly praised by Russell for his experiments in direct democracy in the anti-homosexual ‘Keep the Clause’ campaign six years ago. This would be a kind of hyper-populism.

Political parties may be a bit of an anachronism but I’m not sure that we can entirely do away with them. They aggregate the peoples’ will rather than pander to it. Parties ought to provide the intellectual content of an administration, and should generate the policies which transform political philosophy into practical action. This requires a degree of ideological coherence, which shouldn’t be confused with thought control, or Labour control-freakery.

I have to say that Russell’s own ideological adventure rather confirms the need for political parties. Grasping The Thistle – even the revised version – is a blueprint for an essentially neo-conservative political revolution in Scotland. He wants to privatise the state, abolish inheritance tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax and introduce the highly regressive flat-rate income tax, which has been introduced in some Eastern European countries like Estonia.

If Russell were in charge, Scotland would be exposed to something like the “shock therapy” that the Friedmanite ideologues imposed on the Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This would imply, not just a rebalancing of public spending, but the wholesale destruction of the welfare state, taking the clock back to Edwardian Britain before Lloyd George’s People’s Budgets.

I’m not sure the Scottish people are prepared for such a Year Zero. Imagine the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh having to close because it failed to make a profit. What would happen to the patients? Scotland is a relatively egalitarian country with much less income inequality than England. Under the Russell/MacLeod revolution it would become a playground for the super-rich, a plutocratic caste with no interest or connection with the ordinary people. Jock Tamson need not apply.

Grasping The Thistle may be independent thinking, but I’m not entirely sure it is rational thinking. Certainly, these ideas are so far removed from the manifesto of the Scottish National Party that it becomes difficult to know how Russell can remain a member of it. It seems to me that he disagrees with just about everything his own movement stands for: social democracy, Europe, independence, parliamentary democracy, progressive taxation, public services free at the point of need, an oil fund – the list goes on and on.

The ‘New Union’ proposed by Russell, is at odds with the policy of ‘independence in Europe’ followed by the SNP for the last twenty years. Setting up a separate Scottish currency may be radical but it is also rather pointless. Ireland, which is always held up as a model, seems have done very well under the euro. Grasping The Thistle is saturated by the kind of euroscepticism that even the UK Tory party has abandoned.

You simply cannot have any kind of programme for government – at least one in which voters can have any faith – when members of the same political party have such contradictory and irreconcilable political beliefs. If Salmond hadn’t used the blue pencil, how would people know what the Scottish National Party stands for?

It is a pity that Russell decided to use his book to proclaim his own personal conversion to neo-conservatism, because the questions he raises about the future of representative democracy are desperately important ones. The turnout in May’s election to the Scottish parliament is likely to fall substantially short of 50%. This is a reflection of the crisis of representative democracy across all the industrialised countries. Russell makes an excellent contribution to the debate about how to revive politics, even if he may have flattened his own political prospects.

by Michael Russell and Dennis MacLeod
Argyll Publishing, £7.99
pp255 ISBN 1902831861

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