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In the Year 2020 – Scottish Review of Books
by Paul Hutcheon

In the Year 2020

October 28, 2009 | by Paul Hutcheon

IN FRANCIS WHEEN’s How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, the Telegraph’s riposte to the broadcasters who urged viewers to watch the hoax Roswell video with an open mind is reprinted: “If you open your mind too much, your brain may fall out.” Such a put-down made me think of the The Red Paper on Scotland, the 1975 collection of essays edited by a hirsute Gordon Brown, in which the contributors laid down a blueprint for a left-wing Scotland. Back then, policies such as handing control of industry to workers seemed believable. Taxing the middle classes until they bled was considered possible.

Fast forward thirty years and Agenda For A New Scotland, fronted by SNP pencil-chewer Kenny MacAskill, is being spoken of as a 21st century version of the Chancellor’s student scribbles. He even gets Owen Dudley Edwards, one of the original Red Paper contributors, to write a scene-setting piece on Brown’s “landmark“ publication. The problem for MacAskill, and with Edwards’ introduction, is that neither seems to have realised that The Red Paper failed to anticipate any of the changes that would transform Britain over the next two decades. Far from being a prescient text that captured the mood of the times, The Red Paper now reads like a rather embarrassing exercise in designer Marxism. Like the Roswell video, it was junk masquerading as reality.

Robin Cook, for one, probably won’t look back on his Red Paper days without blushing. His answer to Scotland’s housing problems was to nationalize the house-builders: or, in his words, to acquire “at least one major public building corporation”. In this endeavour, devolution was but an irrelevance. According to the future Foreign Secretary, the idea that a Scottish Parliament could improve housing was a “delusion”. Cook was not alone in applying hard Left solutions to Scotland’s problems. Jim Sillars, who back then supported a devolved assembly, argued in his chapter that only a Scottish Parliament could enact radical land reform.

But Brown, who ramped up the socialist rhetoric for full effect, was the main zealot. In his introduction, the man who would later fawn over right-wing Republican Alan Greenspan advocated “the extension of self-management at the workplace” and “public control of banks, insurance and pension companies “without compensation”. Prudence wasn’t even a twinkle in his eye. Fifteen years later, Marxism was dead, Keynesism was dying and monetarism had established itself as the only economic creed in town. Brown, a politician who clings to “values“ rather than individual policies, discarded his old beliefs and quickly subscribed to the new orthodoxy. Looking back, The Red Paper got everything spectacularly wrong.

Or not, as Dudley Edwards would have us believe. The Edinburgh University lecturer insists that Brown’s book moved Labour and the SNP closer together – the idea that attracts MacAskill – convincing many in both parties that the way to undermine their closest rival was to back home rule. “The Red Paper had many contributors who were not in the Labour Party, but its most obvious political effect lay in converting, or, to be historically accurate, in reconverting, the Labour Party to some form of Scottish nationalism,” he writes.

Even if this is true the marriage of socialism and nationalism failed to deliver devolution in 1979. It was only after the cold winds of Thatcherism began to blow throughout Scotland that home rule, for negative reasons, was adopted by opinion formers north of the border. Far from being a “landmark” publication, The Red Paper’s influence on devolution was very small.

It’s against this backdrop that MacAskill attempts to build his own consensus, pulling in a few pals who share a similar centre-left outlook and who don’t mind peering over the horizon into 2020. By parking the constitutional question – on which the contributors agree to disagree – the SNP’s Justice spokesman appeals to like-minded souls in all parties to unite for the sake of a better Scotland. “What needs created is not a parliamentary coalition but a political consensus on many areas,” he writes.

Three objections spring to mind. The first is that anyone can assemble a coalition of the willing to write essays on why the unconvinced should jump on their bandwagon. It would be possible for Michael Forsyth to do the same on the Right, or Tommy Sheridan to ring-round his comrades on the Left. Consensus isn’t necessarily related to wisdom.

Another danger for MacAskill is that by focusing on 2020, he makes the mistake of trying to second-guess history. Was it possible, in 1975, to predict that in fifteen years the dominant ideologies would be traced to free market economists in Chicago and Islamist lunatics in Iran? Could we have had any idea, in 1990, that the UK Government would eventually be led by a Labour leader in thrall to Mrs Thatcher, hated by a Tory rump that had become the natural party of opposition? Over the same period, who would have thought that a reconvened Scottish Parliament would house at least seven political parties? History, far from being a series of stepping stones that lead to the present day, is more like a game of snakes and ladders: progress followed by disaster, all of which is impossible to predict.

The most important charge against MacAskill is that his book is based on a false premise. Putting aside the charade of First Minister’s Questions, where leaders trade fake insults and pretend to disagree, Holyrood is already marked by a consensus. In the Parliament’s first five years, the SNP voted against a handful of the Executive’s bills. On schools, hospitals and crime, three of the largest parties believe that Big Government should be made even bigger. Even the Tories, the self-styled antidote to the centre-left consensus, voted to abolish up front tuition fees and introduce free personal care. In calling for cross-party co-operation, MacAskill is arguing for something that already exists.

The introduction, based on crystal ball-gazing and questionable assumptions, doesn’t bode well for the numerous contributions that make up its “visions”. The first batch of essays, grouped under the subheading “A Confident Country”, is based on the idea that politicians, civil servants and quangos can make us feel better about ourselves. Henry McLeish, for instance, tries to make a link between our self-esteem and Scotland’s image abroad. By having a Minister for External Affairs in the Scottish Executive, he reasons, as well as a few extra pen pushers overseas and a restructured British Tourist Authority, Scotland’s lot will improve by 2020. Similarly, one of Andrew Cubie’s solutions to our under-performing economy is to develop an “Enterprise Agenda”, no doubt worked out by companies and government. Only by fiddling with bureaucracy, the logic runs, can Scots become more prosperous.

It is left to Carol Craig to sound a note of caution. She warns that it is easy to “overvalue the importance of politics and see political change as a panacea”, while railing against the “obsession with the importance of power structures.” But Dr Craig, who plugs her new Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing, seems to substitute faith in politicians for faith in therapy. Lauding the “confidence agenda”, she treads a fine line between analysis and quackery. If the section has a vision, it’s management consultants with American accents urging bemused voters to cheer up.

The next section – “A Vibrant Economy” – is even more irritating. Shonaig Macpherson, a former lawyer fresh from a secondment in the civil service, uses her platform to give the readers a lesson in wealth creation. “We should all be in agreement that the number one priority for the Scottish Executive today is to grow the Scottish economy by the introduction of policies that will lead by 2020”, she booms. Why should “we”? What if “we” don’t? Who are “we”? Her impertinence is made worse by a wish list of policies that would make businesses shriek, such as her backing for “flexible” working and Swedish-style maternity and paternity leave.

With these essays, the outlines of MacAskill’s consensus begin to emerge. It’s all about community, society, entitlement, welfare, rights, stakeholders, citizens and identity, all of which the taxpayer is expected pay for. Individuality, autonomy, privacy, responsibility and every other old-fashioned concept that negates the equality agenda are outside the consensus. In 2020, I will be replaced by We.

The collection is summed by an essay in “A People’s Democracy”, which gives the impression of wanting to reinvigorate the political process from the bottom up. Written by former Health Minister Susan Deacon, she argues that devolution has been hampered by an obsession with consultation, delay and process. Her solution? Longer speaking slots for MSPs in the Chamber and a shake up of the civil service. While these may be sensible proposals, it is symptomatic of the way that our political class sees itself as the agent of change, with voters the grateful recipients of the redistributed spoils.

Only in “A Just and Fair Society” do the contributors come close to explaining the havoc consensus politics has reaped. The increased spend on health, reasons Sir David Carter, has just increased the wages of public sector staff who work in a sprawling number of health boards that should be cut in size. In explaining the demography of crime, Roger Houchin reveals that 25% of the prisoner population come from around 53 local government wards “a shocking indictment of the status quo. And in an excellent overview on bricks and mortar that makes Robin Cook’s earlier contribution even more ridiculous, Dr Douglas Robertson points out that council housing is “now the tenure of last resort.”

Identifying problems is one thing, but proposing solutions is quite another. Never once do MacAskill’s friends, trapped in the bubble, ever tap into people’s aspirations. Scots, like everyone else, don’t want to have to rely on government for anything. Few would ever choose to live in a council house. Even fewer would volunteer to spend their Sundays claiming tax credits to which the Chancellor says they are entitled. Rather than weaning people off government, MacAskill’s “visions” would confirm Scotland as a nation of form fillers. It’s a manifesto for the contributors “nice, decent, liberal folks” to get their hands on everybody else’s lives.

Agenda loses its focus with “A Broad and Diverse Land”, a collection of doodles that ignores the editor’s script and instead follows its own logic. Sally Daghlian’s “Cosmopolitian Scotland” is harmless enough, making the point that immigrants benefit a nation. But Jean Urquhart’s “North of Shettleston” swaps argument for plugging the Highlands, while Donald Anderson’s piece on the Capital reads like a nine page press release on his own brilliance.

“A Sporting and Cultural Renaissance” moves the text from bad to woeful, containing three grisly pieces that should never have been commissioned. One of Tony Higgins’ solutions to the crisis in Scottish football – “a sport that requires people and a ball” is for “politicians” and “administrators” to come together. In her “essay” on publishing, Lorraine Fannin somehow manages to hoodwink MacAskill into giving her seven pages to make two points. One, books are important to Scotland. Two, literature helps develop Scottish identity. And that’s it.

But the Oscar for awfulness must be given to Elaine C. Smith, whose William Morris-style plunge into the future imagines 2020 as the sixth year of Scottish independence. After freeing ourselves from wicked Westminster, we learn that the author is proud to live in a country that has built new universities in Possil, Kelso and Ullapool, provided free schools meals and central heating for everybody, abolished private schools, and thrown cash at a new Edwin Morgan centre for poetry and a visual arts facility run by Alison Watt in Dundee. No detail is spared, except cost, and who is to foot the bill. Lacking an understanding in the economics of independence, her tale suffers from a surplus of fantasy and a deficit of reality.

Despite the weary familiarity of Agenda’s solutions, the editor should be credited for at least trying to move beyond party point-scoring in attempting to produce a “Caledonian Consensus” for the 21st century. But MacAskill in print is like MacAskill in conversation: spraying ideas like bullets that only occasionally hit the target. His contributors have used this opportunity to create and exaggerate a set of problems that only they can possibly solve. Every stakeholder, except the people, will be asked to help out. The only part of the economy they will help grow is the Devolution Industry, propped up by politicians, civil servants and a stream of average books. Only in Scotland is government seen as the solution, rather than the problem.

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In the Year 2020

by Paul Hutcheon

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