Scotland's gamble on a new political culture

In local politics there are dim, expenses-fiddling fourth-raters under whose authority no sentient creature would like to exist
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"Give us our parliament in Scotland. Set it up next year. We will start with no traditions. We will start with ideals ... men and women ... [will] spend their whole energy, their whole brain-power, their whole courage, and their whole soul, in making Scotland into a country in which we can take people from all nations of the earth and say: `This is our land, this is our Scotland, these are our people, these are our men, our works, our women and children: can you beat it?' ''

Thus, nearly 75 years ago, a lean and hungry figure, lank hair falling across his face, in full passionate torrent in front of a crowd in Glasgow. The man was John Maxton, one of the original ``Red Clydesiders'', and he was arguing in favour of Scottish Labour's first home rule Bill. To compare the sense of urgency and the emotional force of his campaign with the comparative quietness and hesitancy of this September is striking and raises questions.

Then, politics was different. It was about ideology. Maxton and his colleagues dreamed of a ``Scottish Socialist Commonwealth'' in which the landlords would be driven out, the common people liberated, and the scourges of bad housing, unemployment and poverty banished. The question of what a Scottish parliament was for was, to them, blindingly obvious.

Yet to many of those engaged in the current campaign, the day-to-day purpose of the Edinburgh parliament has not been quite so clear. A hard agenda of planned reforms, which one might have imagined to be at the very forefront of the ``yes, yes'' campaign, was mostly missing. There were fine generalities about a better health service, bringing government nearer to the people and so on - all excellent. But there hasn't been nearly enough debate about what should happen to Scottish schools and universities under a new regime, or the environment, or urban transport policy, or indeed anything concrete. How might devolution help, rather than hinder, fish-farmers and the service industries? What would a Scottish parliament be doing now to turn around the country's terrible health record that Westminster hasn't done? Do the parties want to improve access to the country? Should there be more New Towns?

The fuzziness about bread- and-butter issues may have a lot to do with the less confident, more attenuated political culture of the Nineties. Politicians have become used to explaining how little they can do, not how much. But if they can't make important changes to people's lives, why would anyone vote to have more of them?

Paradoxically, the lack of a confident Scottish domestic agenda, argued vigorously between the parties, has also fuelled the suspicion among the enemies of home rule that there is a hidden agenda. Is the fuzziness deliberate? Who and what is hiding behind the blandly reassuring generalities about devolved power and responsive government?

In Scotland, there are many better-off people, and businesses, who genuinely fear that the result of the referendum will be a belated, if less extreme, experiment in the policies advocated by Maxton in the Twenties; that, just as Marxist China embraces privatisation, this small northern country will have a go at socialism. It will be the insurance companies, as well as the landlords, who are driven out, and the immediate tax impost will be less dramatic, but the damage will be real enough.

This may seem a bizarre fear, given the general conservatism of New Labour in power. But the opponents of devolution (including, it has to be said, certain members of the Tribe of Marr - we are not a clan - who live north of the Border) are looking not at Tony Blair when they shiver. They are worried, rather, by the prospect of councillors from a string of poorly run and occasionally corrupt local authorities near at hand, taking control of Scotland, and mucking the place up further.

At its extreme, this becomes both an anti-Scottish and an anti-politics argument. Scottish politics has been a branch factory of British politics, and to many people the country had seemed to contract-out its political life to London. It was something that happened far away. So, many people ask, why have the political fools and knaves back? Why not let us get on with our lives?

The second line of thinking is openly pessimistic about Scottish public life. Among many Conservative critics, in particular, there is a half- spoken belief that Scotland does not contain enough talented and dedicated people to fill an Edinburgh parliament. Ex-ministers, among others, believe that it will inevitably become the preserve of those who could not make a living elsewhere and who are so talentless that they can't even join the (not overly-brilliant) squad of Scottish MPs at Westminster.

Is this possible? Frankly, in theory at least, yes. The worst people in Scottish local politics are awful. There are dim, expenses-fiddling fourth-raters under whose authority no sentient creature would like to exist. There are also fine and dedicated people. But unless the Scottish parliament lures many more good people into public life there, it will fail.

I think it will lure them. I think. But the whole Scottish political culture will have to change. That, indeed, is the gamble to which the whole home rule case eventually reduces. So why the optimism? Two reasons: the new voting system and the new responsibilities of an Edinburgh parliament.

The voting system matters more than many people seem to have grasped. Scottish local government has been politically monotone. That is why it has been so bad. In many parts of the country one party (generally Labour) has had a freehold on the town halls, as well as on the parliamentary seats. The concentration of poverty in and around the main cities has been part of the reason. But first-past-the-post voting has reinforced it: as in much of England, local politics has become a cosy, one-party club, operating on favours and deals.

The new parliament, though, will have a proportional system. There will be voices there that have not been heard for years in local authorities. Labour is unlikely to have an overall majority. Scottish Tories and the Liberal Democrats, as well as the SNP, will be there in numbers.

But this is not just about the balance of parties. If it comes to pass that a lumpen-councillor style of parliament is elected first time round, then tens of thousands of Scots will have three choices: head for Yorkshire; endure bad governance in a state of teeth-grinding hopelessness; or become involved in public life. I think that a very few would emigrate; a certain number would keep the dental service busy; but very many would get involved.

Bit by bit, year by year, enthusiasm and energy will return to Scottish political life. All sorts of people - doctors, headteachers, business executives, engineering workers, bus drivers and novelists - will realise that they can make a difference, and will be provoked by bad arguments or poor decisions into trying to make that difference. And then, before many years have passed, Scotland will have a parliament that really helps. And its members will be able to look around and say: ``This is our Scotland, this is our land, these are our people and our works ... can you beat it?''

On this morning of all mornings, that is an expression of faith - a gamble. It may seem ludicrously optimistic. But if it is a gamble, it is a gamble on democracy. To reject this new parliament is to reject politics. And none of us can afford to do that.