A more civilised kind of politics is not ‘from another planet’
I had forgotten how civilised Scottish politics is. Last night, I was representing the Greens at the Edinburgh University Students’ Association hustings. Three years ago I stood on the same stage and argued with Harry Cole (and 2 others) about who should be next student president. If memory serves, it was a raucous affair – replete with booze and cheering and jeering. Last night, with the grown up politicians, students were much calmer, much more mature. The other candidates were all very nice to each other, much nicer than I was to them anyway.
But it isn’t the tone that makes Scottish politics civilised. We were mostly asked about Higher Education funding. Of the 5 parties present, only 1 – the Tories – aren’t pledging their support for free university education. Even the Tories are arguing though not for the £9,000 English fee model, but for a £4,000 charge to be paid after you leave university, and only once you get a decent graduate job.
Of course, because of their refusal to raise taxes, Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems risk either going back on their promises (Labour are full of talk about post election reviews), or of leaving Scottish universities starved for funds. But by pledging in an election to keep education free, they are accepting a simple principle: that whatever their Westminster colleagues say, free education is not an idea ‘from another planet’ (as I remember Wes Streeting claiming on a number of occasions). They are saying that it is not only desirable, it is also possible.
And the fact that parties who will collectively represent the vast majority of MSPs and of Scotland’s people are standing on that platform says a lot. It says a huge amount, as Peter McColl has already noted – about the power of protest. But it says something to people in England too – it is a stark reminder that these are not bizarre foreign ideas. A few miles north of the border, and there is a political consensus brewing that education should be funded from the pubic purse.
Similarly, and credit where it’s due, the tone of much of the public debate on criminal justice is remarkably different from that to which I have become accustomed south of the border. Scottish Labour have decided that their core election pledge will be to lock up everyone they find carrying a knife. This policy is, of course, moronic. As Gary Dunion has asked before, it poses an interesting thought experiment: Is there any better way to increase crime than to take 25% of 18 year olds, and send them to jail for 2 months each? If Labour wanted to make Scotland the kind of dangerous place to live that their most extreme rhetoric sometimes implies it is, then this surely would be just about the best way there is to ensure that this happened.
In England, we have become used to such ‘tough on criminals, rather than crime’ rhetoric. No one really thinks this will work (surely?). But they think it is popular. And in England, when one party starts this race to the bottom, the other surely follows. It is true that Ken Clarke has been doing a good job of keeping everything sensible for now, but this is a rare treat. Here in Scotland, other parties are quick to point out how idiotic Iain Gray’s crime policies are. Rather than chasing Labour down the gutter, the SNP, Lib Dems and Greens have all been quick to point out how disastrous such policies would be.
This is not to defend Scotland’s political parties – the SNP’s willingness to at once say council tax is so unfair that it must be frozen until a replacement can be found, and at the same time do nothing for years to find a replacement has forced schools and nurseries to shut. The Lib Dems are still happy to defend their Westminster colleagues as they cut the floor from beneath our society, and Labour – well, they risk sending Scottish crime through the roof by destroying the lives of thousands of young people.
But the fact that even the Tories up here are a little more civilised is a stark reminder for people in England – politics doesn’t have to be dominated by radical neo-liberal shock troopers. The English political climate is nearly unique in Europe. And you just need to stray a little north of the border and you’ll find a country where, on the whole, politicians may be too cowardly to stand up to organised power, but they are not merely its puppets.