Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Tale of Two Parties


There’s been a lot of earnest sucking of teeth and shaking of heads about how the Tommy Sheridan trial has damaged the image of devolution. How could we have given a platform to that rabble of immature malcontents? Who will take the Scottish Parliament seriously, when it’s most recognisable member (no pun intended) is Tommy Sheridan ? Surely any system that gives the oxygen of publicity to toy town trots is doing a disservice to democracy?
And so on and so forth. However, I think the political grey-hairs have got this completely wrong. On the contrary, the tale of Tommy and the Witches - apart from being better than anything on at the Edinburgh Festival this year - has been a vindication, not only of Scottish home rule, but of the proportional electoral system. The SSP have been found out. That’s surely what democracy is supposed to do.
The affair has exposed the sordid reality of ultra-left politics: the vanity, self-delusion, paranoia. Ranting about integrity, honour, truth; accusing each other of lying, betrayal, sexual misconduct. I particularly liked Carolyn Leckie’s description of Tommy Sheridan this week as “a cross between “Goebbels, Walter Mitty and Benny Hill” Benny Hill!. That hurt.
Though not as much as Sheridan’s rejoinder that the United Left Faction (or whatever they’re called today) are “scabs” in the pay of Rupert Murdoch and international capital - as if Tommy Sheridan’s sex life was an industrial relations issue. Mind you, how many people under the age of forty know that scabs are strike breakers. rather than congealed blood platelets? In the good old days, the Tommy problem would have been resolved by the traditional means of an ice pick in the back of the head. Not any more, they now use the legal system. The muppet Marxists seem determined to pursue their poisonous vendetta through the courts. The SSP wimmin are now promising to sue Tommy for 2 million pounds for impugning their integrity.
All this in the vainglorious pretence that they are representing the working class, the poor, the bombed children of the Lebanon. “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your libel briefs!” “Solidarity with the Palestinian Dispossessed in the Court of Session”.
The point is that no one will take the SSP seriously again, in or out of parliament - though Tommy Sheridan could still translate his celebrity into a massive personal votes. This is a democratic experiment which has run its course. The six SSP MSPs rode to Holyrood on the back of the popular rebellion of the Scottish electorate against the established parties which took place at the Scottish elections of May 2003.
Sick of sleaze, officegate, and MSPs who could barely utter a coherent sentence, Scots voters used the additional member system imaginatively to lever in Greens, Reds, greys and also independents like Denis Canavan and Margo MacDonald, who had been ostracised by their parties for daring to show independence of mind. It was an inspiring exercise in participatory democracy and a tribute to the sophistication of the Scottish electorate.
The voters wanted to upset the applecart; introduce new ideas, diversity, and a bit of character into the faceless parliament that the late Donald Dewar bequeathed. So, the Scottish Socialists returned with six seats, the first time the far left has ever entered parliament under its own name. The Scottish Greens did even better, returning seven. It was an amazing departure from the staid and colourless tradition of British parliamentary politics. .
While less experienced than the disciplined Marxist activists of the SSP, the Green MSPs soon found their feet. They thrived in an atmosphere of intellectual debate, worked constructively on parliamentary committees, entered into tactical relations with rival parties, made contributions to legislation, promoted single issue causes, like asylum and civil partnerships, and generally tried to win respect as legislators.
The result is that after the next Scottish parliamentary elections in May, the Scottish Greens could, just conceivably, be participating in government. If Jack McConnell loses as badly as some Labour MSPs believe they could, then there is an opening for a Liberal-SNP Coalition, in which the Scottish Greens might hold the balance of power. Especially if, as seems likely, the Greens inherit many of the SSP votes.
So, it’s a tale of two parties: the Greens have grown the reds have withered. Unable to manage the transition from the politics of protest and gesture, the Scottish Socialist Party indulged instead in the fratricidal divisions that have so often afflicted the ultra left. Blinded by their own rhetoric and unable to cope with Tommy Sheridan’s commanding personality, the SSP parliamentary group fragmented almost as soon as it was elected.
Much of the antagonism arose because of Sheridan’s apparent willingness to ‘play the game’, become a real politicians, use his media skills to get the party taken seriously.Sheridan accepted that, in a real parliament, you have to win arguments and conduct debates, play by the rules, do your homework on committees and generate initiatives and policies. He made attempts at legislation, with his bill on warrant sales, his campaign for free school meals. His speeches on asylum, Iraq and poverty were powerful and resonated beyond the wiggly walls of Holyrood. They certainly made erstwhile left-wingers on the Labour benches distinctly uncomfortable. The other SSP MSPs seemed more interested in staging student occupations and walkouts - as if anyone cared whether they were in our out of the place.
What it confirms is that parties like the SSP can really only function on the outside of politics as extra-parliamentary organisations. The far left thrives on exclusion from the centres of power. Unburdened by any legislative responsibility, the SSP could devote its time to surfing the alienation of the housing estates of Scotland, backing ethnic minorities and attracting the cameras with their elaborate gestures of nuclear defiance at Faslane. Tommy Sheridan was never happier than when he was in the arms of the police, being carried to the paddy wagon, pursued the nation’s press and TV.
Contrast again, with the Greens, who have largely made the transition from extra parliamentary politics, and have largely abandoned stunts. They still make themselves heard though, with a hyper-eneretic press operation, run by the ubiquitous George Baxter, and produce copious background briefings and policy initiatives. The Greens remain inexperienced have been accused of political naiveté in their dealings with the Scottish Executive over sustainability and the “green thread” that was supposed to run through Scottish Executive policy. They have no public figures of the calibre of Tommy Sheridan and some of their MSPs still seem a little bewildered at their own prominence. However, they are clearly on their way.
The Scottish Parliament has done British democracy a service by drafting in the irregulars of British politics, and explosing them to the harsh scrutiny of a real legislature. The SSP couldn’t take the heat It’s a ruthless business, parliament, but effective. And in the end, like John West, it’s the politicians they reject that ensures Holyrood will, in the end, get the best.

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