Losing Faith in the SNP?

     Yesterday, Darren McGarvey – known as Loki the Scottish Rapper – wrote an open letter to Nicola Sturgeon on STV in which he laid out his frustrations with the SNP and the independence movement, along with his intention to not vote for the party on Election Day in May.

     The letter consisted of McGarvey describing the harrowing details of his mother’s upbringing in Gorbals, one of the worst slums in Glasgow, and how she had to deal with alcoholic parents who could not look after their children – leaving McGarvey’s mother to take up the slack. He spoke of the disgusting filth and squalid conditions of their home, personal belongings sold off to purchase cigarettes or alcohol, the lack of privacy (in the old-fashioned way), the debt collectors, the drug dealers, and the disgrace of children being made to fight over scraps of food as a spectators sport for drunks.

     It was in short, not really a home so much as it was an “open-plan torture chamber where deprivation, in the truest sense of the word, was the absolute default position” and where “poverty had not only corrupted people, but left them grotesquely deformed.” There was no place to hide and no one to find for comfort.

     Without a support structure, McGarvey’s mother could not properly cope with life’s challenges, and would descend into her own bout of alcoholism following the birth of McCarvey himself. From here, he vividly described his own upbringing, which included being at the receiving end of her drunken sprees, watching her calm herself with drugs via needles, the abandonment brought upon him and his siblings, and generally living in a chaotic atmosphere.

     Eventually, he too would fall into a similar trap with alcohol and drugs which rendered him unable to look after his brothers and sisters as the family tore itself apart.

     Thankfully, he has come out of this, been sober for over a year, is back to being active in the lives of his siblings, and celebrated the birth of his first child. Unfortunately, his long-suffering mother passed on long ago at the tragically early age of only 36.

     McGarvey’s heart-breaking personal story is one that can repeated throughout multiple generations in Scotland, and it speaks to the sort conditions which have led to what he describes as a “desperation for change.” For him and many others, this was seemingly answered by the SNP and the idea of independence, and as he continues to speak to Nicola Sturgeon (as well as the rest of us), he tells of how he has been voting for the SNP since 2006 “because something radical needs to be done about poverty in this country” and saw independence as a means of “paying more than lip service to tackling the deep social inequality that creates the conditions for deprivation to thrive.”

     He explained that Sturgeon was the first politician he ever believed in, and now he finds himself disappointed in the some of the proposed policies of Sturgeon and the party going into the election only a month away – policies such as keeping tax rates the same as the rest of the UK and halving air passenger duty, which are “aimed at affluent communities who voted No in 2014” and “providing assurances more of the same awaits them should they throw caution to the wind and decide to vote Yes at the next referendum.”

     The result is that he wonders that if this is going to be the case in a devolved Scotland within the United Kingdom, what does the future hold should Scotland become – as he campaigned for in 2014 – an independent country? How can Sturgeon expect to get the well-off to pay more in taxes as an independent country when she, “the most powerful First Minister ever”, won’t ask them to do so now for fear that they will leave Scotland?

     He watches as the SNP pursues policies based on pragmatism and the need for votes from the middle classes, and he expresses his frustration at the party “cultivating a tolerance for low taxation coupled with moderate incremental reform, peppered with comforting social justice rhetoric that barely tweaks the status quo never mind challenges it.”

     For McGarvey, separation was not simply about “getting over the line”, but it was about achieving a new direction with new policies which spoke to urgency of dealing with poverty. With the new powers under the recently-passed Scotland Act, Holyrood under Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP – with a fresh mandate expected in May – is in a greater position than ever to act on many of Scotland’s generational societal ills in a way that the SNP (dubiously) claimed could not be done under the old constitutional arrangements. Separation may be desirable in the long-term, but it is not necessary now to achieve many of the goals of McGarvey and others like him who have “more than just a passing interest in social justice.” His life experiences have shaped who he is, and as far as he is concerned:

“There is no pragmatism where inequality is concerned. There is only action and inaction. If you can't make an argument for slightly higher taxes to a class of educated people who are fortunate enough to be doing well in a terminally unequal society then I already know what is required of me as a citizen.”

     He further laments that Scottish independence appears to be “an increasingly elastic notion” with no real substance behind it except aside from being all things to all people, which breeds centrist policies to maximize votes and not “scare the horses”, but which fail to even come close to the radical vision he and so many others bought into.

     For many of them who voted Yes in 2014 and for the SNP in 2015, McGarvey goes so far to say that the current circumstances present a dilemma; some – likely most – are so committed to the dream of independence, that they will look the other way and will continue support Sturgeon and the SNP in a “bold and unwavering fashion.” McGarvey believes that this dilemma must be confronted head-on, but in the absence of that, he does not believe that the SNP is worthy of his vote this year.

     His story and his view is one that is being repeated throughout Scotland: people who voted Yes because they believed that separation would bring the change they desired, and then voted for the SNP because they saw it as being the best party to deliver that change – in or out of the UK.

     They had believed that with separation and breaking up the UK, Scotland could pursue radically different policies than the rest of the UK. Indeed, they bought into the rhetoric that Scotland and the rest of the UK were so different in political and economic thought, that separation was necessary; they painted a vision of radical Scotland needing to free itself from the reactionary conservatism of Tory England.

     They had believed the rhetoric of the Labour Party being “Red Tories” who were too scared to offend the English middle classes with radical policies and higher taxes, and that Scotland was much more egalitarian and amenable to paying more in taxation to pay for more public services and reduce poverty. They believed that the actual Tories were the root of all evil (and all of Scotland’s problems – not to mention “anti-Scottish” in the words of Nicola Sturgeon herself), that the LibDems were lapdogs at one stage or another for both parties, and that the Union was incapable of delivering on progressive policies because the overall electorate was too “small-c” conservative and required the main parties to compromise and be pragmatic.

     Now they are discovering that Scotland is hardly as radical as they had believed, that the Scottish middle classes aren’t that different in temperament and political/economic values as their English counterparts, and that the SNP – when given the choice – will stick to the middle ground on a centrist platform which embraces pragmatism, you know, like most political parties which aspire to have power and achieve other political goals.

     For the SNP, their main goal has been and always will be separation and breaking up Britain, and they know that they will need moderate Middle Scotland to carry them over the line. So while it is convenient to use left-wing rhetoric to get votes from the Scottish Left and displace the Labour Party, the reality is that the SNP will not do anything to cost them votes where they matter the most. If anything, the SNP is doing what the Tories and Labour did during their periods of dominance in the 20th Century: appealing to where Scots are comfortable at, and that’s in the moderate middle, which again, is the same winning formula in most Western democracies – including the United Kingdom as a whole.

     These sort of points were made time and again throughout the referendum to combat that simplistic notion of left-wing Scotland vs. right-wing England, but it was a notion that proved intoxicating to many people, including Darren McGarvey. If anything, the SNP shamelessly used long-term tragic circumstances such as his to get votes for the independence cause based on the idea that only with independence could Scotland build the sort of fairer society where children would not grow up in dire poverty like McGarvey and his family.

     Again, this was countered by the fact that there is deep poverty in other parts of the UK – in Liverpool, Birmingham, Sheffield, Swansea, Manchester, Newcastle, Cardiff, Belfast, and London itself – and that it made more sense for the UK to stay together as a country in order to achieve progress together through common solidarity among the British people and the pooling and sharing of resources.

     The SNP slickly attempted to appeal to people’s fears and anxieties by telling them that independence would make it all better, and many – feeling they nothing to lose – voted Yes. Since then, they have stuck with the SNP, and as they watch to see the SNP make compromises to stay in power, some have become dismayed like McGarvey over tax policy. Others are concerned about the Named Person initiative, the lack of transparency in government, and more recently, the SNP cozying up to China. Increasingly, they are venting their frustration on social media, some are leaving the party, and prominent independence-sympathetic writers such as Iain Macwhirter and Kevin McKenna are warning the SNP to not forget the people and ideals they had brought to the fore in 2014. At some point, people may question the point of separation and ask whether it is truly worth it.

     But in the words of columnist David Torrance during the leaders debate on March 24th:

     That being said – and with Labour and the Liberal Democrats proposing tax increases – it is difficult to imagine the SNP not being in power once again – likely with another majority. However, there does seem to be a realization on the part of some people that the SNP and its vision for separation are not magic bullets that can solve anyone’s problems. The sooner this is realized by more individuals, the better, so that folks of all persuasions throughout the United Kingdom can join together to move forward to create the better society that everyone wants.