The Awful-Brilliant Game

As part of a trilogy of posts related to Scottish politics, and Scottish independence specifically, I have a couple of games I’d like to introduce. They are hopefully fun games of political imagination and speculation. One game is called The Awful-Brilliant Game, and the other is called Make The Best Of It.

In the second post I’ll explain Make The Best Of It, and I’ll play it myself in the third and final post of the series. But in this first post, allow me to introduce The Awful-Brilliant Game.

Unfortunately though, you can’t play it. At least not immediately. Because I’d like the first player of The Awful-Brilliant Game to be Richard Leonard, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

Here’s how it would work.

Richard Leonard and I would be seated facing each other at a table. He would have in front of him a scale on a long piece of paper. At one end of the scale is the word “Brilliant” and at the other “Awful“. The idea of the game would be to get him to assess various scenarios in terms of much he liked or disliked them.

We’d start out with two scenario cards. Just simple ones to get us started. One card would say “A Conservative government at Westminster” and the second would say “A Labour government at Westminster“. I don’t think anyone would need a PhD in contemporary British politics to predict that he’d put them at the Awful and Brilliant ends respectively.

So far, so straightforward.

The third card Richard would need to place on the scale would be “A Labour government at Holyrood“. As above, not a difficult move to second guess. He’d put this at the Brilliant end.

We would also make things a bit less binary by bringing in some more nuanced cards, such as “A Conservative-led coalition with centrist parties at Westminster“, or “A Conservative-led coalition with hard right parties at Westminster“, “A Labour-led coalition with Liberal Democrats at Westminster“, “A Liberal Democrat government at Westminster” and so on. Again, it might not be hard to imagine where he’d put these cards, but it brings in the idea that, rather than everything being only brilliant or awful, a lot of politics is shades of grey.

Next, we could bring in similar cards representing various coalition permutations at Holyrood. Now we could be cheeky at this point and give him two other cards and see which one he places above the other – “A majority Conservative government at Holyrood” and “A majority SNP government at Holyrood“. But regardless of how interesting it might be to watch him try to choose between the Tories and the SNP, this isn’t the point I’m driving at here.

Having covered a variety of cards relating to Westminster and Holyrood, we’d then move to a new arena: independence. We’d introduce this in a fairly basic way, with a card saying simply “An independent Scotland“. Richard Leonard’s stance, and Scottish and UK Labour’s stance more generally, is pretty unequivocal on this, so no prizes whatsoever for guessing that he’d put the card at or near the Awful end.

But this is where it gets interesting. Or mischievous – you decide.

We’d then give him three cards simultaneously and ask him to place them. “An independent Scotland with a Conservative government“, “An independent Scotland with a Labour government” and “An independent Scotland with an SNP government“.

And here, dear reader, is where I cease to be able to predict where Richard would place the cards.

We all know that Labour hates independence. We all know that they have little more than doom and gloom to share about what independence means for Scotland’s people, economy, society, communities and so on. So you might argue that he’d place the three cards similarly at or near the Awful end.

But on the other hand, it seems logical that, as the leader of Scottish Labour, Richard would put “An independent Scotland with a Labour government” just a little higher than the other two.

Yet I wonder whether Richard might be reluctant to do that; to admit that Labour might run an independent Scotland better than anyone else. After all, if we believe Labour, everything about independence is verging on – or desperately beyond – awful, whichever party is in charge. So it might undermine Labour’s unequivocal stance on independence if they were to concede that due to Labour’s policies it might be possible to have one sort of independence that is a tiny bit less disastrous than others.

And thus, to tumultuous relief all round I’m sure, I reach my point, which is this: Labour has, for years, and certainly since the 2014 Scottish independence referendum campaign, demonstrated a spectacular failure to understand, engage with or even simply acknowledge one mundane but utterly crucial fact:

In an independent Scotland, there will be elections.

And, as elections generally go in liberal democracies, there will be a variety of parties taking part in them, and the country will look different depending on which of those parties form the government.

This means that, whether you like independence or not, an independent Scotland could theoretically go in a number of directions. Let us just for a second. and purely for the purposes of this hypothetical exercise, unquestioningly accept every single insane, froth-mouthed, doom-laden prophecy about the Armageddon that would befall an independent Scotland: a collapse of oil revenue, rejection from the EU on a permanent basis, huge price rises in supermarkets, civil disorder, compulsory Gaelic road signs in everyone’s garden, an invasion by the Icelandic navy, and much, much more.

Even in that scenario there will be choices that the government of the day could make. Maybe only a limited range of choices, or a range with limited effect, but a range nonetheless. And the logically inescapable conclusion of that is that there is at least some potential variance in the levels of cesspit-scraping disaster that an independent Scotland might face.

Yet I am not convinced it is a conclusion that Richard Leonard would share.

A few weeks ago I saw a tweet by him relating to the choices Scotland faces, as he sees them. (And thank you Richard for choosing to mark my fortieth birthday with these words of wisdom!)

It’s clear from both his tweet and the article he wrote that that he sees this “nationalism” as the SNP’s plans for independence – expressed in part by the report of Scottish Government-commissioned Sustainable Growth Commission. In the article, he states:

Nicola Sturgeon instead plans to spend this summer convincing her own party members of the case presented by the Growth Commission. Hers is a fiscal agenda in thrall to big business which slavishly follows the mantra of deficit reduction.

Trade with our nearest neighbours will be put at risk by a new political isolationism with no space for trade unions or workers’ rights as part of a strategy to promote economic growth. That’s not just the Tory vision for the economy – it is now the SNP’s too.

The point of this article is not to defend the Growth Commission, the SNP or Nicola Sturgeon the First Minister. Instead, I want to point out that it is ludicrous to say that the Growth Commission or the SNP (or indeed Nicola Sturgeon) hold the sole and definitive definition of what choices would be made in an independent Scotland. Just ask the independence-supporting Greens, Scotland’s hard left parties, or any number of other pro-independence researchers and campaigners who differ from the SNP on matters relating to economics, currency, foreign policy, and more. Irrespective of how likely their alternative plans are to win the day in an independent Scotland, there is unquestionably a plurality of views as to what an independent Scotland could and should look like.

Yet according to Labour, there is only one model of independent Scotland out there: “nationalism”. Whatever that means!

And as I argued in my tweeted reaction to Richard’s tweet, the fact that Labour is unable to get over its fixed view that there is only one independence is absurd – and actually talks his own Labour Party down.

So which is it? If Labour thinks Scottish independence inherently equals nationalism, does that mean it won’t compete in elections in an independent Scotland, it expects to lose them all, or it will turn “nationalist” from the moment we become independent? As I argue in that concluding tweet, it’s surely insulting to his own party for Richard Leonard to suggest that he and his Labour colleagues would be so electorally feckless or ideologically spineless.

I’d love it, somehow, if the Labour Party could be forced into expressing what it would do with an independent Scotland, and how Labour values might – even in the challenging circumstances they predict for independence – be applied in government. Sure, it might not like that scenario, but that scenario might well come about, so it would be good to hear what they have in mind.

This leads me to my second game, which I’d like to play with not only Richard Leonard but with politicians and activists from a number of parties. That game, Make The Best Of It, will be revealed in my next blog post.

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