Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Parties without partisans

Having a great email discussion with Scottish Unionist at the moment (which will, I think, make its way into the public domain shortly) regarding the nationalist-unionist debate. But it got me thinking about something. Political parties in Britain to be precise.

On the debate we are having (whether Scotland should be independent or not) I clearly define myself as a nationalist. I want Scotland to be independent from the UK. I think that the people of Scotland should be sovereign, I believe in the principle of national self-determination and I guess to all intents and purposes I'm a civic or cultural nationalist (its not about ethnicity).

So that's fairly clear, right?

But I also believe in small government (which in the States would make me a Republican) and in small step change - which is a Conservative doctrine I think. Despite considering abortion wholly distasteful I'd consider myself pro-choice (it is not government's place to decide) and I accept John Stuart Mill's "Harm Principle" - a principle tied very closely to Liberalism. And I very much agree with the principle of Bevan's National Health Service, that it should be free at the point of us. And Bevan himself described a free health service as "pure Socialism".

Apart from pointing out how mixed up my political views are, there was a point to that. As a nationalist, or, at least for me, it is easy enough to reconcile those views. But presumably there are other students of politics, activists, even perhaps MPs or MSPs who have similarly hodge-podge political views. What I mean is, they don't fit neatly into the Conservative, Liberal or Socialist boxes that politics in Britain was meant to be about.

I use the past tense there for a reason. Today's Conservatives are pro-and-anti Europe, the Liberals are for and against freedom of expression and Labour are for and against privatisation.

What's my point? Simply this. It doesn't really matter what your politics are. In the contemporary world, political parties will tailor their views to your own. They've taken Kirchheimer's idea of a "catch-all" party and moved it to extremes. Political parties no longer represent political ideologies. "Conservative", "Liberal" and "Socialist" have become obsolete terms because they only tell part of your - and their story. Politics isn't what it once was, a debate between two unshakeable and unbreakable principles. It is about compromise, about saying and doing things that will appeal to everyone, about doing what is good for the country in the eyes of as many as possible.

Hang on a minute though - isn't that what nationalism is about?


subrosa 25 February 2009 at 15:07  

May I commend you on your courage for attempting to debate with the blog scavenger Scottish Unionist. Maybe it's not courageous Malc but silly :)

It will certainly be interesting to read his opinions as his contribution to the blogosphere so far has been to trawl websites looking for the word English, then insinuating the writer is anti-English by intentionally being selective with the text.

Malc 25 February 2009 at 15:14  

I pulled him up on that point Subrosa.

In fairness to SU, the nationalist-unionist debate isn't exactly anything to write home about. Plenty of name-calling on both sides. And its all negative - "Scotland's too wee to be independent...", "Look at the mess Britain got us into..." etc.

I figure grown-ups should at least be able to debate the finer points of it - and so far, we have managed. I hope that translates when it makes the blogs - and that comments on our pieces are not simply vitriolic!

Sam 25 February 2009 at 16:28  

What you're saying is, you're a Liberal!

Think about it: you're politics is inherently diverse, you welcome plurality, you want power devolved to a local level, you think individuals should be allowed to live their lives how they want, you subscribe to a fundamental principle of libertarian thought.

You're views on the health service then push you into the Social Liberal camp, but mate, there's planty of room in the Lib Dems for all of us. That's our raison d'ĂȘtre.


Malc 25 February 2009 at 16:36  

I think the point, Sam, is that I - and countless others - could choose any of the three main parties at Westminster (and, indeed, nationalists, greens... perhaps even the BNP - though perhaps not) and feel quite at home.

The labels mean nothing any more.

And despite your kind invitation, I have way to much fun slating Lib Dems to ever feel part of them. But thanks...

James 25 February 2009 at 19:38  

Actually, SU comes across as a generally smart and intellectually curious person. There are exceptions, naturally. He's wrong on loads of stuff, but then Malc backed John McCain and I still like him.

However, wtf is up with the colours on that chart? Tories are yellow, Radicals blue, and Liberals green? Oh, and neither greens nor localist parties (a la the SNP)? I'm surprised at you promoting such a flawed summary!

Sam 25 February 2009 at 20:45  

Sorry, I do agree with you in many ways, but knowing your love for the orange folk, I just couldn't resist that.

I think that in party political terms its true, differences aren't pronounced,and many people could probably agree with certain manifesto points from any of the main parties.

But most people wouldn't would they? Floating voters will move between mainstream parties at election time, but a lot of people would have serious problems voting for certain other parties that they consider ideologically opposed.

While these ideological differences aren't as pronounced as they used to be, I think they still have an effect.

I might have to come back to you on what these differences actually are in practice as I can't think of any! Well Europe might be considered in that light, as it still causes such discomfort in the Tory backbenches. There are probably better examples.

Anyway, I'm not sure the labels are meaningless. Just harder to pin down.

Malc 25 February 2009 at 21:18  


I agree with you on SU - and I've found him to be an engaging person to debate.

I don't know about the colours - I "borrowed" it from somewhere else as it kinda illustrated my point.

And your "flawed summary" point I think was in jest, but I'll answer it anyway. I was talking in traditional politics terms. Nationalism & Environmentalism are "modern" phenomena, though I would argue that both are specificly wide umbrella "movements" more than parties and could fit my schema. In short, with my political leanings I could find a home in any of Britain's political parties (perhaps with the exception of the BNP).

Malc 25 February 2009 at 21:21  


But that's kinda my point. Whether you are a floating voters (choosing a party based on what you like about them at a particular election) or a dyed in the wool partisan, I think you'd still find something that would attract you to other parties.

The Tories and Europe is just one example - some are vehemently anti, some quite happy with things at the mo, some would go all in and some don't give a hoot about it. They could quite easily be at home in other parties but see one or two things in the Tories that make them stick there.

Sam 26 February 2009 at 11:54  

You can find something in other parties but you can't find everything.

Those "one or two things" that you mention are the remnants of the parties ideological stance. My example of the Tories & Europe was chosen precisely because that relationship doesn't just lead to a few different positions: it leads to division. Cameron wants to modernise the party to appeal to non-Conservatives, so he becomes (ambiguously) less Euro-sceptic than recent leaders. But its not enough to convince his party as a whole. If they do get into power it could come back to haunt them again.

If it was that easy to move from one party to another more people would. That's why parties target floating voters; because they know their hard core supporters are never changing colour.

You identify yourself as a nationalist; you might like the Labour stance on healthcare, or the Conservative small government position. But you won't change your party allegiance because the more important thing to you is your nationalism. That is a party position that still reflects ideological positions.

Within the Lib Dems there is an ongoing debate between social and market liberals, which positions market liberals in line with many business Conservatives. Few if any market/libertarian liberals will ever vote Tory though, because the Conservatives represent social authoritarianism. They are big & small-c conservatives, & probably always will be.

These differences still echo in people's minds, still influence perceptions. And parties manifestos, especially those with a real chance of taking power, rarely represent the true identity of that party.

James 26 February 2009 at 12:22  

Hi Malc,
It was half in jest, but I disagree with the idea that Greens = Environmentalism.

You guys may be an umbrella (hell, I've met both Fergus Ewing and Linda Fabiani, and you're an umbrella the size of Mid Scotland and Fife), but we Greens aren't, I argue, in the same sense.

We're an international movement with relatively consistent philosophical positions on the economy (inc. decentralist, localist, regulate the environmental and social impacts), social policy and equalities (feminist, left and civil libertarian), health (minimise private-sector role, emphasise preventative medicine, again decentralise), matters constitutional (radical democracy, localisation, participation), international affairs (peace, international equity, contract and converge) etc etc.

Sorry, I forgot to cover the environment. Can we take that one as read?

Malc 26 February 2009 at 12:43  


The thing with nationalism for me is the fact that it can go left or right economically, it can go authoritarian (bad) or libertarian, it can go green or not... etc. Arguably nationalism isn't an ideology in the same way that conservatism, socialism or liberalism is because it is such a heterogenuous field - you only have to look at nationalist parties across Europe (which, coincidentally, I'm currently doing) to see that they are not a coherent party family.

Autonomy binds - its a broad church. As James cites, Fergus Ewing & Linda Fabiani couldn't be more different politically yet they are both prominant Nats.

And yes traditionally your point is valid. But I think today's parties are a shadow of their former selves. Look at Labour and the age of business, or Tories who support nationalisation. Its a catch-all society.

The reason you don't see movement between them isn't ideology, its that no one wants to be seen as a traitor or jumping ship.

Malc 26 February 2009 at 12:46  


Point taken. But my point is really that you could probably disagree with some of that (eg - private healthcare stuff; local democracy) and still feel "Green" on the basis of your "lefty" economic/ social views and your environmentalism.

Which is my point - you can tailor your political views on a single issue and ignore issues which you feel less strongly about just to join/ vote for a party. No? 5 March 2009 at 05:18  

As I have said before on the Hootsmon. My view is that the SNP or other Scottish independence party is that Scotland has the entrepeurial ability to be capitalist on the world stage whilst still providing for a better quality of life at home. Also the increassed accounabilty and local autonomy it provides. Look at Norway,Sweden etc

Smaller is in most cases better.

Scotland has a long tradition of fairness and even handedness, which the current mishmash called Britain fails to address. The one size fits all apporach does not work. Scotland has the infgenuity to earn, the smaller populus to hold account of our politicians and the ingrained social fairness which is a characterstic of Scottish society.

Anonymous,  10 March 2009 at 09:05  

Malc, the situation as I see it is that politics has been taken over by marketing and media managers. It's all about perception - how the public perceive the story/issue/politician, not the reality.

For this we have to thank Blair and Alastair Campbell. Think back to the days when NuLab were on the rise...everything was "on message" and woe betide the would be minister who strayed from the party line. No one was allowed to speak to the press/TV News without first consulting their pager.

There is a woeful lack of intelligentsia in the political arena, no more Allan Clarke or Tony Benn - MPs prepaped to speak their minds and the hell with what anyone else thinks.

Watch Question Time and you'll see what I mean. The Labour Pary representative will defend Gordon to the hilt - "lovely man, right man to lead us...blah, blah, blah". The Conservative representative will present the case for the prosecution of Gordon, The LibDem will be neither here nor there and the rest of the panel made up of newspaper columnists, comedians, Shami Chakrabati or other non-entities with an IQ so low they require watering once a week.

And so we come to today, where the Prime Minister is in denial of his own culpability regarding the state of the nation's economy. So convinced is he that he is right and the 59 999 999 of the rest of us are completely wrong.

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