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The Palace of Varieties (June 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

By going for a minority government the Scottish National party has opted for a strenuous self-education.


Mornings in Holyrood. The new boys are clustering, shy and unsure, as if in the corridors of some Victorian public school, aware that two of every three are Flashmen, out to get you.

Arnold Bennett captures the parliamentary tone fairly precisely in his novel of the Lloyd George cabinet in 1918, Lord Raingo: a mixture of Tom Hughes and Lewis Carroll, in which the novice is conducted from ritual to faux pas in a game he or she can scarcely understand. Alex Salmond, our first minister, shows me off as his professor, a bijou version of CP Snow joining Harold Wilson's government in 1964. Snow wasn't much good, and he was then three years younger than me. Raingo was 54, and dead by the end of the book.

A new minister nailed the more refined version of inernment in store for the SNP elite: "I think I may have four offices in town: one in St Andrews House (the vast art deco Praesidium on Calton Hill), one in Leith, one in parliament and one in some God-forsaken forties block in Sighthill." This private imperialism contrasted with the sense of being taken in charge by the British civil service: "Here's your private secretary ... It's like an old-fashioned dancing class. About a third of them will play it by the book. Another third are appalled by the prospect. The remainder are really rather excited."

By going for a minority government the Scottish National party has opted for a strenuous self-education. This itself is odd. In Germany coalition parties generally fight elections as a coalition. Things are left to the partner: "agriculture and justice are FDP things". But the SNP is doing the lot. This might work, but it is, as my agent Ian Chisholm says, "high maintenance".

Ron Davies called devolution "a process, not an event" and the same thing applies to the SNP: as the arc-lights home in on them, policies form. Alex Salmond on energy plugs into his earlier expertise as Royal Bank oil economist, and the table is well-stocked. John Swinney should do financial reform to a turn. Others areas are less precise.

What does history tell the defeated? What happened to the Brown, Blair and McConnell factors in the recent contest? Jack McConnell would have done rather better on his own account, instead of getting caught up in fear and loathing in Downing Street. In 2003 he padded round the housing schemes on the trail of the rather cerebral Swinney, consoling pensioners black affrontit by out-of-control kids. With much success. But in April 2007 he was trapped by the Downing Street duo, and the body-language was terrible. McConnell is an LBJ figure, always more interesting than JFK, and his legacy - considerable enough - was the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in local elections, which has run the Labour party out of many a Scottish burgh, maybe for good.

The SNP's pitch has been - in one form - accomplished. First Minister Salmond is a class act. You have the same feeling that a German journalist had 14 years ago: "John Major sieht aus wie ein Bankangestellte, John Smith wie ein Bankdirektor." We'll come back to the banks. Yet one would have to admit that much of the party's policy is (inevitably: see above) an amalgam of intelligent adaptation and prioritising, and existential ad hockery: for fishermen reacting to the run-down of the Scottish fleet; car commuters aggrieved at tolls on the Forth Road Bridge. As a Fife member, their abolition is fine by me: our growth rate is only a third of that of Lothian (a tantalising five miles away across the Forth). But how do these sums work out in developmental terms?

Then there is Scotland's mittelstand problem. The Royal Bank may have helped set things up for Salmond, but with profits coming in at over 7 billion, how bothered is it with the prospects of small businesses? This goes back. Scottish economic history, ever since the Clyde imploded in 1921 after beating the Kaiser, has been about the co-existence of huge blocks: the banks, ICI, the oil companies, the trade unions, the cooperatives.

The last, ironically, softened things up for Tescoland. The Co-op was a triumph of Lib-Lab working-class order; it dominated retail in many of the mining and steel towns, from prams to funerals. There was no real market tradition. So that outside middle-class areas, and the small-partnership firms that supplied tweeds and pottery, and donkey engines, optics and furniture to the Clydeside giants, there has never been a Scottish "Mittelstand" on a level with that of Germany.

How to reconstruct it? This is the point, readers, where I draw the curtain, as after three weeks on the back-benches, I go to Bute House in Charlotte Square as policy liaison officer to the first minister.

Some general issues, though, can be pondered. Out-of-town Scotland pulls in SNP votes. Pricey neo-Georgian estates with tiny gardens and no shops in walking distance, still yield good arguments from folk reared in the secure enveloping world of class, in their way loyal to it, but trying to get away from "the people's republic" with its patronage and predetermined destinies. Get away to what? American Scotland or European Scotland?

Another Megamall is about to open at Silverburn, south-west of Glasgow. How long will it last? In 1999 petrol in America was $1 a gallon, it now stands at $3. Food-miles culture may be in for a fall, but this still has to register in a culture in which a small car is a curiosity.

Holyrood's electronic parliament exists, online at county libraries, but is it used more than the theatre of the chamber? The Civic Forum, set up as a means of echoing the parliament in the wider context of the voluntary sector, has steadily been losing its grants, while the lawyers' Speculative Society continues its mysterious career. In Germany recent studies of co-operative federalism have seen authority migrating from the chambers to the Land executives in their Berlin embassies. But this is probably balanced by the effective autonomy of the towns and counties. Viewed pessimistically, there's nothing like this in Scotland. Shake, rattle and roll, and the old order will land on its feet just like that.

Holyrood ought, theoretically, to face up to this. MSPs in their Catalonian cells are well provided with online information and gadgetry, yet things have yet to jell. Debates swing from stairheid rammy to informed exchange. The worry is that all of this is a diversion, and that without reindustrialisation we'll simply have a rather more ecumenical patronage state. Joseph Lee on inter-war Ireland showed that economic dogma was thicker than blood. Former guerrillas quickly turned into the Gladstonian financiers their civil servants expected.

Let's go back to the beginning, and the 18th century battle of the economic books. Marx and Gramsci ditched, Gordon Brown lauds Adam Smith. Perhaps the nationalist way out lies through Smith's contemporary the mercantilist Sir James Steuart of Coltness, a Jacobite exile in Tübingen. Steuart in his time was probably smarter than Smith, in concentrating on how infant industries were nurtured, and on the strategic weaknesses of dominant economies. His example was influential on Hegel and Lincoln's Republicans in America, and may be more relevant today.

The present Scottish predicament is an odd one. The Royal Bank, the resurrected Standard Life and the two post-privatisation transport giants, Stagecoach and First, may indicate that Scotland has global actors, conscious of "social union", who can hold London at bay and sort things out in favour of seedling growths in their neighbourhood. A second Switzerland? Maybe. Or maybe not: one private equity blitz, and Warren Buffet could have us by the ukulele.

But the first Switzerland is now, in June, horridly hot, and its accomplished tourist professionals (with a third lopped off their winter season) are in search of more temperate woods, lochs and mountains to develop.

Wise Scots will assist them.

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