Friday, 3 April 2015

As we stifle in consensus over austerity, is the SNP the only hope for an alternative?

The great debate wasn’t that great. If it was even a debate.

Four men, David Cameron for the Tories, our current Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, his deputy for the Liberal Democrats, Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition for Labour, and Nigel Farage of UKIP, well for himself, and anyone who prefers bigoted belief over reason and evidence, faced off to three women, Leanne Wood for Plaid Cymru, Natalie Bennett for the Greens and Nicola Sturgeon for the Scottish National Party.

This was the single Prime Ministerial debate before the UK General Election on 7 May, televised last night. With seven contenders, no debate was really possible. Each candidate responded to a series of questions, and occasionally candidates cut across or challenged each other, but it was all a bit stilted.

The seven contenders in the Party Leaders' debate
So we learned little from the event. Except perhaps that the Celtic Fringe has a lot to teach England.

Leanne Wood persisted throughout in addressing Wales and Welsh voters. She seemed to have little to say to any other part of the United Kingdom, which seriously reduced the national impact of what she had to say. Even so, she did at least speak out against austerity, and for both the European Union and immigration, pointing out that leaving the former would do great damage, while threats to limit the latter were already harming her country.

That’s Wales, by the way, not Britain.

Nicola Sturgeon, on the other hand, was far more impressive. I’m sure that I’m far from the only Englishman who felt envious of the Scots, after listening to her. Why don’t we have someone so bravely and clearly articulating a message of the moderate left?

And I stress that word ‘moderate’. Many, and I include myself, have referred to Sturgeon as ‘radical’. But in reality she is not proposing anything revolutionary, or even particularly reforming: there’s no programme for mass nationalisation of industry here, or even of serious redistribution of wealth. Indeed, in many ways her programme is one for a conservative left wing: to maintain and protect the National Health Service, to keep access to tertiary education free. Even the most dramatic of the SNP’s positions is a demand for non-action, not for action: not to build the successor to the Trident nuclear deterrent.

This is a programme well to the right of the Attlee Labour government’s of 1945, which set up the NHS, along with the apparatus of the welfare state. It’s to the right of the programme of the Wilson Labour government of the 1960s, with its talk of storming the commanding heights of the economy. It’s telling that today the limited programme of the SNP seems to be the most daring on offer.

Amongst the representatives of the whole of Britain on show, only Natalie Bennett spoke for a similar anti-austerity view. A little dull, and representing a small minority of the electorate, she was never going to set this election alight.

Alongside her, we had Nigel Farage, beginning to sound far more wooden than he has in the past, certainly not the firebrand he once was and who won such massive support last year. To him, every question could only be solved by cutting immigration and leaving the EU – or was that leaving the EU in order to cut immigration?

And then we had Cameron proposing more and intensifying austerity, in the mistaken belief that all that matters is reducing national debt and eliminating the government deficit.

Against him, Miliband is at least speaking for the NHS, improving education and – at last – unequivocally denouncing the abomination of zero-hour contracts. This is the exploitative mechanism in which a worker is tied to an employee, but can’t count on any guaranteed level of work or earnings. That Miliband attacked it is welcome; but that he still seems committed to more austerity, if a lighter variety than Cameron’s, is dismal.

So it takes Nicola Sturgeon to speak out for the Centre-Left. The moderate Left, as I said. A little fresh air in the stifling atmosphere of the austerity consensus.

It’s sad that it should be so. But I suppose we can take some comfort that there is one voice, at least, clearly articulating arguments that badly need to be heard.

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