24 November 2015

Populism on the ropes: where Argentina leads will Scotland ultimately follow?

By Tom Gallagher

It is often unwise to write-off countries and assume that due to particular characteristics they are destined to be permanently trapped in instability and failure.

Argentina has long been seen in just this way. Thanks to the impact of the Perons and their 21st century successors, the Kirchners, Argentina exemplified the excesses of populism. This is the brand of politics which throws up leaders who insist they are uniquely qualified to discern the will of the people and carry it out even if it means interfering with fundamental elements of the democratic process.

Yet on Sunday a majority of voters rejected the hand-picked successor of Christina Kirchner at a time when populism has been running amok in many places. Enough voters were fed up with chronic inefficiency and corruption, the whittling away of core democratic safeguards, and the blaming of foreign power centres on national decay to opt for change.

Mauricio Macri, a construction magnate was elected on a broadly centrist economic manifesto for renewal. His task is huge given the slump in commodity prices which provide Argentina with valuable earnings as well as the debauching of the state’s finances by some of his predecessors.

This is perhaps the biggest political event in Latin America since the death, in 2013, of Hugo Chavez whose ruinous far-left policies have brought oil-rich Venezuela to its knees.

Several motions in the Scottish Parliament have hailed Chavez, signed by many Scottish Nationalist members and some labour ones too. It is almost certain that if a motion was drawn up welcoming the election of an Argentinian President who has visited Israel, is distrustful of Kirchner’s close ties with Iran, and wishes to end a belligerent stand- off with Britain over the Falkland islands, none of the SNP’s 66 MSPs would have signed it.

Since 2007 Scotland has been ruled by a populist party shot through with paradoxes. It claims that independence is its overriding goal but there has been no planning for that eventuality. Instead, it prefers to micro-manage the lives of 5 million Scots with numerous intrusive measures, turning them slowly into a dependent population, one pushed and pulled by the state.

Before the 2014 referendum on independence which it lost, there was a White Paper replete with euphemistic claims about the viability of a Scottish state with generous welfare provisions despite the tax-base only being a small fraction of that of the rest of the UK. It claimed that receipts from oil in Scottish waters would finance independence. But now that oil revenues are only a fraction of what was hoped, nationalists insist that oil is only ‘an optional extra’ and that Scottish wind, water, agriculture, and services can make the experiment blossom.

London is assailed as the bogey-man holding Scotland back but simultaneously, the 55 SNP MPs at Westminster demand the continuation of a financial lifeline from the rest of the UK to keep the quasi-separatist experiment afloat.

The SNP has no model for self-rule and is reluctant to encourage internal debate about what could follow the partition of Britain. Contemporary Scottish nationalism is one of a number of ostensibly radical causes worldwide which trade on negation. It depicts a generously-funded and flexible British system of decentralisation as unjust, interfering and illegitimate but has nothing to put in its place.

I believe that a shrill and irrational cause has enjoyed fertile growth in Scotland because a critical mass of people have become very hedonistic and egoistical and therefore crave for a romantic and confrontational brand of politics. De-industrialisation, the decline of religion, the retreat of genuinely civic associations, and the flourishing of lifestyles that challenge previous norms, have created a society much of which is attuned to risk and experimentation for its own sake.

A cacophony of noisy indignation about the alleged role of Scotland’s island partner England in holding the country back, has detached people from their former relaxed or non-existent views on constitutional questions and turned countless numbers into militant separatists.

The rise of the dissatisfied and egotistical citizen ready to endorse a political party whose leaders also have a self-absorbed and basically populist profile, had been predicted in the 1920s by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, long familiar with Argentina. In The Revolt of the Masses published in 1929, he warned that society’s vital energies would be sapped thanks to disorientated citizens surrendering their fate to an interventionist state where populists held sway.

Having become the dominant electoral force the Scottish National Party (SNP) has built up a patronage machine, granting favours and exemptions to supporters or groups that it wants to capture. It finds independent bodies like Scotland’s 15 universities unsettling. So it is currently planning to strip them of major autonomy: in Latin America tyrants frequently curbed the universities only for riots and sometimes revolutions to result.

Semi-state and civic bodies from charities to quangos have also been tamed and politicised. Yet the SNP’s performance in key policy areas such as health and education has been dire and many citizens know this. But there is fear of confronting the party that won a landslide in May with the slogan of ‘Stronger for Scotland’.

As far as it is possible to typecast people, the Scots from the late 20th century all the way back to the 18th century had often been described by other contemporaries as serious, long-term and practical in their outlook. Of course, the composite personality of nations can change in line with social conditions. But I strongly suspect that the superficial and touchy Scot who can be mobilised against imaginary grievances will not be a long-term trademark for this nation.

The type of fight-back on the centre-right seen in Argentina is possible. But a political relaunch must judge politicians and other aspirants for high office on their personal suitability to deliver policies that make a real difference to people’s lives rather than give them a temporary emotive boost based on patriotic sentiment. Wanted are politicians who can engage with people on a serious basis, help restore a long-term perspective, and be seen as genuine representatives bound up with the needs of local communities which have elected them.

Scotland has to choose the path it wishes to go down. If it wishes to continue endorsing populists, a few of whom are very careful not to overlook their own personal affairs as they perform as tribunes of the people, the country will change its character and be seen as different by the rest of the world. Its national political life is likely to increasingly resemble Third World countries whose politics revolve around shrill nationalism and directing resentment at foreign centres which are convenient alibis for internal political failings.

If the result in Argentina gives Scots food for thought, encouraging them to renew cooperation with the rest of the UK, it will be a return to common sense. Perhaps it might even give Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s popular but still untested First Minister, some food for thought. Her predecessor Alex Salmond was an opportunistic showman who encouraged the rise of a confrontational national spirit. But as happened in Egypt when Anwar Sadat succeeded General Nasser, populists are sometimes replaced by sounder individuals. Scotland’s future will probably be determined as much by power-struggles within the nationalist camp as by the readiness of Scots to abandon the politics of grievance and unreason.

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist whose book Scotland Now: A Warning to the World (Scotview Publications) will be on sale from 11 December.