I CAN’T remember who it was who first coined the idea that Scotland is made up of a loose confederation of “city-states” – but the notion always appealed to me.

The phrase might more naturally conjure up Machiavelli’s Italy and the warring Italian republics of the 15th century rather than Aberdeen, Glasgow and Dundee – but it nicely captures something of the many distinctive civic and regional identities which make up the complex geographies of our national identities.

Outside of football, culture in Scotland doesn’t always – or even reliably – do justice to this geographical diversity. But do our politics? Last week, Martin McCluskey, who is currently a Labour councillor for Gourock and his party’s prospective Westminster candidate for Inverclyde and Renfrewshire West, complained on social media that the composition of John Swinney’s new Cabinet demonstrated antipathy and indifference towards the mighty coalition of M8 commuters, west end mums and Greenock Morton fans.

There is, he argued, “not a single voice from a west coast or Glasgow constituency round the cabinet table. Increasingly clear the west of Scotland isn’t a priority for the SNP”.

I appreciate that this is the kind of stupid accusation politicians of all parties are obliged to come up with in their local election literature from time to time.

The Herald: (left to right) Angela Constance,.Deputy First Minister of Scotland Kate Forbes, First Minister of Scotland John Swinney and Shona Robison during Mr Swinney's debut at First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh.

But at this point, those of you with a geographical bent and a working knowledge of the concepts of east and west might be inclined to point out that Kate Forbes’s constituency of Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch extends to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean – a west coast destination if ever you could think of one.

Others might point out that Health Secretary Neil Gray – though originally from Orkney – represents Airdrie and Shotts in Holyrood in the buckle of the central belt – with Coatbridge, Motherwell and East Kilbride falling well within the cultural and economic orbit of Scotland’s largest city.

Anything but undiscouraged by these facts about geography, our friends at the Scottish Express took up McCluskey’s observation with gusto, dubbing Don John’s continuity Cabinet the “east coast mafia” and arguing that “more than 1.4 million people in Glasgow and West Scotland now have no voice around the Cabinet table”.

As far as John Swinney is concerned, he must be thinking he’s heard this song before. It was back in September 2009, during the SNP’s first spell of minority government, that he was accused of having “a clear anti-Glasgow agenda” and “anti-Glasgow bias” by local Labour politicians – a storyline which the party now seems awfully keen to revive, in a week in which John Swinney became the first First Minister for a decade who doesn’t represent a Glaswegian constituency in Holyrood.

But the allegation adds to the increased recent jabber around geographical representation and justice in Scottish politics. In recent months, the Scottish Government has also been beset by suggestions from the Tories that it has “abandoned rural Scotland”, complaining that “for years the SNP have been prioritising the central belt”.

Some of this criticism is rooted in the impact of specific policies on rural communities – the future of wood-burning stoves and road access routes into the Highlands being recent flashpoints for controversy – but the overarching politics of these two accusations from Scotland’s two largest opposition parties is a little puzzling.

The SNP are, on these accounts, simultaneously utterly obsessed with and utterly neglectful of Greater Glasgow, buried in rural life, and at the same time oblivious to how folk who don’t live in southside tenements think.

Cultural critics

What makes these criticisms moderately interesting is that they invert something Scottish cultural critics have sometimes described as “Clydesideism”. Alongside the literature of the kailyard, and the kitsch-marking device of tartanry, Christopher White defined Clydesideism as the notion that “the city of Glasgow, and the West of Scotland more generally” exert “an unfair dominance, where representations of Scottishness and Scotland are concerned”.

This domination is often coloured in with a grim nostalgic sense that the truest stories and experiences of being Scottish are miserabilist tales of post-industrial decay, deprivation and substance dependency. In the 1980s, another scholar of Scottish literature, Cairns Craig, expressed concerns that “the death throes of industrial west-central Scotland have become the touchstone of authenticity for our culture”.

The term has perhaps most often been applied to literature and drama, but it works just as well when applied to popular Scottish comedies, misery memoirs, TV dramas and soaps from The Steamie to River City. It’s a spirit mobilised at Red Clydeside concerts, in the suggestion Still Game is a universal comedy of the kind of lives folk in Scotland lead, or converting Alasdair Gray (below) from a Glaswegian into a universally Scottish author as if nothing is lost or exaggerated in the process.

The Herald:

But underneath all the party rhetoric, there are interesting dynamics at play here. Until 2011, the SNP had made some isolated tokenistic wins in west central Scotland. In the 1970s and 80s, Margo and Jim’s fleeting wins in Govan proved that Labour’s Glasgow strongholds were not unassailable – but the majority of the party’s representation derived from small-town and more rural Scotland.

After umpteen unsuccessful attempts, Nicola Sturgeon took Glasgow Govan from the Labour Party in 2007, before the 2011 election yielded four more.

One underrated consequence of the SNP’s knife-edge win in 2007 was that it made the Scottish Government look and sound rather more diverse, drawing on a wider social and geographic basis than Jack McConnell’s Labour-led administration, which inevitably relied more on his party’s domination of central-belt constituencies.

Labour disrupted

IT took until 2015 for Scottish Labour’s stronghold on Westminster seats to be decisively broken after the independence referendum. But that vote did more than disrupt Scottish Labour’s electoral base – it also challenged the SNP’s, precipitating a wider realignment in the party’s traditional support base.

Constituencies held by the party for decades didn’t turn out in favour of its core policy. In Moray, Aberdeenshire and Perthshire, the “No” vote comfortably exceeded 60%. These heartland constituencies may have reliably returned SNP political representatives to London and Edinburgh – but were posted missing when the votes for self-determination were tallied in 2014.

The rest is political history. Correctly sensing a political opportunity, the SNP leaned into the new electoral opportunities in populous urban Scotland, running out the Labour MPs in 2015 and winning the next Holyrood election handily.

What fewer people really reflected on is how this realignment created risks as well as opportunities. Even victors are by victories undone. By realigning their support base towards the central belt, it was inevitable that the tone and emphasis of the SNP would also shift – creating opportunities for other parties to exploit the tensions in this broader identity. While the SNP positioned – and position – themselves as a national party, representing inner-city seats and sprawling rural constituencies, you can’t prioritise everything all at once. And perception, after all, is half of politics. Allow a perception of social distance from the lives of some of your constituents to grow, and it becomes politically true.

Newly appointed First
Minister of Scotland John Swinney stands with his newly appointed Cabinet members (top row - left to right)Fiona Hyslop, Angela Constance, Jenny Gilruth, Shirley-Anne Somerville

For myself, I’ve no problem with the basic suggestion that urban and rural priorities will often be different. I grew up in a rural estate in mid-Argyll with 30-odd kids in the local school, minimal infrastructure of local services, occasional power outages, where everybody knows everybody else, thinks they know everyone’s business and where the local community relies to a significant extent on a small number of local employers.

Eccentric tenure

People hunted, raised little furry animals for the table – and usually cooked them badly. Housing tenure was eccentric – nobody owned their own homes, their housing tenure was tied to their jobs. I barely saw police officers till I was in my teenage years.

Listening to some of the urban commentary on Kate Forbes, you might think rural Scotland is uniformly a bastion of social conservatism and religious observance. The small mid-Argyll I grew up in had many outward forms of religious observance but was as functionally godless a place as I’ve ever lived in.

The urban clichés which are proving just as popular with Scotland’s healthy band of reactionary columnists are just as dull. I’m always struck by the fact that folk who suggest “wine bars” are the peak of a degenerate urban population’s cultural decadence are almost invariably people I’ve bumped into in bars, in towns, with drink in hand.

Faithful representation – in art and politics – matters. If there is one lesson here, it is that too often, we talk and think in clichés, and the stereotypes let us down when it comes to practical reasoning about the diverse needs our diverse country has.