Marco Biagi: "my European vision for Edinburgh Central"
Updated: Oct 22, 2020
Interview by Max Hunter
Marco Biagi cuts an unassuming figure. When we met for a coffee by Uplands Roast he greeted me in jeans and a jumper. His unshaven face seemed marked with the stress of one of this year’s hottest nomination battles: the fight for Edinburgh Central. I was glad when we could do away with the customary masks and take our 1 metre-distanced seats on a bench in the Meadows.
Biagi is the left insurgent in this contest. The nomination for the SNP candidate has provoked a storm of controversy, and highlighted the factional divisions in Scotland’s governing party. The contest was originally tipped to be between Joanna Cherry (broadly seen as hailing from the Salmondite wing of the party) and Angus Robertson (one of Nicola Sturgeon’s staunchest allies).
This was until a decision by the party’s National Executive Committee barred Cherry from standing, ruling that she would have to immediately stand down as a Westminster MP (and fire all her advisers) in order to even run for the Holyrood seat. Among the SNP rank and file, this move was seen as not just unreasonable (given the SNP’s long history of contesting power in two parliaments) but also transparently factional.
Biagi is quick to acknowledge how this decision was perceived: “I made representations that this would not go down well, they went ahead. That’s where we are. They’re not changing their minds.”
He insists that the decision was not, at root, a factional one: “I know why they did it; most people on the NEC who did it wanted to stop MPs and MSPs having dual mandates- that’s a reasonable reason. I think there was some naivety that they didn’t appreciate that this would be perceived as an attack on one person directly…and on a faction”.
The SNP as a party riven with factionalism is one of the most convenient tropes its critics wheel out. Is it a picture of the party that he recognises?
“In order to be a faction you have to actively dislike each other. You know, there’s a difference between having different tendencies and different factions.” Biagi points to the founding of the party: a union between a ‘gradualist’ and ‘fundamentalist’ party.
“There have always been those that wanted to really hit the accelerator on independence and those that were willing to adopt a slower path to independence. Classically, it was always called the gradualist/fundamentalist divide.”
If the SNP appears more fractious than it used to, he says this is because the party enjoyed an unusual level of unity between 2007 and 2014: the years in which the party enjoyed its first term in government and could look forward to its long sought-after goal: an independence referendum. “Everybody had an objective right in front of them, that they could unite around”.
Historically a broad church, its rhetoric has (at least since the 1970s) been firmly social democratic. Sceptics say this is a convenient conviction to have, for a nationalist party which bases its support solely in a country with broadly social democratic political traditions, and whose raison d'être is to proclaim that that country’s political traditions are alien to those of the broader union it belongs to.
The neo-liberal Salmond years had their parallel (and their primary example) in New Labour’s attempts to assuage the fears of business leaders. Contemporary criticism from some wings of the SNP (most notably George Kerevan) points to the leadership’s overly cosy relationship with big business. As the ‘left’ candidate in this fight (he even confesses to having joined the Greens for a few months in 2003) I wondered what Biagi made of this.
“Even at the most pro-business period it was a party that opposed privatisation, supported unilateral nuclear disarmament, opposed tuition fees, all of these things.”
“The SNP has tried to keep close relations with business. It has to be said, probably those relations are cooler now than they were in the Salmond period. You don’t have the same support from the New Town financial establishment that was willing to offer that support in 2010/2011.”
After all the energy expended on wooing these fickle friends in the run up to 2014, big business nonetheless came out “en bloc” at the last moment and delivered a killer blow to the Yes campaign.
“The supermarkets said that prices would go up, or let it be known that prices would go up, the banks all said that they would move their brass plate. And a lot of work had been expended to try and prevent that happening, and I think that in retrospect may have been a tactical era during the referendum.”
“If anything since 2014 we’re cooler towards the captains of industry than we were before.”
In this race, Biagi is seeking to reclaim a seat he formerly held between 2011 and 2016. He entered Holyrood as the ‘baby of the house’ at 28 years old, and after 3 years became Minister for Local Government and Local Empowerment. He speaks with obvious pride of his role in drafting and pushing through The Local Community Empowerment Act of 2015.
“That was for giving communities [the] power to do things. So for example, a community group could take over a community centre, that kind of thing, or create a housing co-op, take over public property that way.”
I can tell I’ve tickled his interest. The intersection of land reform and localism seems to be the crux of his political vision; although he doesn’t volunteer these descriptors, it bears the obvious imprint of left-libertarian tendencies: pushing power downwards and outwards.
“During the process of that and during the process of [the] local tax reform commission we came across this proposal that had floated out there in think tank land for a while, about giving councils the ability to buy land at the underlying value.”
He obviously has ideas about how to better manage housing in Edinburgh, and in Scotland’s city centres in general. We are, he says, falling behind. “Edinburgh’s got a real land shortage more than anything else, and it’s not been helped by a lot of very breakneck competition for sites in the centre.”
The new tendency for Air B&Bs to dominate the private rental market in the city centre is something he’s particularly riled up about. “It’s [the council’s] flaming statutory duty to provide housing for the city!”
On this, as on other issues, Biagi’s political centre of gravity is firmly European. He looks to Berlin for solutions to the housing crisis in Scotland’s city centres. The key isn’t so much rent controls, as 'use planning'. This is part of his excuse for his party voting with the Tories, in May, to vote down Andy Wightman’s amendments that would have secured a pandemic rent freeze. Those amendments were “badly worded”.
“Generally speaking I think rents are gonna go down rather than up … right now if you are a tenant, you are at a level of power that you’re not going to have been in for years. And we’ve seen the rental prices for new properties going on the market in Edinburgh coming down. So I don’t think what we need is a short term action on that.”
“We’ve got the Air B&B licensing coming up, which is good, [and] we need to revisit rent control legislation because what we passed in 2016 hasn’t worked as intended. That needs to be a priority early in the next government. With government support behind it.”
He is especially concerned about the changing nature of the city centre, as lower income residents are pushed out in favour of holiday homes. “The Old Town has been hollowed out a lot, it doesn’t have as many residents as it used to. So many of its homes have become holiday homes, that it would be nice to get back to a sense of the Old Town as a genuinely mixed residential, commercial, cosmopolitan city centre.”
“I mean you look at city centres, you know, Berlin and places like that, you’ve got all of these people in the one space, with shops…and it’s just such a vibrant atmosphere.”
And this relates to a broader theme that will characterise the upcoming Holyrood elections in May, and the intensified constitutional wrangling that will probably follow.
The SNP’s seemingly unassailable new hegemony of Scottish politics is based around a number of factors. Their ability to seamlessly marry a managerial, technocratic style of centre-left European politics with populism (or what Biagi calls “a bit of heart”) with apparently no-one noticing, is one of them. The other is Brexit, and the new dividing lines it has thrown up in Scottish politics.
If the Scottish business establishment got cold feet about the independence project in 2014, then Brexit sent them running to the shitter.
Edinburgh Central has symbolic value as the heart of Scotland’s capital, but it also represents the kind of Scotland that Brexit has delivered into SNP hands. Cosmopolitan and affluent, gentrifying but liberal; and incorrigibly European.
“It’s got a really affluent part…it’s got the New Town, it’s got Murrayfield, it’s got Inverleith. Those are very affluent areas, but it’s also got this really cosmopolitan area that’s full of EU immigrants, students, young renters. And it’s got Gorgie and Dalry which are gentrifying, for sure, but are traditional working class areas.”
This explains the seat’s marginality: Biagi knows it has never been won convincingly in the post-devolution era. Those urban, working class strongholds used to deliver the seat to Labour, then Biagi won it for the SNP in 2011, and then Ruth Davidson (the liberal, Europhile Tory exemplar) took it in 2016 after Biagi stood down for health reasons. “The highest that anyone’s ever got is 38%. Ruth Davidson won it with 30% of the vote- 70% voted for other people.”
“My very clear objective – if I’m selected- is to unite the progressive vote, to throw the Tories out. Win some people over, back from the Tories, that are appalled by Brexit; but make it very clear that if you want a progressive MSP then it’s got to be the SNP…and it’s got to be me!”
This is the political formula that will likely deliver the SNP a decisive victory in May’s elections, and with it, a controlling hand over the path to another independence referendum.
Biagi is an academic as well as a politician. After leaving frontline Scottish politics he went over to Yale to do a PhD in comparative American politics. He hasn’t finished it, and he’s balancing his teaching commitments over Zoom with running a campaign.
He strikes me as an intellectual in politics. He is honest, forthright and articulate, but obviously immensely thoughtful. This becomes increasingly clear when I ask him about nationalism and populism in the modern era.
“I think the left ignores the ties of nationality and community at its peril.”
“If it doesn’t try to make a case for an inclusive form of nationality, nationality will exist and the right will be able to define it instead. And I think that’s what’s happening at UK level.”
Why does he think this change has happened? Why is nationalism the prism through which Western politics has increasingly been defined?
He gives a long, detailed answer about the shift from left/right economic arguments to social issues as the new political fighting ground. He points to Britain’s decline as an imperial power, and the identity crisis that necessarily ensues. “I’m thinking out loud here. Which is something I really need to get away from! If I’m going to be back in politics…I need to know the answer straight away and give it with confidence, even if it’s wrong!”
He points to Blue Labour, and Billy Bragg’s brand of “Jerusalem-nationalism”, as two examples of the English Labour movement attempting to copy the SNP formula. But the Blue Labour path, he suggests, “compromises essential elements of the social democratic platform”.
The economics of independence have long been seen as the ‘Achilles heel’ of the Yes campaign. What does he think they must do to win the economic argument next time round?
Trust is the key. “It needs to promise things it can deliver. That is, I suppose, an acknowledgement that tactically in 2014, talking about a currency union that was bilateral, when Scotland would only be one part of that, had credibility issues then. Because all the UK government needs to do is say: ‘we won’t take part in it’, and suddenly you’re on a ‘he said, he said’. So anything has to be deliverable, purely within Scotland’s remit.”
“The UK’s entire political economy is based on turbocharging the City of London and its environs and that being used to subsidise everywhere else… The argument has now moved on to: is it sensible to have a unitary state like this, that depends solely on these inter-regional transfers?” Scotland, he claims, is the most economically successful part of the UK outside of the South East of England.
He seems well read in economics, and conscious of the risks involved in an independent currency. “I don’t underestimate the risks of going to an independent currency. You definitely don’t want to do it on day one.” He suggests using Sterling as an interim measure, to be phased out gradually.
Equally important is that the campaign must have spokespeople who are immediately recognisable as social democratic in their “background and philosophy”. Biagi’s economic realism is refreshing, coming from a member of a party that is often accused of wilfully downplaying the economic risks of independence.
If he is selected, his “European vision” for Edinburgh Central will likely play well across the area’s socio-economic divide. The city of Edinburgh voted 74.4% to Remain in the EU.
The towering commercial giants of the New Town, and the affluent middle classes that sip cocktails in its wide, grandiose streets now have a cause that unites them with the working classes that are being pushed out of areas like Gorgie and Dalry.
Brexit was a far more potent SNP recruiting agent than Salmond’s business-friendly antics could ever have been. Personally, I hope Biagi’s political vision of pushing power downwards, and outwards, reaps the rewards.
Cover Image: via Wiki Commons