How do we put government and leadership back in Scotland and the UK?
Scottish Review, 25 May 2022
UK government and politics are not in a good place. They have been traduced and trashed in ways once unimaginable. Boris Johnson has presided over an administration from top to bottom of unbelievable incompetence, serial lying and disdain for the law and due process, vandalising government, civil service and public standards.
At the same time in Scotland fifteen years of SNP rule do not find things here in a good place. All across society and public life there are questions about government, its competence and issues of judgement and accountability – from ferries to trains, to education, hospitals, police and local government.
The current conjecture seems some kind of milestone. Westminster and Whitehall have become broken, discredited institutions whose commitment to public service and decency have got lost along the way, for all the undoubted decent civil servants there still are. Boris Johnson’s shoddy, careless leadership is part of this story but it is not the whole story. He has dramatically diminished the office of Prime Minister and status of the Cabinet, but these have been in long-term decline for decades.
This raises huge questions for the UK and Scotland. How do we get out of this mess? How do we put government and leadership back together?
The crisis of Boris Johnson’s Premiership has been much written about and will be more again over the coming days and weeks. But it has to be seen as part of a bigger story which is not just about Johnson and his shortcomings as a human being and politician. How on earth did the Tory Party elect such a person as their leader? The answer in terms of Tory MPs was electoral desperation.
A major factor in this is the morphing of Toryism and how it does politics. Government has become about saying you are doing things and the pretence that you are doing many of them rather than getting your hands dirty actually doing the difficult tasks and art of government.
Keeping a distance from actual government over numerous areas works for the populist right. They can use failures of public policy – the £37 billion PPE contracts; the grotesque, indefensible crony capitalism to their close pals – to discredit the idea of government and decent public standards. They can use it as an excuse to outsource and further corporatise public services; and they can use it to undermine belief in government as a force for good which aids the former and a sense in voters of fatalism and powerlessness.
UK Government will not return to some kind of ‘normal service’ post-Johnson. Rather the forces within Toryism – an obsession with Europe, hostility to immigration combined with xenophobia and racism, picking and weaponising culture wars, accruing powers within the UK to central government while increasingly riding roughshod over the rule of law and due process. All of this is accompanied to the backdrop of waxing lyrical about a mythical idea of Britain – a superpower in tech and soft power, leading the world as Tory ministers claim on Ukraine. Post-Johnson the Tories will still be defined by such a heady cocktail of bigotry and posturing.
The notion of a Labour Government riding to the rescue and putting back together the broken government and public services of the UK is unfortunately not available as it was in previous times. A major constraint is that Labour need to win 120-130 seats to have an overall majority of one seat; and the reality is that even a majority Labour Government with a slender majority would not have the room and political capital to affect major change. Much more likely as a best-case scenario if the Tories are defeated is a minority Labour Government with all the instabilities that entails, one which refused to make common cause with the SNP, and which will not enter into any pre-election ‘progressive alliance’ against the Tories.
In Scotland the state of government and public life is not in the degenerative state it is in Westminster and Whitehall. Yet just because Scotland has not fallen as far and markedly as UK institutions is not cause for celebration and indeed is the wrong measurement, allowing for complacency and even in places self-congratulation.
The SNP under Nicola Sturgeon 15 years into office seem bereft of political strategy, feel and purpose. The Daily Telegraph’s Tim Stanley might describe the SNP as ‘a left-wing nationalist government’ but no one who knows and follows Scottish politics would misrepresent the SNP and its inherent centrism in such terms.
Sturgeon is now the longest serving First Minister in the two decades of devolution: 7 years and 186 days when she surpasses her predecessor Alex Salmond today. She has many qualities including that she is an able, gifted public communicator who can talk in a connected, concerned human way about issues of government. She is a proven manager and administrator who unlike Johnson and the Tories clearly cares and is passionate about government and public services. And she is still seven and a half years into her time in office relatively popular – and in fact surprisingly popular given the record of her government.
But as has been obvious for a long time, Sturgeon with all the above qualities is not really a leader. A leader sets a direction and has a strategy; it is clear that Sturgeon has neither in terms of her domestic agenda or on the subject of independence. Instead, she is drawn to micro-management and command and control from the political centre, which has increasingly degenerated into firefighting and the erosion of political antenna at the heart of the Scottish Government.
There has been a conspicuous absence of delegation and trusting others, including even SNP Cabinet ministers and senior members. She has failed in her seven years at the top to build a collective team around her who could support her and act as soundboards to keep her from being isolated. She is really an administrator, someone whose qualities rose to the fore in the COVID pandemic, and who as a technocrat and manager would have been ideally suited to the era pre-Scottish Parliament when the county was run by such people.
The differences between Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon could not be wider. They have little in common as politicians in their priorities and styles as leaders. But they do share some commonalities governing in age of anti-politics and anti-government.
The first is that the clocks are now ticking on the periods in office of both. Whatever the reaction to the long-delayed Sue Gray report on the serial lawbreaking in Downing Street Boris Johnson’s days as Prime Minister are now clearly numbered. In very different circumstances Nicola Sturgeon’s landmark this week of becoming the longest serving First Minister begins the countdown to her end days with it being increasingly apparent that she will not serve a full term and stand again in 2026.
The second is that from opposite directions neither has managed to reinvent government or find a credo for the state and public services. With Johnson this is because he does not have the character or discipline to do the hard work and focus, and instead has ‘governed’ in a haphazard way with a catch-all kind of administration, while at times giving raw meat to the hard right in the party and media.
Sturgeon’s shortcomings are more complex to explain. Part is the nature of the SNP’s thin commitment to social democracy, part its desire to keep together the party’s ‘Big Tent’ which means it has to straddle the centre ground and not take distinct, bold positions. But part of it has to come down to Sturgeon’s style as a leader – which has been to avoid strategy, long-term direction, making priorities or being explicit about tough choices – and this being true about government and independence.
Historian Tom Devine assesses that Sturgeon’s reign has failed to reduce the ‘continuous blight’ of poverty, increasing social inequality and challenges in education. James Mitchell of Edinburgh University thinks that the Sturgeon years will be remembered as: ‘A series of avoidable policy failures, over-hyped promises and lack of focus on the everyday concerns of most Scots.’
Johnson and Sturgeon will in retrospect in different ways be seen as interregnums and transitional leaders who did not face up to the big issues of the day. Johnson will leave UK government, public life and standards in a sad, sorry state, where the cause of repair and renovation may prove to be beyond the wit of future leaders and governments, irrespective of their colour.
Sturgeon’s legacy and the world after her period in office is more difficult to gauge. Some of it will depend on the nature of her exit from government. But it is clear that she will leave office with the Scottish Government, SNP and society, having deliberately postponed the big debates and choices which face Scotland – from public services to independence and our collective future.
If we are to get out of the mess that we are in and put government and public services back together in Scotland and the UK we are going to have to ask some difficult questions. It is fairly clear that shambolic populist Toryism is ill-suited to address the big issues but so is the SNP’s uber-cautious incremental centrism – which while not morally repulsive and venal like Toryism – is about postponing and ducking the topics we need to address.
We live in a world of disruption, dislocation and constant change, which politics in Scotland and the UK has proven unable to properly address. Post-Johnson and post-Sturgeon politics is going to have map a terrain after traditional Toryism and tepid apologetic social democracy, whether in Scotland or the UK. We should start thinking about the parameters of the centre-left politics now: addressing runaway capitalism, corporate capture and climate change, along with how we reinvent government, public services and democracy.
Looking back on recent years what is now incontrovertible is that the leaderships of Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon – two people and politicians different in so many ways but both starting with significant popularity and as proven election winners – have shown the limitations and inadequacies of what today passes for mainstream politics.