What has gone wrong with Scottish politics and democracy?
Scottish Review, February 24th 2021
There is a feeling of crisis across Scottish politics and democracy. Partly this is the sense of decay and drift in the SNP with infighting, divisions and lack of trust between senior figures in the party; amplified by the Salmond-Sturgeon implosion. But there is more at play both in the SNP and public life, which points to things not being quite right in politics and democracy.
All across political life there is now a hyper-adversarial nature – not just between, but within parties – which trivialises and diminishes all of us. Too often on issues – whether it is Salmond v Sturgeon, the trans issue, progress towards an indyref, or the performance of the Scottish Government, public debate and a large part of media analysis is often reduced to brutal tribalism devoid of facts and nuance. Across issue after issue parliamentarians and public figures are more than content to play the person not the ball and assume that anyone offering criticism of their perspective must belong to the opposing camp. Issues are often reduced to ‘whose side are you on?’ and defined by the people you identify and don’t identity with. This is a world where instant judgement can be made – and politics – reduced to a bad-tempered football match, with adversaries and enemies everywhere.
Scotland undoubtedly has serious problems to address but so do other countries. Despite all our challenges, we are not yet in the advanced stage of decay that is the current Westminster with £22 billion splurged on track and trace contracts which have not worked, a Health Secretary found to have acted unlawfully and refusing to apologise or resign and who gives a £30 million contract to his former local pub landlord, a Home Secretary who was found to have bullied and broken the ministerial code, and a class of consultants paid thousands a day to do what the civil servants should be doing. Accountability matters – and it is not just a problem in Scotland.
There are some big takeways about the state of the SNP, politics and democracy, not written from a perspective of seeing Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon as heroes or villains in their stand-off. Briefly, this is hardly Scotland’s or its public institutions’ finest hour, but for too many justice and the women’s complaints has been forgotten. Critically, the ridiculous unsubstantiated allegations by Salmond of ‘a conspiracy’ (a word he carefully avoids in his written submission to the Holyrood inquiry) is being taken too seriously by those who want to believe in virtually a ‘deep state’ operation in this country. We need to look beyond this, and address the bigger picture of the SNP, public life and democracy.
- 14 Years of SNP dominance comes at a price
There is a pervasive complacency in the party that comes with being in office so long – and a belief that whatever its current problems it will still win in May and remain dominant for the foreseeable future. Both judgements are well-founded, but a rot has set in which will be difficult to reverse.
- Lack of progress or strategy towards an indyref
The party can boast of polls showing independence majorities – but there has been little hard lifting on independence since 2014. What are the means to get an indyref – and what does the leadership do if Westminster says no after May? The recently announced Plan B is not a plan, but an exercise by the SNP leadership in buying time.
- Lack of work on the independence offer
Twenty-one polls for independence make supporters feel good; but this is support for independence as an abstract. There is no independence offer on the table. There has been little serious work done on independence by the SNP bar the Growth Commission. No detailed remaking of the offer or work on the big crunch questions. No serious thinking on the messaging, language and tone of independence, and how to reach out to the unconvinced.
Given the SNP’s polling and dominance this is a major, and surprising, missed opportunity. It is inexplicable that the SNP in such a period of strength over several years has been unwilling to bring into focus the detail of its independence prospectus, and surely indicates a deep sense of doubt and unsureness in the party about its politics and appeal.
- The absence of leadership from the top
Political leadership entails telling supporters and the country hard truths. Sturgeon has had for six years as First Minister and SNP leader strong approval ratings, and could have used this ballast to present major strategic choices on independence such as on economics, finances, the currency and EU. But she has chosen to not do this; instead being content to offer a fuzzy broad church independence onto which everyone who supports independence can project their own hopes.
- Where are the policy achievements of the Sturgeon leadership?
Sturgeon’s leadership promised a greater focus on policy and social justice than the Salmond years. Yet combined with the cumulative effect of Westminster’s squeeze on public spending, the Sturgeon years in office have seen little progress in policy, public services and delivery. Rather across public services such as education, health, local government and more, the Scottish Government has been characterised by the management of decline.
- An absence of collective leadership
All of this has been combined with a concentration of power in the political centre – in the hands of the First Minister and a small group of people to the detriment of public bodies, the Scottish Parliament and Cabinet. Micro-management and centralisation were the defining ethos of the day long before COVID. This has contributed to an absence of collective leadership at the top of government and an absence of talent which has resulted in a slow dilution of political judgement and sensitivity as independent voices at the centre have become non-existent.
- A failure to take on zealots, haters and bullies
The rising problem of a toxic wing of the SNP and independence has been evident for years. But with the advent of social media and SNP dominance during this past decade it has become even more poisonous and vicious in places. While Sturgeon and other senior SNPers have offered general condemnation of abusive comment, few have singled out the repeat offenders. Worse a range of SNP politicians – Kenny MacAskill, Chris McEleny, Angus MacNeill – are happy to promote some of the most abrasive and abusive voices such as Wings over Scotland to this day. This is despite Wings being banned from Twitter on the grounds of ‘supposed hateful content’.
There have also been double standards on all sides of the SNP and independence opinion – with numerous allegations of bullying and intimidation swirling around with, for example, SNP MSP Joanna Cherry facing threats of violence and murder, and apparently not being offered support and protection by party leadership because of their disagreements. This is not an isolated occasion or just about one party: nearly half of all women MSPs (46%) have experienced a death threat as have 26% of male MSPs, according to a Holyrood magazine survey.
- Where are the big ideas of the SNP?
Fourteen years in office and what does the SNP stand for beyond the principle of independence and staying in office? Where are the insights on running government, on better public services, on tackling social justice, inequality and disadvantage? The party’s best instincts are increasingly being eroded by its incumbency and how its senior figures do politics.
- Why are we not talking about issues of substance?
The politics of Salmond v Sturgeon, social media poison and trans wars, all take on even greater importance in the context of the absence of substance in the SNP and public life. There is little for people to spend their time focusing upon and being energised about such as the challenges and choices of an independent Scotland – because these debates are not encouraged, and are even closed, down by the leadership.
- The culture of the Scottish Parliament
One constant in the Scottish Parliament Salmond inquiry has been the poor standards of many of the parliamentarians in question. Linda Fabiani as chair seems out of her depth, and a host of opposition politicians have consistently played for the cheap shots including Murdo Fraser (Tory), Alex Cole-Hamilton (Lib Dem) and Jackie Baillie (Labour). Only this week as the Salmond inquiry faced more convulsions Fraser publicly compared Scotland unfavourably to ‘third world dictatorships’, which is just a little OTT; similarly Ruth Davidson has been taking to the airwaves savaging the role of the Lord Advocate and Crown Office. But it is true that twenty plus years of the Scottish Parliament has resulted in few parliamentarians who have really shone over those years.
- Accountability in public life is a problem
The Salmond inquiry illuminates the problem that Scotland has with accountability. This is not just true of the SNP but of Scotland generally. Pre-devolution, Scotland was not characterised by a culture of accountability and scrutiny, but since the establishment of the Parliament this has not fundamentally altered enough. Rather, the governing parties at any point – first, Labour and the Lib Dems and then the SNP – have for reasons of incumbency not wanted to encourage accountability. This is reaching breaking point: the Scottish Parliament cannot be about institutionalising an insider politics for the benefit of the governing classes.
- What do we really want to stand for?
Scotland’s politics is defined by a soft-centre-leftism of social democracy and civic nationalism. Both are ill-defined and not shaped by dynamism, drive and ideas, but rather by a deep-seated complacency that they are long dominant and distinctive. Twenty-two years into the Parliament, and considering the domestic and global challenges humanity faces, it is fairly obvious that these political traditions are not adequate to the tasks in hand. Instead, they reflect the politics of the system and Scottish political establishment. They are not about shifting power, redistributing resources, and giving voice to those who have no voice, which are what any substantive centre-left politics should be about.
During the past 22 years of a Scottish Parliament, the fundamental and underlying conditions of the country have not been sufficiently addressed. We are still a land disfigured by widespread household and child poverty, by shameful health inequalities and seismic educational divisions which blight the opportunities and choices of too many bright working class children. In a nation which thinks itself centre-left and defined by solidarity, these damning characteristics should make us pause to reflect on whether we are going in the right direction and whether our politics is fit for purpose to address the issues which shape the lives of millions of our citizens.
It is no good saying that all of this can be put right the other side of independence. That is putting off change in the here and now, and restricting and restraining choices and lives. Neither independence or the union as an argument have come up with a road map for the future of Scotland. Neither have a detailed plan for independence or the state of the union. This is true of all the main protagonists – the SNP, Labour, Tories, Lib Dems, Greens, independentistas like Common Weal, and pro-union supporters like Gordon Brown and These Islands. In place of this our politics is reduced to trench warfare which isn’t linked to any of the real substantive challenges that our society faces.
Such a predicament does not aid the forces of radical change – economically and socially, let alone constitutionally – but instead suits the forces of the system, privilege and power and those for whom Scotland works just fine as it is, namely the insider class across all parties, their advisers and hangers-on. But the rest of us should not give time to this sad state which is increasingly resembling a charade. In the coming days and weeks, some senior heads may roll in relation to the Salmond inquiry, but there are bigger issues about culture, structure and substance, along with justice, which need addressing.
Scotland is stuck in a bitter war of attrition between two competing nationalisms – Scottish and British – neither offering a convincing picture of the future. The present status quo does not work for Scotland and its people. The ‘precious union’ invoked is increasingly a disunited, divided, massively unequal kingdom which seems incapable of reform in the interests of the vast majority. But if that is increasingly recognised here and further afield – where is the leadership, talent and ideas which will create not just an independent Scotland but a different country which is about changing and transforming lives?