As politicians are eager to engage with the electorate through twitter, discussing everything from the mundane and trivial to matters of great importance, I expected some sort of reaction when on Thursday 17th November the Scottish Government released the stats on sectarian violence in Scotland. I was especially expectant of the SNP, whose ministers seem exceptionally keen to utilise this communications medium to propagate their vision of a future independent Scotland. After trawling through the twitter feeds of all the major parties and major figures in Scottish politics I was somewhat startled to find only one, Humza Yousef MSP, was engaging with it. As being the only politician in Scotland willing to comment upon this issue and engage with members of the public, Mr Yousef must be commended. Even if he still has some way to go towards realising that sectarianism is not primarily a ‘football issue’. Do his colleagues and party refrain from speaking about it because it goes against the SNP’s ‘Scottish’ brand? Would it be considered ‘talking Scotland down’?
Gauging from the lack of activity on Twitter regarding these figures, one would imagine sectarianism is not a problem in Scotland. Moreover, the outside world could be forgiven for thinking that because Scottish politicians are not talking about it, it can’t be an issue. But it most certainly is, and in light of the events which have occurred over the past year, Scotland’s sectarian problem is the most important issue this country faces. Regardless of the efforts being made by the SNP and others to put the Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill through parliament, politicians seem loathe to mention sectarianism in public. Whether it is an unwillingness to expose oneself, or upset certain sections of the electorate, this situation leaves us with dire implications for the nature of democracy in Scotland. It’s well known that companies who sponsor one half of the Old Firm find it necessary to sponsor the other for fear of upsetting potential or current customers. Thanks to twitter and our ability to engage directly with politicians, it seems political parties and most politicians feel exactly the same way. We could question why the legislation currently going through Parliament only happened after UEFA becoming involved in Scottish football and a campaign of violence was directed towards high-profile Celtic figures. This must surely lead us to question what types of political organisations we have in Scotland and what is the nature of our democracy when, faced with an opportunity to discuss a deep-seated societal problem in the social sphere, it is wilfully ignored.
We could quite easily attribute this unwillingness to confront sectarianism in Scotland with the rise of the professional political class, who are not likely to engage in matters which may affect their chances of re-election. It may, however, be more useful to question the role of our political parties, asking what political parties are for, how much do we personally know about their organisational structure, and even do we need new political organisations in Scotland? The 13% voter turnout for a local council by-election in Scotland’s largest city only serves to underline existing voter apathy, and increasing withdrawal of popular support and affection for political parties. This in turn leads to the ideological convergence among the parties (the only difference among the Scottish political parties being the constitutional issue) and the lack of partisanship in policy-making, which results in the collective political silence surrounding sectarianism.
Due to the nature of the political system in Scotland, even though the SNP ‘beat the system’ and won a majority government, maybe it would be useful to classify Scottish political parties through the framework developed by Kaare Strom on coalition formation. Strom identified three primary orientations of political parties seeking to enter coalition or support minority government: Vote-seeking; Policy-seeking; and Office-seeking. Steven Wolintez (2002) expanded this framework to be an heuristic aid, and posited that although parties will exhibit elements of all three of these dimensions, they will be strongest in one dimension, and will thus exhibit certain behavioural traits and elements within their party structure and organisation (Wolintez 2002, p. 149). He added four indicators, or “operational measures” through which we can assess political parties: Internal policy debate; Consistency of policy positions assumed; Elections campaigns; Infrastructure to support policies (Wolinetz 2002, p155). After an initial consideration of these operational measures my view is that the major Scottish political parties fall into either the ‘Vote-seeking’ (SNP, Labour) or ‘Office-seeking’ (Liberals, Conservatives) categories, with none exhibiting the traits of a Policy-seeking party.
Maybe this helps to explain the deafening silence of politicians on Thursday. As our politicians and parties are all aiming to gain votes or to be part of coalition government, none are willing to express a view which has not been sanctioned by the leadership, or which doesn’t fit with organisational strategy. So, as our political parties play a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma with each other over sectarianism in Scotland, we the people, are left to ponder the nature of representative democracy and whether or not there is a better way to facilitate it.
Wolintez, S. 2002. Beyond the Catch-All Party: Approaches to the Study of Parties and Party Organisations in Contemporary Democracies. In: Gunther, Montero, & Linz. Eds. Political parties: old concepts and new challenges. Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 136-165.