2007 - 2022

We have to aim higher than measuring ourselves against Boris Johnson

The state of democracy in Scotland and the UK

Standards of UK government and public life are not as they should be in terms of serving the public. Honesty, decency, basic competence and accountability are all in a dire state and sadly this is true both of the UK and Scotland and our devolved institutions.

This week ‘Partygate’ returned, spotlighting Boris Johnson’s open contempt of the standards expected from a Prime Minister or any elected public official. He flagrantly dismisses virtues such as personal responsibility, telling the truth, and in the middle of a lethal pandemic revealed himself unwilling to follow the guidelines he asked the rest of us to follow, many of which were set out in law.

An initial twenty fixed penalty notes were issued for breaches of COVID rules after revelations of Downing Street lockdown breaking parties. And yet still Johnson clings to office with no real apology or explanation offered for his behaviour. Instead, he presides over the centre of UK Government effectively reduced to a house of ill-repute engaged in constant partying and socialising through lockdown. Such is the degeneration of public standards that Downing Street cannot even confirm that those fined broke the law.

Boris Johnson has little redeeming characteristics as a serial liar and charlatan with no moral compass or principles. Tory MPs knew this when they elected him out of desperation in July 2019, as they were convinced of his qualities as an electoral winner. They are now reduced to not only defending the lies of Boris Johnson and minimising his misconduct, but claiming that none of this matters versus the quality of his leadership in this time of crisis.

Rishi Sunak, Chancellor since February 2020, is meant to be what Johnson is not viz serious, smooth, disciplined and professional. But after a good press in the early days of COVID his reputation has started of late to crash and burn.

His Spring Statement last week was a scandalous missed opportunity to address these tough times for most people. Sunak wilfully refused to do anything major on the energy crisis, widespread hardship and anxiety millions face, and the increasing problems that people have paying and covering the basic essentials. Rather he tinkered with cutting the fuel levy and dared to offer an income tax cut for 2024 – when no one is sure of the state of the economy six months from now.

Sunak’s political choices and failures have fed into his own personal shortcomings: selling a version of his life inaccurate and deceitful. As he released taxpayer funded photo opps of himself it turned out it was not even his car he filled up at a garage but a Kia Rio which belonged to a lucky Sainsbury employee. Sunak later talked of the family car as a Volkswagen Golf, omitting the three luxury cars they also own.

Sunak is the richest MP in the current House of Commons. His double standards have been revealed in the Russian invasion of Ukraine as he implored UK based companies and business to scale back and withdraw from Russia. This is not a logic that he thinks has any bearing on himself, as his wife’s family firm continues to trade in Russia and make millions for her and thus him.

Sunak’s response in a car crash interview last week was that this had nothing to do with him and was nobody’s business because his wife was not ‘an elected politician’. He then followed this up today comparing himself with Holywood film star Will Smith and the controversy at the Oscars, saying: ‘both Will Smith and me having our wives attacked – at least I didn’t get up and slap anybody’ – which is desperate stuff. 

The argument that Boris Johnson should not resign because of the Ukraine war defies any common sense and decency. A leader the entire Scottish Tory Holyrood group thought was inappropriate in peacetime, suddenly becomes one fine in wartime. Commentator Brendan May rightly noted: ‘Why is the existence of an evil leader somewhere else a reason to retain a crappy leader here? I’d have thought the opposite should apply.’

He should resign now and, if not Tories have the backbone to remove him. There is no wartime precedent for sticking with a scandal laden Premier. Thatcher was evicted from office at the outset of the first Gulf War and replaced by John Major. Even more critically, in the global conflicts of the First and Second World Wars the UK switched Prime Ministers: Asquith being replaced by David Lloyd-George in 1916 and Chamberlain by Winston Churchill in May 1940. Current Tory logic would have seen Chamberlain remain in office in 1940 with the likelihood of a peace deal with Hitler after the fall of France and permanent Nazi dominance of Europe.

Westminster and British politics are in the gutter. Public standards have been trashed. There is no real decency or honour in government. We have a corrupt, compromised government which has wasted billions of our money in COVID contracts to its mates, shysters and chancers like Michelle Mone. Meanwhile the highest echelons of the British establishment and Tory Party have been penetrated by Russian interests and monies.

The state of Scotland compared to the degeneration of the UK

If we turn to Scotland things are not quite as bad here. Our public institutions have not been treated with the same open contempt, and trashed in the way that Westminster and Whitehall have by shameless self-interest and corporate cronyism. 

At the same time the standard defence that Scotland has not fallen as low as Boris Johnson and his Tory Government is hardly where anyone should start from. It is a sign that things are not at all well here too.

The SNP are fifteen years into office. That is a long political time in the arc of politics and the Scottish Parliament. They have been the government for nearly two-thirds of the period of devolution. They are dominant and still popular but in their period in office have grown increasingly complacent, lazy and careless, along with arrogant and authoritarian.

This is an administration with no obvious governing credo apart from maintaining itself in office. It is not motivated by making Scotland a fairer country, and its centre-left social democratic credentials grow weaker and more tarnished by the day. It has no vision for public services, no vision for Scotland and bizarrely – given it is what the SNP is meant to be about – no vision for independence.

The current hot controversy is the scandalous nature of ferry contracts. These have been massively delayed with huge cost overruns and ridiculous contracts signed which put all the risk on the taxpayer. Scottish Government ministers have been playing pass the parcel in terms of who is to blame, with Nicola Sturgeon trying to apportion responsibility for the original contract onto the now disgraced Derek Mackay.

Scotland in the above and other controversies is following the damning logic of Westminster and Whitehall. Public accountability, falling on your sword, and having a duty of care over public monies, are all outdated concepts.

It seems that Scotland’s political class shares with Westminster politics an open contempt for voters and a belief it can regularly insult the intelligence of folk and get away with it and indeed prosper. So much for all the ridiculous hype and rhetoric of ‘Scotland’s new politics’ we used to hear so much about and funnily enough don’t so much now. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if a current Scottish Government minister stood up and showed that for once they would take responsibility, gave a real apology and resigned?

Democracy and Accountability in today’s Scotland

Do not expect to see any such action anytime soon, as the state of Scottish democracy, public standards and accountability are not in a good way. Look across a swathe of public scandals and controversies: no one resigned from the Scottish Qualifications Authority when they so messed up exam grades and the future of the nation’s children; Muriel Gray presided over two Glasgow School of Art fires and the institution trying to falsely blame the first fire on a student and survived; similarly the implosion of Glasgow Rangers FC and its liquidation ten years ago saw no successful criminal charges brought against anyone involved in crashing the club.

Some people blame all of the above litany on the SNP to which I always reply we have a problem now but we have always had a problem. Scotland has never really done democracy and accountability in public life, passing through serial eras of one-party dominance: the Liberals in the 19th century, Labour in the late 20th century, SNP in the early 21st century with the growing patronage of an expanding state over the period. The point is the Scottish Parliament was meant to change this, but it has merely highlighted the problem.

The rotten state of Westminster and of large acres of the British establishment look like fundamental, deeply entrenched and here for the long-term. Rather than just measure ourselves reassuringly as not being as venal, corrupt, self-serving and amateurish as Boris Johnson, Scotland needs to measure ourselves by a higher target. 

We need to ask ourselves why we let our political elites of all colours and persuasions when in office and dominant or influential – SNP, Labour, Tory, Lib Dem, Green – away with such an unsatisfactory state of affairs? Scotland is not yet a modern democracy. I still like to think it has the potential – but for that to be true we have to stop kidding ourselves about what we are and what we are not.

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  1. Squigglypen says:

    Excellent Gerry..but you missed out the super injunction among the other trash our government is getting up to… 15 years is a long time..and if we give them longer they’ll get better at corruption. So whom do we elect..aye that’s the rub…
    How about we bring in Madame Guillotine if they don’t get it right..or toss them out if incompetent.( listening Sturgeon? ..you did say the buck stops with you..)
    Our government is letting us down….so who?…..La La Greens…non existent Labour…..Toleys( boke)….Ali baba…and that other lot…
    How about a Radical Independence group..that’ll scare the shit out of them….hands up those in favour…

  2. Maclean says:

    Society has changed and NOT for the better , it’s seams ok to be rotten, bad mouthed , corrupt and abusive. That’s the Westminster and Boris way of working , no more looking for the brighter and better tomorrow’s. It’s just one disaster to another , one Hate filled rant to another and one line of abuse to another. That’s the way Westminster’s and the colonists like it , keeping is in Fear and under the thumb of hatred. They spout on about “ Better together” what they use division to a tool to control public. Westminster was the one that broken the EUROPEAN UNION ,not much togetherness there. It’s never been together ,it’s always been them in change and Scotland in chains . Abusers can never and don’t want to see the truth ,that’s way Scotland are seem as “ being kept” ( like some pet) by the English and their colonists mates. That’s why they can’t see the bad in Boris because they’re in the same mindset. It’s that sociopath mode the the colonists and imperialist cling to and hope for its full return. Sad people poisoning other with their evil and abusive thinking . There is a better way ,but it’s not with Boris or his henchmen and certainly not with Westminster corrupt so called politicians.

  3. 220401 says:

    The problem with the accountability of government is that it only comes around every five years or so, and then only via the medium of our elected representatives. Government officers are accountable to the Crown through its ministers, the Crown is accountable to Parliament through its need to command a majority of its members, and parliament is accountable to the electorate through the need of its members to get us to vote for them.

    The trouble with this indirect democracy is that there are so many points at which this chain of accountability can be broken. Antony Jay called into doubt the accountability of the Civil Service (and, by extension, the armed services) to the Crown in his serial TV satire, Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, in the 1980s. One can doubt the extent to which the Crown is accountable to Parliament when that accountability is largely managed by the former through the party system. And one can equally doubt the extent to which Parliament is accountable to the electorate when the former only has to answer to the latter over the course of a single day every five years or so.

    The problem with accountability is a constitutional (structural) problem and not (as it’s so often presented in our current political discourse) a moral problem that pertains to the personalities involved. The focus needs to be on working for constitutional changes that make the democratic accountability of government more direct rather than on merely sounding off petty (and often hate-filled and abusive) ad hominem moral judgements.

    1. Squigglypen says:

      Your final sentence did make me laugh…dream on…

      1. 220331 says:

        Do you think the problem we have with accountability in Scotland IS a moral rather than a structural one?

        And why do you find fanciful and laughable the contrary idea that it’s structural rather than moral?

        1. 220401 says:

          Mind you, régime change doesn’t appear to be on the independentista’s agenda. Perhaps the hope that an independent Scottish government might so constitute itself to be more directly accountable to the electorate is indeed a vain one.

  4. Robbie says:

    I mean you’ve got to hand it to each and everyone of them, every time they stand up and say to each other “My Right Honourable Friend “and manage to keep a straight face in front of the cameras ,takes a lot of balls to do that,the Lying B****** S

  5. BSA says:

    Fair enough, but if you are looking at stasis in Scottish politics and public life you have to acknowledge the role of the junk opposition and the junk media. That would be bad enough in any sovereign state but where they are hand in glove with Westminster in a relentless campaign to destroy good governance and where they are importing all the methods which have destroyed good governance in England you are bound to have a problem especially after so long in power. We are not dealing with political opponents, we are dealing with something like an enemy state. That could be dismissed as an excuse but it is certainly a factor and accounts for much of the Scottish government’s debilitating caution. It don’t really see the complacency, arrogance and time serving referred to in the article.

    1. 220402 says:

      ‘We are not dealing with political opponents, we are dealing with something like an enemy state.’

      That’s an excellent way of putting it. The state that the Scottish government is seeking to establish doesn’t seem that much different in its constitution from the régime we currently have in the UK inasmuch as it will still be only indirectly accountable to the demos. As things stand, the machinery of government will still be accountable to the Crown (or the Presidency) through its ministers or secretaries of state, which will in turn still be accountable to the Parliament, which will still only be accountable to the electorate for one day every five years or so. There are still too many points at which this chain of accountability can be broken.

      During the Scottish government’s next campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote in a referendum for independence, we need to demand clarity on what sort of régime the Scottish government has in mind for an independent Scotland as a condition of our support. It assures us that all that can be sorted out after we secure independence, but that assurance isn’t good enough. At the very least, we need to know how it will be all sorted out, what the decision-making process will be and just how the demos will be included in that process.

      The Scottish government has always been suspiciously silent on this matter since the nationalists took control of it in 2007 while, at the same time, quietly building the administrative structures through which we’ll be governed. Why this silence?

      1. Wul says:

        “‘We are not dealing with political opponents, we are dealing with something like an enemy state.’”

        I felt this to be true during the Proroguing of Parliament/lying to the Queen gambit and the early days of Covid, when UK cash was being spaffed into chum’s bank accounts/fake businesses.

        It made me wonder if a PM or Cabinet can be charged with treason?

  6. florian albert says:

    Why do we ‘let our political elites . . . away with such an unsatisfactory state of affairs ?’

    Some possible reasons come to mind

    (1) We accept that these elites are mediocre and they reflect our society. They are not an alien species imposed on us.

    (2) For a majority of our population, the ‘unsatisfactory’ state of affairs is – on the whole – quite satisfactory. (For many of them, this might be about to change.)

    (3) Most Scots appreciate that there is no easy or obvious way to improve on the status quo – which would not require significant sacrifices from the comfortable.

    (4) There was an attempt to revitalize Scottish public life between 2007 And 2014. It involved ditching Labour in favour of the SNP. 15 years on, it is plain that it

    changed very little. There is no serious reason to believe that another such change would do the trick.

    Gerry Hassan is one of a number of commentators, sympathetic to Labour, who embraced Independence in the early part of this century. Understandably, many of

    them are disappointed. They need to accept now that the failings in Scottish society go far deeper than the failings of the Labour Party and of our constitutional

    arrangements.

    1. Wul says:

      You address something I have always thought; after independence, we would still have a big struggle to win back our country for the ordinary woman and man. It might not be possible. We are but rent-paying tenants in our own country and most people don’t realise or care about the extent to which the country’s wealth is stolen and hidden. It could all be so much better and fairer.

      Could folk be made to care with better education? The coming financial squeeze will be interesting; when the comfortably-off become less comfortable.

      I think we need to start the change ourselves; “Take back control” at a local level, ignoring/bypassing local government and their “third sector interfaces” and just start doing stuff for ourselves. Without permission.

      1. 220403 says:

        You’re right, Wull; Middle Scotland, on whose votes electoral success depends, doesn’t care about extremes of poverty or wealth. Providing the mortgage gets paid, the petrol tank gets filled, biannual vacations are enjoyed, and the weans don’t want for any of the luxuries their peers have, the most of us are content with the status quo.

        Things will get interesting as the crises of capitalism multiply and deepen and the bourgeois state can no longer secure those goods. It’s a pity the left is in such disarray and the populist far-right is ready to pounce.

    2. Gerry Hassan says:

      Thank you for your illuminating and thoughtful observations; I agree entirely with the gist of your points 1-4.

      As a caveat: when you try to shorne me into the ‘disappointed’ camp – all the points you talk abt Scottish society and the constitutional question I have repeatedly said ad naseum. So maybe – having on the evidence of Bella and other sites read many of my pieces – you just wanted to ignore that to make a point.

      Let me move on to the bigger stuff:

      a) The path dependency of devolution 99-2022 is broadly as predicted – and certainly I thought pre-1999; rise of SNP & indy, policy stasis;
      b) The Scottish state and civil society are not forces of dynamism and pluralism; they never have been; again this was obvious pre-99 and I am surprised anyone pot-99 and post-2007 would have thought they were;
      c) The current unsatsisfactory state of our politics is abt more than the SNP & indy, but public opinion and society; this rather boring mediocre politics of small things (indy apart) reflects us and is not imposed on us from on high.
      d) Up until now status quo Scotland domestically has worked for the majority; that is why there have been no real challenges to it. And until or if that chanmges that will be a powerful pillar reinforcing the inertia and lack of movement we are living through.

      I think we need to address and confront this big stuff – which is why I have repeatedly written abt it in recent years.

      1. 220404 says:

        You’re right, Gerry. Both the state and civil society in Scotland lack the dynamic that pluralism brings to a political culture, and that’s why its public life continues to wallow in the mediocrity of which you speak.

        Middle Scotland – the largely apolitical majority for whom the status quo ‘works’ – is quite content to let that status quo trundle along, delivering its constituents a reasonable quality of life, whether it’s governed from St. Andrew’s House or Whitehall, whichever seems the more likely to leave for their private disposal on ‘stuff’ more of the pound in their pockets.

        The two salient questions are:

        1. How has this situation come to pass? Why does consumerism exercise such a hegemony over our lives that its dominance can remain virtually unchallenged by other ways of worldmaking?

        2. Why does it matter if most folk are basically content with the status quo? Why and how can most folk be ‘wrong’?

        Just pursuing those two questions in the public sphere can open a road to pluralism by challenging the hegemony of the dominant worldmaking narrative that shapes our current ‘mediocre’ political discourse.

        Mair pou’er til yer pen, man!

        1. Gerry Hassan says:

          Thanks for your perceptive comments and support.

          This is fundamental stuff. We are living through times of epic history, change and uncertainty; and I think part of Scotland’s debate – including a major section of indy opinion – as well as a huge part of pro-union opinion – misses this; including even the Scottish dimension and degree of change in the past 50-60 years.

          a) Scotland until the 1950s and 1960s was a phenomenally authoritarian society; we have transitioned from large elements of that but its continuation is seen in the SNP & even in how some view indy and some view the union.
          b) In this time the idea(s) of what Scotland is has dramatically shifted – with the dominant expression of a distinct political community which is different from England and rUK. This shift has been ongoing from the late 1950s/early 1960s – and is discernible not just across politics, but society and culture. It drove the creation of the Scot Parl, rise of the SNP & indy, and is still one of the main currents informing our debate.
          c) Paradoxically and predictably a consequence of the rise of the SNP and them becoming a system party has seen the increasing neglect and lack of advocacy in this sphere above and in particular the cultural dimension.

          Have a book out later this year exploring these themes: Scotland’s future, the need for a different independence offer and different politics, cultural issues the crisis of democracy, the union and the international situ.

          1. 220404 says:

            Look forward to reading that, Gerry.

      2. florian albert says:

        Gerry Hassan

        Your pessimistic prognosis for Devolution was not widely shared by Scotland’s progressive left. On the contrary, Devolution was sold (successfully) to the voters as a means of finding ‘Scottish Solutions to Scottish Problems.’ That, after 20 years of Devolution, there might be a drastic shortage of Scottish solutions was not widely
        anticipated.
        ‘The Scottish state and civic society are not forces of dynamism and pluralism; they never have been.’ ( I think that you outdo me in pessimism here.) That being the case, there is little or no chance of Scotland moving forward from a status quo which leaves a significant part of the population enduring a poor quality of life generation on generation.
        I find myself asking, what about the very real political ferment prior to the 2014 Referendum ? My conclusion is that, long term, it amounted to quite little.
        You plainly care about the big stuff. Does Nicola, who runs what amounts to a one-person government ? There is not much evidence that she does and – dishearteningly – close to half the voters are still ‘with Nicola.’

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