The Banality of Scottish Politics
Much of the political debate and coverage of Scottish politics remains utterly banal. We are caught in the stagnant pond of constitutional impasse. The reasons for this are clear. Around 50% of people don’t want to be part of the British state yet there seems no way to alter this reality. Those that champion our place in the Union rarely if ever state what that case is based on and consistently fail to put it in positive terms. Holyrood remains a parliament under relentless attack and dependent on an external fixed block grant. Both the UK and Scottish media is packed with hostile (not critical) voices, so the public debate is filled with personality politics and intense negativity. Added to these factors each political party is uniquely hamstrung and limited.
The SNP are wearied from incumbency, riven with internal division and lacking in momentum, aspiration and vision. They are struggling to cohere in the post-Sturgeon era and seem unable to navigate through the morass of political, legal, ethical and cultural problems they face, some of which they are responsible for creating, and some of which they are not.
The Scottish Labour party seems likely to inherit the fortunes of the UK party, born into government on the back of Tory collapse and huge disenchantment with the failed Conservative regime, which staggers on. But Scottish Labour suffers from very low influence within the UK party, gone are the days when Jeremy Paxman would complain of the ‘Scottish Raj’ when individuals like Tony Blair, Robin Cook, Gordon Brown, John Reid and Alasdair Darling formed a Cabinet. If it does as well as expected it will be from a baseline of one MP. If it makes large gains it will be on the basis of a manifesto to which it will have contributed very little if anything. It has little to say about the direction Scotland should travel other than what it should not do. The fantasy that a Starmer victory would usher in the next round of constitutional reforms — including strengthening Holyrood and abolishing the House of Lords — all masterminded by Gordon Brown, has all been abandoned. Scottish Labour — having tied itself to the Better Together bandwagon — remains effectively an antidote to the SNP. It is a negative.
There’s barely a week go by where some former pillar of Labour policy isn’t abandoned. Last week it was its green pledge, this week it will be something else.
If Labour wins an election on the basis of current polling it will be a huge victory, but it remains unclear what that electoral victory will be for. There is no Blairite enthusiasm in the air, only desperation. There is no D:Ream.
The Conservatives are arguably in a worse situation. Having tied themselves slavishly to the recent disastrous series of Tory leaders (May, Johnson, Truss, Sunak) they face the imminent prospect of electoral annihilation. But also, knowing that they have no real prospect of being elected in Scotland they engage in a sort of low-level sludgefest, tracking the land for material to smear the government with and rarely, if ever, contributing to policy or ideas or vision for the country.
If you are never going to be in office, why should you come up with policies? If you believe the constitutional arrangement is absolutely ideal, uniquely brilliant, why even think about improving it, and as Kemi Badenoch told the Covid Inquiry “there’s no cure for poverty”. Poverty is just the natural state of things, or a condition that will or won’t be solved by the market. These are the reasons why the Tories contribute to the hyper-banal state of Scottish politics.
With Labour and the Conservatives in Scotland in these different challenges — they are often reduced to the endless grind of — for example — Michael Matheson’s iPad ‘scandal’ which has saturation coverage now for weeks. I am in no way defending his actions — but the affair has been elevated to a grand scandal — a national crisis of epic proportions — and this reflects the state we’re in, one characterised by the drama, trivia and media hysteria which takes the place of real politics.
Other parties are also afflicted. The ALBA party often engages in more grandiose than banal politics but they are now entering a very strange predicament.
Alex Salmond’s announcement that he would pursue £3 million pounds in damages for alleged loss of earnings in the Court of Session, arguing the way he was investigated for sexual harassment constitutes “misfeasance in public office” by those responsible is a potential death knell for the party.
Whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of the whole issue — and peoples positions are so entrenched by this point that there is literally no point going over it all — Salmond’s decision to purse damages will do two things. First it will consume vast amounts of his own time and energy and second it will drag all aspects of the entire affair — and his own behaviour — back into the public eye. The decision to do this at this precise time may seem strange but it is almost certainly technical rather than tactical, as Andrew Tickell has written:
“Why bring the case now? The reasons for kicking the Court of Session case off now are almost certainly technical. The simple fact is: Salmond was on the clock. The Scottish Government conceded the judicial review back in January 2019. The civil law imposes periods of prescription and limitation on court actions, after which your rights or ability to petition the courts for remedies are extinguished. In January 2024, any rights Salmond might have would have disappeared — hence this November surprise.”
For those that believe Salmond was the victim of a vast conspiracy this will no doubt be seen as a welcome action to prove his innocence, take revenge on his enemies and win justice. But there are downsides. The case has no certain outcome but what is certain is that the coming years will be filled with a re-run of allegations and pouring over the details of his and others actions. For the faithful this will be seen as a brave vindication, but I’m not sure this is how it will land in the wider public who may be both tired and bored of it all.
ALBA’s leader will not be ‘fighting for Scotland’ or leading them to electoral victory, he will be in Court trying to win £3 million quid.
In this sense, for different reasons each of the parties contribute to Scotland’s banalism. None of them have prospects of affecting real change and instead are pushed inwards either to engage in bizarre personality politics, internecine warfare or the churn of party-political warfare (often weaponised by their media allies).
It’s not just the political parties that are tied-into this condition, the issues which dominate public life are often ridiculous. The ‘trans issue’ which has dominated Scottish politics to an extraordinary extent is out of all proportion to its actual impact on anybody. The moronic level of debate about, for example, the issue of heat pumps is extraordinary, a sort of motif for where we are. Scotland is a place where ordinary everyday things that other European countries take as standard (and completely uncontroversial) are viewed as impossible and wildly ambitious. The united front against virtually any coherent environmental policy is unedifying. You can see people like Fergus Ewing or Robin Harper being elevated to national hero status by the forces that see them as useful people to use in their endless war with the ruling party and an exercise in cynical opportunism.
The cross-party consensus cheering-on every time the British government (often led by our own Secretary of State for Scotland) overrules laws made in Holyrood — speaks to a deep-seated Scottish cringe and a low-level commitment to even the basic idea of devolution. This political order isn’t fit for purpose.
The combined effect of all of this is a feeling of impotence, drift and inertia. If, as looks likely the SNP is likely to lose badly at the general election (and much of it will be for their own fault) there will be a fanfare of Unionist glee, and grand celebrations at ‘getting rid of the Tories’. But as we have seen before reducing your entire politics to this single goal has a dismal affect.
The daily grind and churn of Scottish party politics and the media that surrounds them is an exercise in banality, but it happens in the context of horrific social decay and inequality. So now what?
It would be wrong to characterise the incoming Starmer government as simply a void relying on Tory meltdown and incompetence. While they have been assiduous in telling us what they won’t do, they haven’t really told us what they are for.
There are some clues in the influential think-tank Labour Together that grew out of Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour — a group that argued for a ‘more conservative form of socialism’. One of its founders, Jonathan Rutherford, has explained its message was ‘Labour should be economically radical and fiscally conservative’ (whatever that means) ‘stop patronising socially conservative voters’. They identify the ‘Red Wall’ voter “so well-known to our political debate, sometimes called Workington Man: socially conservative, economically left-leaning, living in post-industrial areas in Britain’s midlands, north east and north west” as the key to winning the next election.
In a series of reports this group — which has very close ties to Starmer’s office — laid out what they meant and how they’d win:
“This report closes with suggestions on how Labour can win the support of these voters. Doing so demands that Labour continues to speak to the country at large, and not just its most loyal left and liberal voters. That means taking a firm line on societal and cultural issues — like crime and immigration — to address the legitimate concerns that people have. Perhaps most importantly, it means a politics that eschews grand abstractions and vague promises — of which we have had so many in recent years — and instead focuses on the things that really matter. We end this report by pointing towards a new politics that could do this: a politics grounded in providing ‘security’, in the form of secure work, safe streets, and a strong nation.”
It’s a programme that will go down well with the tabloids, the play to ‘crime and immigration’ the working of fears and the idea of ‘taking back the streets’, and of course the idea of ‘a strong nation’. It’s unclear how this will go down in Scotland, especially the strong element of British nationalism. I suspect that — with the momentum behind ‘getting rid of the Tories’ and the enthusiastic support of all of the editors, columnists and gatekeepers in Scotland’s comentariat it will survive much scrutiny.