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.

Nowhere Land

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?

Workington Man

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.

Comments (17)

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  1. Derek says:

    Was talking to a pal the other week; she reckons that Labour will win the next GE, but that the Conservatives will win the next one…. with Farage as leader.

    I’m not sure where to go; the SNP have kind of spoiled their own ballot and the other parties don’t have sufficient backing to get anywhere. Judean People’s Front.

    I suspect that Labour will also re-take Scotland, but on a reduced number of votes for them and a greatly reduced overall vote. The number of spoiled ballots will be interesting.

  2. Dougie Blackwood says:

    I fear that this assessment is all too accurate. There is presently no leader with the drive and energy to push forward the case for independence.
    We should have been taking actions as though we were preparing for independence. We we should have tackled local government funding and organisation. We shold have announcing plans for a Scottish National Utility company, discussed how an independent Scotland would manage the fuel cmpanies that operate here. Lots of other things of importance but we manage the scraps that Westminster allows us.
    I could go on but there is nobody on the Yes side willing to shake up thinking and put foward radical ideas.
    Apologies for taking the opportunity to ramble about what might have been.

  3. Daniel Raphael says:

    Excellent per usual. Alas, accurate in characterizing the dead-end state of politics not only in Scotland, but in the rest of the UK, as well. Where–apart from the brilliant outpourings of the 99% in filing the streets for basic human decency–is there hope?

  4. Alice says:

    Spot on analysis but basically hopeless. Alex Salmond is out for revenge…he is set on this no matter what. Folk it appears to him, tried to have him imprisoned, a really difficult thing to set aside. It just seems part of an overall acceptance that Indy is really a dream trapped in a unionist nightmare. Humza is caught up in watching his back and staring at failures of government and just plain awful ministers.

    The fact that 50 % of the Scottish people still, despite it all, still want Indy, is a shining light in the current darkness.

  5. TG says:

    Do you remember when you were all confident that Independence was just around the corner because all our cool exceptional young people were totally into it? Now that hasn’t come to pass, you blame it on the banality of focusing on unimportant issues- because all issues but the pig-in-a-poke buying into Independence are unimportant to the Yes group. No clarity advanced on nature of the state to be- republican or feudal monarchy. No clarity on boundaries- fishing areas or whether the Orkney or Shetland isles can escape Edinburgh rule by seeking their inalienable right. No answer to how to avoid pressuring our young folk into the old scourge of emigration and brain drain, which befell most countries establishing Independence- Ireland till it made it into the EU and the Baltic states after escaping genuine Soviet oppression.

    Yes we get a flag and a line between us and England. But what else changes? We get as much control of our land as English brexiteers got in the face of a global economy. But you dismiss this as negative and not a positive image of the future.

    Well, I am positive, that after the recession and the further economic shock of Covid, I am not going to buy into the further economic downgrade that inevitably occurs after an un-negotiated separation occurs between Scotland and R-UK. Yes, it will be our own choice and we will be responsible for it. But, it’s a hell of a hard sell to say you’ll be X pounds a week worse off for X number of years but you”ll get a fleg.

    And the answer you get to this is you’re just scared, a coward, money-oriented, or lacking vision, because flag fetishists cannot see why other people don’t share their addiction. I love living in Scotland. We have a lot to improve but a retreat to 19th century Nationalism strikes me as very banal

    1. Tom Ultuous says:

      Flag fetishists and English nationalism is what we’re trying to escape.

    2. Tom Ultuous says:

      As well as this.
      Feb 2023
      Ireland’s national debt now stands at 44,000 euro per person in the country.
      UK’s national debt now stands at 50,279 euro per person in the country (lookup nationaldebtclock).
      The poorest Irish have a standard of living almost 63% higher than the poorest in the UK. (Financial Times).
      Consider the wealth of natural resources Scotland has compared to Ireland. Oil, massive wind/wave energy potential, whisky and much larger fishing waters.
      Question: So how come the Irish are much better off than the Scots?
      Answer: They’re not a colony of the UK.
      All of the above is easily checked with single line browser searches yet the collaborators in Scotland refuse to believe anything that does not emanate from their colonial masters.
      Note, the ROI is just an example. The average French & German household was around 9K a year better off than its UK equivalent pre-COVID (Financial Times) and that will be more like 12K now. Since the Tories took over, the UK is worse off compared to any EU country. Look up ‘theatlantic – How the U.K. Became One of the Poorest Countries in Western Europe’.

    3. Hi TG – I salute your commitment to independence for Orkney and Shetland but I worry about the inevitable brain drain and emigration from the Northern Isles!

      I’m glad you like ‘living in Scotland’ too.

      1. TG says:

        You don’t sound that happy about it.

        Are you also in favour of the Scottish Government granting “Independence” to whoever wants it. My city? My town? My scheme? My street? My house? Me as a person?

        Or was it just cheap and facetious and you share the SNP’s position of saying No to any breakaway from Scotland’s 18th century borders?

        1. Yeah, I was taking the piss out of your ridiculous comment, sorry if you didn’t detect the sarcasm

    4. John says:

      Ten different economists will give you ten different answers on potential economic future. Look how well the economy in UK (& therefore by default Scotland) has done since 2014.
      If Scotland is the potential economic basket case as outlined by opponents of independence what does this say about how beneficial Scotland being part of union has been in last 50 years.
      Scotland has enormous potential energy resources both fossil fuel and renewable not to mention water (increasingly important). It does have a demographic problem with insufficient people of working age the short term solution to which is immigration which is being blocked due to different political priorities South of border.
      Independence is by its very nature a leap of faith. To expect to have all i’s dotted and t’s crossed in advance of a decision on independence is unrealistic and has never happened with any other country achieving independence.
      The Shetland and Orkney separation is pure scare mongering pushed by a vocal minority. This is a typically historic , divisive Uk response to being challenged.
      You may be right that post Brexit RUK will be hostile to Scotland but do you want to be part of a country that would act in such a small minded, aggressive manner? Scotland will be more rapidly welcomed into EU than UK and will be able to join EFTA in shorter term.
      I notice you never mentioned democracy the deficit in Scotland where the Tories have been rejected in every national ballot since 1950’s yet we usually end up with a Tory Westminster government. Where we are told you cannot have another independence referendum and reject Holyrood majority request (voted in via PR) and are not even given the circumstances under which Westminster would allow another referendum.
      Lastly with your allegations of independence supporters being flag shaggers – resorting to low level abuse undermines your arguments. You are also showing selective blindness because you can hardly see any government or opposition leader give a talk for all the Union Jack’s on display.

    5. Frank Mahann says:

      Ach, let’s just stick with Westminster. They know best.

  6. James Mills says:

    Next U-turn from Starmer’s Labour Party ?
    Based on previous , it will be a change of name ! Starmer’s Bland Party ? Or , Not the Labour Party ?

  7. cherson says:

    A brief comment on the image (1955 – last time the Tories won in Scotland). I only discovered recently that the Tories didn’t win a single election in Scotland in the whole of the 19th Century. The only times they won were between 1900 and 1955.

  8. Satan says:

    The political debate and coverage of Scottish politics utterly banal because Scottish politics is utterly banal? We are supposed to be really interested in: Transgender issues (I’m not interested, but good luck to them), whether Holyrood can hold constitutional referendums (seriously?), bottle-return (I already do), etc. The important, pertinent things that the Scottish government are responsible for mostly involve them calling the fire-brigade due to the Scottish government’s piss-poor planning resulting in piss-poor performance, and that is hardly news. I think Scots are so used to the situation that it’s a subject of moaning and deflection rather than responsible debate.

    1. John says:

      Satan? – what a ridiculous moniker (not cool just dumb).Not quite as ridiculous as your piss poor comments which are all wild allegations with little basis in truth and pretty well fact free.
      Satan – do us a favour and return to where you come from.

  9. Wul says:

    The thought of a Salmond V SNP/Sturgeon shit-fest over the coming years is just too depressing to contemplate. What an utter waste of time and energy. Yuk.

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