The retreat of reason accelerates in Scotland

The retreat of reason accelerates in Scotland

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 4, May, 2020

THE GRIM TRUTH about politics in Scotland for at least twenty years is that it disproportionately attracts  destructive people (warriors or else those unable to promote improvement) rather than builders or visionaries.  Office holders predominate who achieve fulfilment by imposing restrictions on human activity and outlawing views that are legal elsewhere. When they are forced, by necessity, to build something – a sick childrens hospital in Edinburgh or a ferry serving the outer islands – a costly fiasco more often than not arises.

I’ve little doubt that more thought has gone into justice minister Humza Yousaf’s proposed bill criminalising many different categories of speech than went into infrastructure projects concerned  with improving the quality of life. It is clear why politicians like Yousaf (who first came to prominence through his involvement in the Scottish Islamic Foundation that cost the taxpayer over £100,000)  alighted on Scottish nationalism: separatism has become so all-encompassing for around quarter of the electorate that it has enabled politicians who wish to restrict democracy to put their ideas into law.  

Humza and others aggressively promoting different niche interests are probably unfazed that Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for achieving independence are no further ahead in the pandemic era than they were during the years of the Brexit impasse. She has gathered around her plenty of people from advocacy groups, now financed by the devolved state, who share her obsession with re-engineering society. New sexual identities can be  promoted, while citizens who dare resist her micro-managing instincts can have  their own political ideas and social customs driven underground.

Devolution was supposed to entail a rebirth of civil society but intermediate groups representing citizens before the state have in turn been colonised by the SNP state octopus from community councils upwards. Cheer-leaders in a range of charities and advisory groups rarely, if ever, warn about the illiberal instincts of the First Minister.  They are subsidised to the hilt with taxpayers’ money in order to hasten the journey towards an authoritarian state where little or no independent economic or political activity can ultimately occur. Her vision is not very different  from the corporate states of inter-war authoritarian Europe; all political activity that matters occurs through a mosaic of interest groups which are united behind a heavily personalised national mission.  

It is an increasingly regimented political set-up where well-provided for activists spring to the defence of the regime whenever needed. This has involved taking sides in the looming split in the SNP. Nothing has been formalised but in a personality driven party when its two titans revile each other, one it is alleged aiming to accomplish the imprisonment of the other, then the division is a serious one.

But a paradox is involved. Due to a currently rudderless opposition being led by colourless figures like Jackson Carlaw and Richard Leonard, the electoral sway of the SNP appears unlikely to be jeopardised even if civil-war breaks out in the party.  The signs are that a large swathe of the nationalist voting base is unlikely to be put off by internecine warfare any more than it was by  the chronic SNP mishandling of the economy and public services.  The personal is the political and a Salmond-Sturgeon vendetta is just revealing the degree to which the politics of rancour has thrived inside the supposed party of national unity.

Many Scottish voters have grown accustomed to the politics of affirmation where the leader asserts principles and positions but nothing much else of significance or value happens on the policy front.  This has very much been the story of the handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Scotland. Sturgeon has dominated daily press conference and has appeared a lot on UK television due to journalists needing a senior politician who can be guaranteed to challenge the government’s performance. Her visibility has helped to give he  a high personal approval rating. According to a recent poll, she has  the confidence of 71% of Scots (+48 overall) while Boris Johnson has a net rating of -15 (40% good vs 55% bad). 

Her machine-gun level of rhetoric is snapped up by sycophantic television interviewers. But in practice her government has been reactive throughout the pandemic and has merely tweaked UK policy, offering soundbites to grateful journalists which can be turned into headlines.  

But it is being over-hasty to assume that her continuing ascendancy is assured. Her adversary Alex Salmond has the Teflon qualities of a born survivor. His ability to emerge on top in battles with the Scottish justice system won’t be easily forgotten.  A jury with women in the majority found serious charges of sexual assault laid against him to be not proven. He brushed aside various rivals in his quest to be leader of the SNP by his mid-30s and, now aged 65, he retains his zest for power and the limelight.

Pity the country where politics revolve around battles for supremacy between ruthless operators with a proprietorial approach to power. Pity even more the society that not only tolerates but seems to enjoy such a spectacle. There is no sign that this pair will be sanctioned by the electorate. Salmond has been a formidable vote-winner – except in the 2017 general election which threw up capricious results, including the loss of his seat near Aberdeen. Independence has lost its allure in the SNP’s former North-East stronghold, especially with the prospect of the oil-based industrial and service economy there being gutted by the coronavirus-induced slump.

But he remains Scotland’s most recognisable political face (after Sturgeon of course). The legend is taking shape that she was driven to neutralise him after his 2017 setback so as to prevent him ever  clawing back power as she went into reverse on independence.  Whatever the truth, the idea of a man seen by many as having done much service to his country, being attacked by an insecure successor, is persuasive. It stirs deep feelings and many who have encountered, or worked with both  of them, find it hard to avoid taking sides. Salmond showed his continuing appeal by raising a large legal war chest from the public  in 2018. If he seeks to return to  active politics in Edinburgh, it will be difficult to keep him out. His appeal is more diverse than hers ranging from social radicals like Joanna Cherry MP to a more traditional figure like Lisa Cameron MP, who attracted the ire of Sturgeon backers upon voting against abortion in Northern Ireland (and who was Salmond’s most recent guest on his Russia Today show).

He is likely to find backing among many in the 125,000 strong SNP membership, especially those puzzled  by Sturgeon’s absorption with niche issues such as transexual rights, irked by her authoritarian ways and publicity mania, and disappointed by her record on the national struggle.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that two ill-fated (and later withdrawn) laws, the bid to outlaw emotive singing and chants at football matches and the Named Person Act which allocated a state guardian to every Scottish child, were drawn up when Salmond led Scotland.  Nevertheless, his appeal is more traditional, mainstream and certainly less avant-garde than Sturgeon’s.

Two warring camps erupting in one nationalist movement is nothing new. Ireland saw that in the 1890s and 1920s. Perhaps it shows how the SNP has left its mark on the political landscape – not through building, innovating or reforming but by ensuring  that an emotional and highly personalised form of politics eclipse the economy and society in importance.

New people have been recruited by Sturgeon who see nationalism as an instrument enabling them to acquire for themselves or their group influence and new-found status – feminists, gay activists, the third sector, lawyers, left-wing media folk and others of the same ilk.

There are now a lot of these people who enjoy authority thanks to a battery of laws promoting original and bold forms of equality and diversity.  They can manipulate things Scottish in the struggle for preferment but like the multi-cultural radicals who flourished under New Labour their own causes are more important than the bigger nationalist (or left-wing) dimension. Sturgeon’s praetorian guard  want a globally-focused nationalism (if that is not a contradiction in terms). Scottish independence is largely a means to separate a global society in north Britain from nationally-minded but unchauvinist England.

And perhaps there lies the weakness of her power-base.  More than once she herself has stated that she would prefer the party to have a new name that was much less nationalist in focus. Being a half-hearted nationalist may well prove a liability if there is a battle for the SNP’s soul.  Hogging the limelight may also count against her. Salmond’s ego is also a towering one but, arguably, he has never allowed it to swamp the wider cause.

The dire economic straits Scotland is in indicates that independence is off the agenda for at least a decade unless a sizable part of the electorate is ready to embrace grinding austerity for even longer. That means there might be far fewer inhibitions for a settling of accounts to determine the shape and direction of the movement.  

Ironically, what is driving this internal tussle has nothing to do with the British dimension in Scottish affairs. A power struggle is shaping up because of a split more reminiscent of a tribal political society with a limited political culturerather than a post-industrial society which in the past contributed much to Western civilization. Perhaps  the warfare in the dominant party will serve some purpose if it helps us to see the sheer extent that Scotland has regressed as a society and a polity.

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who divides his time between Cumbria and Scotland. His book on the SNP, Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published in 2016 in paperback and on Kindle. His twitter account is @cultfree54


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