There is a gloom out there. A creeping suspicion, beneath the surface in some places, voiced openly in others, that something has gone wrong.
Where it can be heard it is done so in bars and coffee shops and offices and even where it isn’t you can feel it. Those who seldom discuss current affairs find ways to articulate an inchoate cynicism while those involved in politics by profession or interest speak with alarm about the rise of turbulent populism. There is an awful, throbbing dread that politics, and perhaps even democracy itself, has stopped working.
America has swung from its most liberal leader, Barack Obama, to its first nativist figurehead in Donald Trump. Europeans profess themselves appalled by the precipitous president but les Trumps européens are prospering across the continent, whether in the form of the Swiss People’s Party, Austria’s Freedom Party, or Alternative for Germany.
Britain, hitherto a sceptical nation of makers do and muddlers on, has found ideology and can’t get enough of it, whether the nostalgic nationalism of Brexit or the affable Stalinism of Jeremy Corbyn, the Marxist marrow-grower loitering with intent outside the gates of Downing Street.
Yet, there is a place where the political establishment is not in flux, where the government has been in power for more than a decade and likely to remain there for at least a few years more. Compared with the rest of the world, Scotland appears from the outside a model of stability and continuity.
Politics, logic would lead us to assume, must be in better shape north of the Border. That could not be further from the truth. For rather than defying the uneasy mood of the times, Scottish politics seems to confirm that a government’s longevity is no guarantee of competence.
Politics has stopped working in Scotland too and the SNP, deprived of its constitutional raison d’etre for the time being, appears listless and uncertain. The contrast with the energetic force that stormed Holyrood in 2007 could not be starker. Even his sharpest critics could not deny that Alex Salmond got things done, whether it was freezing the Council Tax, cutting business rates, or abolishing prescription charges.
After a burst of activity in the first term, however, the SNP’s 2011 re-election was a golden millstone around their necks. Finally, they had won an outright majority on a manifesto that pledged to ‘give Scots the opportunity to decide our nation’s future in an independence referendum’. Of course, that meant they had to hold said referendum and the business of arranging an historic plebiscite pushed everything else off the legislative agenda.
The fall-out from the lost years of devolution — roughly spanning 2012 until the 2017 General Election reversal — are there for all to see. Independence, and latterly Indyref 2, became an all-consuming obsession that sucked political oxygen out of the more mundane matters of health and education. The SNP became a government of one issue and every other issue became a victim of neglect.
None more so than education, which we are told is Nicola Sturgeon’s number one priority. The veracity of that claim was challenged again this week when figures from Ucas, the university admissions organisation, recorded a drop in poorer students applying to undergraduate studies for the first time in ten years. While those from deprived backgrounds in England are more likely than ever before to seek a degree-level education, their opposite numbers north of the Border seem to be giving up on that dream.
It is part of a pattern of failure when it comes to Scottish Government education policy. Ministers loudly promise to close the attainment gap between the wealthiest and poorest students, yet the evidence shows the divide remains stubbornly fixed. One need not look very far to identify the reasons. Manifesto promises on primary classroom sizes have been abandoned, teacher numbers cut by 4,000, and a programme to net specialist graduates into teaching is still struggling to get off the ground two years later.
While the SNP’s propaganda machine pumps out self-congratulatory videos claiming the party scrapped tuition fees — it didn’t — the legacy of its education spending priorities can be witnessed in the 150,000 college places lost since it came to power.
Two international surveys with the impolite habit of applying facts to the SNP’s education record were scrapped. A third, the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, last year provided grim reading material for Education Secretary John Swinney.
Performance among primary four pupils was at a standstill; for children in primary seven and secondary two, attainment was going backwards. Sixty per cent of low income and 55 per cent of middle income students in the second year of high school could not write satisfactorily. The survey was promptly scrapped.
Elsewhere, parents in Milngavie who asked to take their local Catholic primary school into community control to save it from closure were cruelly strung along for years before the Scottish Government finally announced that it wouldn’t support them. A rare streak of bravery — opening the door to standardised testing — ended in a fudge.
And when the Press was inconsiderate enough to report all this, one Nationalist MSP tabled a question at Holyrood asking what impact ‘negative media coverage of the education system could have on pupils and teachers’. Journalists should count themselves lucky that, unlike all those bothersome surveys, they were at least not scrubbed from existence.
If the dilapidation of Scottish schooling has been a tragedy, the record on policing has supplied the farce. Police Scotland has been plagued by problems since its launch — on April Fool’s Day, 2013. Sir Stephen House, the first chief constable, resigned after his force took three days to respond to a car crash on the M9. When officers finally arrived, they found the driver dead and his passenger clinging to life, though she would later die in hospital.
During Sir Stephen’s tenure, the national force came under heavy criticism for despatching officers armed with semi-automatic pistols to non-firearms incidents and exercising search powers so routinely that, at one point, Scotland had a stop-and-frisk rate nine times higher than the NYPD. Privacy chiefs also rapped senior officers after phone and email interception powers were misused to spy on journalists’ sources.
Sir Stephen’s replacement, Phil Gormley, stood down earlier this week following a series of misconduct allegations, all of which he denied. His resignation was not a smooth affair and Justice Secretary Michael Matheson was revealed to have held a secret meeting with police bosses after which the chief constable’s planned return to work was spiked. Opposition parties have called on Mr Matheson to go.
Mr Gormley’s management of Police Scotland was troubled in other regards too. The murder of Elizabeth Bowe brought back memories of the M9 debacle. The 50-year-old St Andrews woman called 999 one hour before she was killed by her brother but the control centre refused to send officers to her home. An assistant chief constable and three other firearms officers were suspended in November pending a probe into misconduct.
Police Scotland’s seemingly endless woes might have given its watchdog, the Scottish Police Authority, the opportunity to prove its worth. Alas, the SPA has, if anything, been more scandal-struck than the force it is meant to keep in line.
Chairman No. 1, Vic Emery, quit after repeated clashes with Sir Stephen House over decision-making and cooperation. Chairman No. 2, Andrew Flanagan, saw a board member leave in protest at meetings being held behind closed doors. The resulting row came to a head when MSPs announced they no longer had confidence in Mr Flanagan’s leadership.
The one up-side of its chaotic handling of education and justice for the SNP is that it has endured only periodic interrogation of Shona Robison’s record at the health ministry. Public watchdog Audit Scotland says seven out of eight key performance standards are not being met and warns that the NHS ‘is beginning to struggle to maintain quality of care’.
That is hardly surprising when a quarter of GP surgeries are down at least one doctor and almost 3,000 nursing and midwifery posts were left vacant. A winter meltdown saw one in five patients waiting longer than four hours in Accident & Emergency and emergency wards missing treatment targets by 12 percentage points. Operations were cancelled and in one health board office workers were redeployed as cleaners as hospitals struggled to cope with an influx of patients.
The Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow continues to miss waiting targets while three hospitals in Lothian were rebuked for changing figures to make it look like patients were seen on time. After leading voters in Paisley to believe they would keep their local children’s ward open, Robison admitted last month that she would allow it to be shuttered.
As it lurches from crisis to crisis, a startling question begins to form: Is there nothing this government can do right?
The answer might be simple, if lamentable: The SNP is built for campaigning, not for governing. It excels when it is in opposition, railing against the establishment and presenting independence as a panacea but when it comes down to the drudgery of governance, it is lost. In government, and now the establishment, there is no one else to blame, although the Nationalists do a good job of pinning their failings on Westminster, the media, or the opposition.
The SNP spent decades agitating, soap-boxing, leafleting, losing deposits, being mocked, and suffering a thousand other indignities visited on fringe outsider parties. And it did it all for this? For tinkering and crisis management? For a reputation as education-wreckers and NHS-mismanagers? For a visionless, empty drift down the political tide?
If it cannot campaign for independence (for now) and is incapable of governing boldly and coherently, what exactly is the SNP for?
This year marks the 50th anniversary of a landmark moment in SNP history, albeit a largely forgotten one. In was in 1968, spurred on by Winnie Ewing’s dramatic victory in the previous year’s by-election in Hamilton, that the Nationalists put in a heroic performance in local government elections. They went from third to first place Scotland-wide, earning a third of the vote and seeing more than 100 candidates returned.
Their fortunes waxed and waned in the years that followed but 1968 was proof that the SNP was here to stay. Taken with the Hamilton shock, and gains for Plaid Cymru in Wales, it convinced the Labour government to take the nationalist threat seriously and the following year the Royal Commission on the Constitution was established to explore alternative governing structures for the UK.
After the council results, the Tories’ Jock Bruce-Gardyne rushed to warn his party against overreacting. Bruce-Gardyne was a staunch Unionist and fretful that this faddish notion called ‘devolution’ might catch on.
The South Angus MP assured readers of the Spectator: ‘We are turning to the SNP because the United Kingdom has ceased to satisfy us as a focus of national pride, and we demand more of our politicians than the satisfaction of our material expectations. If this is true then two possible answers would appear relevant. One, of course, is the Scottish Nationalist answer. But the other is not some intermediate solution masquerading under the slogan of devolution. It is, quite simply, to re-establish belief and pride in Britain.
‘If the Tory party can do this — if it can convince the electorate between now and the next election that a Tory government would put an end to the ghastly progress from one international humiliation to the next, and give us back our economic and political independence — then, and only then, I believe we will have nothing to fear from the SNP.’
Six years later at the October 1974 general election Jock Bruce-Gardyne lost his seat. To the SNP.
For as long as the SNP has existed, it has been underestimated by its opponents and those who didn’t deign to consider it anything as noble as an opponent. Yet time and again, the Nationalists have defied predictions of their impending decline. A party written off more times than a joyrider’s Mazda has mastered the art of renewing itself without weakening commitment to its ultimate cause.
What hermetical power grants the SNP this protean endurance? Here we encounter the irony at the heart of the party. It can regroup and bounce back because it is a campaigning movement, with all the revolutionary sturdiness, single-minded determination, and loyalty to the cause that implies. The very quality that makes the SNP ill-suited to government is the same one that makes it strong enough to win power.
It does not seek election to change the country but to change the definition of the country. Were it to act like other parties, and at times in the past it did, it might make a better government but the unity of the cause would be replaced by ideological schisms and policy splits. The Nationalists will remain bound by this dilemma until, if ever, they achieve independence.
That is why, however ill-starred they appear at present, a comeback cannot be ruled out. Their cannier opponents grasp this. Consider how the Scottish Conservatives are carefully positioning themselves as a post-constitutional outfit. Inveighing against independence now takes a back seat to presenting the Tories as a practical, pragmatic party ready to ‘do a job for you’, in a favourite locution of Ruth Davidson.
The Tories realise that standing back and waiting for the SNP to fall is a fool’s errand. They must be prepared to battle a rejuvenated Nationalist party if they ever hope to see the inside of Bute House.
The SNP can take heart from its durability and the commitment its cause inspires. But what of the voters, casting around for some adults in an age of political immaturity and intemperate tantrum-throwing? They are stuck with a government that does not serve them and a dysfunctional politics that no longer commands their trust.
Someone will have to start listening to them, hearing their concerns, and acting on their behalf. There is an awful gloom hanging over politics these days and someone has to lift it.
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