The breathless horror of the political class at the rise of rabble-rousing populism is matched only by a stubborn refusal to learn lessons from it.
The past week has seen much wailing and gnashing of liberal teeth over Donald Trump’s efforts to crack down on illegal border crossings into the United States.
Italy’s far Right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini threatened to draw up a ‘register’ of Roma and deport the non-Italians among them. ‘As for the Italian Roma, unfortunately you have to keep them at home,’ he added, chillingly.
In Hungary, nationalist strongman Viktor Orban heralded a law creating a criminal offence of ‘facilitating illegal immigration’, punishable by up to a year in prison. Critics argue the legislation is so vague it could see lawyers jailed for giving legal advice and put charity workers behind bars for handing out food.
The nativist surge pulsing through Europe cannot help but stir dark memories and the detention of children in cages played out like a scene from a nightmarish reimagining of America. Nicola Sturgeon has condemned these troubling developments, saying they ‘should make us all pause for thought. We should be standing up for the rights and values that all of us hold dear as human beings’.
A hearty ‘hear, hear’, but has the First Minister considered how the regimes in Washington DC, Rome and Budapest came to power? Has she grasped the centrality of voter disillusionment and the breakdown of trust in mainstream politicians and parties to the ascendance of the tub-thumpers? Going by her actions in government, it would appear not. In fact, in the past seven days, the First Minister has provided an unwitting masterclass in what not to do if you want to maintain public faith in the institutions of government and deny demagogues fertile soil in which to seed their ideas.
It began with a bracing refutation of her allegation that the UK Government had ‘ripped up’ the Sewel convention in pressing ahead with the EU Withdrawal Bill. The Sewel protocol says Westminster should not ‘normally’ legislate in devolved areas without consent, something Holyrood has denied.
After stirring up resentment and outrage with her claim, the SNP leader became unusually taciturn when Lord Sewel, the peer responsible for the convention, came forward to say ‘leaving the EU is a major constitutional adjustment’ and thus fell outwith the scope of his rule. This was ‘not a constitutional crisis’, he said, noting it wasn’t ‘unknown for political parties to seek political advantage over these sort of issues’.
Diplomatic language but with an unmistakable message: The SNP was at it.
Sturgeon’s Government was shown to be at it again when the Court of Session denied a legal challenge to its ‘ban’ on fracking on the grounds no such ban was in place. She and her party had asserted, repeatedly and categorically, that unconventional gas extraction had been proscribed. But their QC admitted in court: ‘The concept of an effective ban is a gloss. It is the language of a press statement.’
Another breach of trust came in the SNP’s touting of statistics purporting to show improvements in literacy and a narrowing of the attainment gap in education. Both would be welcome if true, but what ministers glossed over was that these results were measured under a new system, one introduced after the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy kept showing the SNP failing to improve standards. The facts were inconvenient, so were replaced by new facts more in line with Government thinking.
On Friday, the Scottish Daily Mail began its Secret Scotland campaign to fight back against the cover-up culture that sees information withheld from the public to save the blushes of ministers and bureaucrats. It will win this newspaper no friends in the corridors of power or among the vast network of spin doctors, apparatchiks and public sector gatekeepers who make up the New Scottish Establishment. But ordinary Scots of all political persuasions and none will be glad of a full-throated champion of their right to know.
The gap between the public face of politics and what goes on behind the scenes is not limited to Scotland. We see on an almost daily basis the collision of UK ministers’ assurances on Brexit with the facts of leaving the EU.
Westminster’s own culture of secrecy is under scrutiny after the BBC revealed the House of Commons spent £2.4million on gagging clauses for 53 former staff members in the past five years.
Good government begins and ends with trust. Citizens across the Western world have not suddenly decided to give authoritarianism a go because it sounds more cogent or workable but, in large part, because they have become disenchanted – with individual mainstream politicians and with mainstream politics itself. They see parties of the Centre Left and Centre Right as distant and aloof.
They see a political establishment that presided over the financial crisis but paid little in the way of a price – and ensured its friends in financial institutions got away with it too. They see politicians who cannot manage immigration and resent being asked to, and a class of insiders operating an omertà that would impress the most tight-lipped Mafia family.
All this cynicism has made them cynical too, and when a lout with a hairdo comes along and talks bluntly he seems more authentic than all the soundalike jargon-spouters the mainstream has to offer.
Only when he’s in power – when it’s too late – does it become obvious he is at least as self-serving. You can’t make politics more honest by electing one man who loudly boasts of his own candour. You have to compel them all to act more honourably.
That is why mainstream politicians are playing with fire when they undermine public trust in government. If they won’t learn this lesson from overseas they might end up learning it the hard way at home.
On Saturday, supporters of a second referendum on Brexit marched on Parliament – but where were the leaders of Britain’s two biggest ‘pro-European’ parties?
Nicola Sturgeon didn’t even manage a Twitter thumbs-up as she did in May for a pro-independence rally boasting a ‘Tory scum out’ banner from ultra-nationalist Siol nan Gaidheal.
Jeremy Corbyn was in Jordan meeting Palestinians and every time the Press pack asked his view on the London protest he was, like the West Bank itself, otherwise occupied.
Sturgeon won’t back a second referendum because it would set a precedent in the event of another independence vote and make it difficult to resist pressure for a vote on the terms of leaving the UK. Scuppering Brexit would nix Corbyn’s chances of making it to Number 10.
Neither of them give a hoot for Leavers or Remainers. They will say anything – or nothing – to advance their own interests and the country can just keep on marching.
Drinking rates among Britons are at their lowest since 2005 and industry chiefs are blaming teetotal millennials. No wonder they’re so miserable and spend their days worrying if they’re using the correct pronouns. When this ever-so-virtuous generation isn’t collectively sucking on a lemon, it seems they prefer low-alcohol cocktails. Lighten up and have a Snowball, snowflakes.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.