There is an eerie pitch to Scottish politics these days. It began the year as a mumble, inaudible to all but those listening intently, but in the past few months the volume has swelled.
A cawing groan echoes through the forbidding corridors of St Andrew’s House and winds its way down Calton Hill to stalk Holyrood’s sinuous passageways.
The opposition can hear it; journalists too. Even some ministers detect its tone in the air.
That sound is the graveyard grunt of a zombie government, a shambling ghoul staggering on where a confident executive once strode.
The SNP was floored in the independence referendum but was back on its feet within days, as loser’s grief drove tens of thousands to join up and keep the struggle alive.
Then in 2016 the voters imparted a bloody nose, removing the SNP’s majority and rewarding Ruth Davidson’s Edinburgh-Unionist declaration that ‘you’ll have had your referendum, then’ by making the Tories the official opposition.
The Nationalists’ rendezvous with the fate that awaits all long-serving governments was delayed again a month later by the surprise Leave victory in the EU referendum.
What did for them was Nicola Sturgeon’s botched effort to parlay discord over Brexit into a new front in the independence hostilities. The First Minister misread the voters from whom she had become progressively cut off. When a general election snapped, so did they. Twenty-one Nationalist MPs were dumped.
Sturgeon stumbled on, relaunching and later reshuffling her ministry but if she reanimated the corpse, she did not quite revive it. The First Minister looks tired, her deputy John Swinney plainly exhausted.
Around them a Cabinet no longer sits so much as slouches, vacant-eyed ministers gawping helplessly as the problems pile up and their ability to remedy them saps away, their political vim with it. Nothing seems to work any more. Every step forward is slow and laborious and swiftly followed by two in the opposite direction; the sea no longer parts on Sturgeon’s word. The stench of decline is everywhere.
Optimism for independence has given way to the grim inevitability of Brexit. That is the new show in town and the SNP is not running it, cannot control it and does not know how to escape it. And so each day Nationalists heave forward, hoping they will eventually stumble back onto the winning path.
No longer vital but still lurching forward, this is a government of the living dead.
This zombie government cannot lay down the law to parliament. The Offensive Behaviour Act, the signature legislation of its second term and about the only thing it did in those five years other than tout independence, was repealed by an opposition coalition over the spiteful tantrums of ministers and ultra-loyal backbenchers.
It is a government too timid to take on vested interests. John Swinney panicked and dropped his much-touted Education Bill after the teaching unions said mean things about it.
It is a ministry of all the talents plus those who answered the phone first. Sturgeon’s summer reshuffle became the secondary story when one of her new ministers had to go barely a day into the job after old comments about American Jews and blacks resurfaced.
If anything, Gillian Martin’s humiliation was fortuitous for the First Minister as it distracted from the appointment of Christina McKelvie, an unexpected promotion from her day job as MSP for late-night Twitter.
These symptoms can, in theory, be controlled and even reversed. Better business management, cannier crafting of legislation and the odd expression of humility and willingness to work with, rather than strong-arm, civic Scotland would get the blood pumping again. The broader malaise, however, is a stickier jam.
Historically, the SNP was a fractious party, always one conference fringe away from another faction springing up. The discipline of the past 15 years has been impressive, if Stepford Wifishly creepy, but it is an aberration. History is reasserting itself and the Nationalists are unlearning the lessons of long, wasted years in opposition.
True, Sturgeon’s troubles are like crumbs down the sofa compared to the house threatening daily to implode on Theresa May’s head. Unlike the Prime Minister, the SNP leader doesn’t have colleagues lining up to pitch for her job. (It may well be that all the viable alternatives have read the runes for the coming years and simply don’t want it.)
Sturgeon is still at the rumbling discontent stage, though she might one day get her own Boris Johnson. Eighteen months ago, the notion that even the most captious SNP member would whisper the mildest dissent from Sturgeon’s line was ludicrous. They were all too busy queueing up for selfies and writing doggerel to her glories.
Her failure to get Indyref 2 off the ground tainted the brand and weakened her ability to stamp her authority on the party. Consider the ongoing row about SNP politicians appearing on RT, a propaganda arm of the Russian state. Sturgeon may have been powerless to prevent Alex Salmond hosting a programme on the Putinist network but her own MPs and MSPs continue to embarrass her by popping up on Kremlin TV.
The latest culprits are MSP Alex Neil and MP Angus MacNeil, both of whom appeared on Salmond’s show this week. Only last month, the Prime Minister told Parliament that the two suspects in the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal were confirmed agents of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate.
Similarly, elected Nationalists were prepared to defy her by attending Tommy Sheridan’s Hope Over Fear rally in Glasgow last month. SNP politicians once cooed over Sturgeon the way public schoolboy Tories gazed at Mrs Thatcher.
Now she struggles to compete with a convicted perjurer screening the director’s cut of Braveheart to six blokes and a dog in George Square.
Then there is All Under One Banner, which bills itself as a cross-party campaign for independence. Unfortunately, the banner is supplied by Siol nan Gaidheal, a faction expelled from the SNP in 1982 for extremism.
Time after time, participants in AUOB marches have been spotted carrying or wearing Siol nan Gaidheal’s black saltire symbol The late Gordon Wilson, a former SNP leader who drove the Siolers out of the party, described them as ‘proto-fascists’.
If two Tories marched through a back alley in Biggar sporting the flash and circle emblem of the British Union of Fascists, Sturgeon would stick her finger through her iPad battering out condemnatory tweets.
But the symbol of a nativist outfit continues to be borne through Scotland’s cities and SNP politicians continue to attend. Sturgeon’s ever-buzzing Twitter account is strangely quiet on this. Evidently, picking a fight with the thickest blades in her grassroots is thought to be ill-advised at this juncture.
No, the First Minister’s authority isn’t challenged as brazenly as Theresa May’s is but that is because Mrs May expects more authority. Sturgeon understands that she no longer runs her party by fiat and must bear in mind that a goodly swathe are unrepentantly fundamentalist. They are already boycotting Tunnock’s Tea Cakes, Barrhead Travel and, for reasons best left alone, the car park of Stirling Castle. The First Minister doesn’t want to risk being next.
Nothing has rocked her like the allegations of historical misconduct by her predecessor. Sturgeon garnered praise from all quarters for her handling of the matter, not least for saying that ‘complaints could not be ignored or swept under the carpet’.
However, reports that one of the accusers raised the same matter in 2013 appear to contradict the Scottish Government’s line that no complaints were lodged prior to 2018.
When asked about her administration’s conduct on Thursday, the First Minister said she had approved a new procedure for investigating allegations ‘because I so strongly believe that complaints should not be swept under the carpet’.
Emotions have been heightened by public statements back and forth between the two camps. Salmond’s decision to crowd fund his legal challenge attracted criticism. In the middle of his effort, Sturgeon posted a tweet urging her followers to donate to a Scottish Women’s Aid crowdfunder against the ‘rape clause’ in UK welfare policy.
It did not help when, in response to Salmond’s resignation from the SNP, Sturgeon said ‘the cause of independence’ was ‘bigger than any one individual’ and ‘more important now than ever’.
Many supporters feel torn but some hardliners resent Sturgeon for complicity in what they deem a Unionist plot to smear the former First Minister.
Members gather in Glasgow tomorrow for the party conference and while not a word will be uttered about the matter from the stage, it is sure to be the talk of the bars and restaurants. Why wouldn’t it be? They have seen an icon walk away from the party he led out of exile and into government. They don’t know who or what to believe. And if, as the First Minister says, the work of campaigning for independence is ‘more important now than ever’, they wonder why she isn’t getting on with it.
Salmond has thrown a pre-conference spanner in those works, too. Speaking on his RT show earlier this week, he editorialised pointedly that ‘support for independence remains at a very high level and, crucially, the activist base, as measured by the turnout at rallies, seems much more mobilised even than in 2014’. It was a comment that will not have gone unnoticed in Bute House and was almost certainly not intended to.
Sturgeon’s long-awaited announcement on a second referendum will be delayed further. The First Minister is stuck in the mud with her tyres spinning.
Polls showing majority backing for independence remain cruelly elusive and she must contend with the doughty minority of her supporters who voted Leave and want independence from both Brussels and Westminster. The higher hurdle is convincing the UK Government to grant a Section 30 order to allow another referendum to take place. May has not ruled it out indefinitely but she is not minded to permit it any time soon.
Devolution has thus far worked like a ratchet for the SNP. They have used their position in government to push for more powers then, when something goes wrong, they claim it’s because they don’t have enough powers, and so they campaign for more.
Suddenly, though, devolution is kicking back. The SNP has accrued so many powers that the voters have started to ask what they’re doing with them.
The same devolution settlement that allows Sturgeon to jet around the world pretending to be a head of state requires her to sit and stew as Brexit boils around her. She is not in control of this process.
SNP strategists hope the hard realities of quitting Europe will throw them a lifebelt. They might just as likely attach an anchor to their dreams of independence. A ruinous departure from the EU could nudge enough Scots towards separation – or it could throw into stark relief the risk of repeating the same mistake by quitting the UK single market.
Those who pressed Sturgeon for the past few years to ‘get back to the day job’ instead of pursuing independence failed to spot the central flaw in that logic.
Independence is Nicola Sturgeon’s day job. It is what gets her out of bed in the morning. It is why she joined the SNP, aged 16. Independence is her worldview and her instincts spring from it.
This is no sin. She has a political compass. Good for her.
But stalling independence forces her to come up with other ideas. Easy enough when you’re a fresh government and can attract policy gurus and political clever-clogs. You end up with more bold initiatives and transformational strategies than you know what to do with. But when you are 11 years in, bogged down with NHS waiting times and pupil performance standards, and everyone’s starting to get fed up with you, that’s when things become a real slog.
So you turn to the idea every zombie government turns to: prohibition.
The Cabinet has yet to be formed that considers banning things bad policy. There’s always some joy-sucking, bossy-boots outfit banging on about the threat to civilisation of something or other. Why not bring them on side by proscribing whatever it is they don’t like this week?
You get easy headlines because it looks like you’re doing something and anyone who raises an objection can be shrieked down as a monster who hates children, animals, rainbows and everything else that is good and true.
The SNP has form here. Cheap alcohol: banned. Shop tobacco displays: banned. Irish rebel songs: banned, temporarily. And there’s more coming down the line.
If you think you know how to run your home better than some dismal civil servant, how charmingly innocent you are. For St Andrew’s House is teeming with a small army of finger-waggers, tut-tutters and know-betters supplying ministers with all sorts of exciting suggestions on how to manage your family life for you.
You may deem smacking a legitimate, if regrettable, form of discipline but that is because you are unenlightened and haven’t attended a policy conference on ‘Household Chores: The New Slavery?’
Perhaps you feed your family now and then using the two-for-one offer at the local pizzeria. Mamma mia! Haven’t you counted the calories? And don’t even think about ordering prawn crackers down the Golden Palace. Behave yourselves. We’ve got your best interests at heart.
Nicola Sturgeon and her fellow prohibitionists have ‘good intentions’. Such people always do. But they have less honourable ones too. They are a half-dead, half-alive government throwing everything at problems beyond their ability to solve and hoping something sticks.
Above all, they hope their legislative hyperactivity distracts you from their paucity of ideas. Their theory is ‘Governing poorly? Govern more!’ and you are left to deal with the practicalities.
There is no future in such a government or a country so governed. Zombie movies seldom end well and zombie governments are much the same.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at email@example.com. Feature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.