When politicians lose touch with people they should serve, the writing is on the wall for them says Joyce McMillan
The signs must have seemed auspicious, when the London mayor Sadiq Khan agreed to address last weekend’s Scottish Labour Party conference in Perth. Here was the most successful Labour politician of the last half-decade come to rally Labour’s depleted Scottish troops; and he might have talked of a hundred positive things, from 21st century models of social democracy, to how to maintain strong international and European links in the age of Brexit, as both London and Scotland wish to do.
Yet instead, Sadiq Khan chose to lead with the suggestion that Scotland’s governing party, supported both at the 2014 referendum and the 2016 Scottish election by around 45 per cent of Scottish voters, is essentially the same kind of racist and divisive outfit as Ukip. Now it is true that most political movements have some racists in their ranks, people who shame any organisation to which they belong with their vile hate-speech, on and off the internet; and it can be argued that all British parties, including the Conservatives, Labour, and the SNP, should do more, particularly in this age of instant communication, to disown those who speak hatred while claiming to support them.
Beyond that, though, the idea that the current SNP leadership is pursuing Ukip-like policies - while strongly opposing Brexit, seeking to reassure UK nationals in Scotland of their continuing welcome here, campaigning for Scottish control over its own immigration rules so that more people can settle here, and constantly emphasising the ideal of modern, diverse and outward-looking Scotland committed to human rights for all - is so plainly ridiculous that it left even many Unionist Scots gaping in disbelief. On one hand, there is the crude discourtesy to, and misrepresentation of, a First Minister with whom Mr Khan had previously been co-operating, on the question of whether parts of the UK might pursue a closer continuing relationship with Europe after Brexit. On the other, there’s the sheer political ineptitude of methodically insulting that very section of the voting public that Scottish Labour will need to win back, if it is ever to recover from its present near-terminal condition.
Above all, though, what is striking about the speech is the extent to which it is clearly based on sheer ignorance of the positions taken by the SNP government, and of the current landscape of Scottish politics. There are many things for which Nicola Sturgeon’s administration can and should be criticised; but taking the same view as Ukip on matters of race, inclusion, diversity, immigration and national identity is so clearly not one of them that Mr Khan’s comments invite very serious questions, not least about his own judgment.
In a sense, though, this display of indifference to what actually happens in Scotland - this sense of not knowing, and not caring to know - is becoming more and more typical of a UK political and media elite that seems to feel that it can carry on indefinitely dominating the whole territory of the UK, without any real knowledge of its more distant regions, as seen from Westminster. Only last week, the House of Commons was subjected to the strange, buffonish spectacle of the Tory Transport Minister, John Hayes, asserting with great confidence the “alternative fact” that all the major road bridges in Scotland - Forth, Tay and Skye - are now closed, thanks to the SNP’s policy of ending bridge tolls. Then there was the excruciating moment during Jeremy Corbyn’s Perth speech when he betrayed his unfamiliarity with the very basics of Scottish politics by calling his Holyrood representatives not MSPs but “SNPs”. And now, we hear that some bright spark in Whitehall imagines that bringing Donald Trump’s controversial state visit to Scotland, rather than London, will help to “avoid major protests”; either this person is culpably unaware of Scotland’s recent political history and Mr Trump’s previous activities here, or someone is having a laugh.
Nor, of course, is Scotland the only victim. Ignorance of much of England north of the Wash, of its recent history and current needs, lay at the root of the shock Brexit victory last summer; last week, one Midlands journalist wrote a passionate column begging metropolitan reporters not to cover the Stoke-on-Trent by-election as if the place were some exotic low-life destination, far from civilisation. And above all, there is Northern Ireland, which went to the polls yesterday in the sure and certain knowledge that its hard-won path to peace, open borders and relaxed multiple identities, across all of Ireland, has been blocked - possibly for good - by a Westminster governing party so obsessed with its own internecine struggles that it apparently never gave the future of the province a second thought, throughout the whole EU referendum process.
So what does it tell us, this ever-more depressing litany of ignorance and insularity in the governance of the UK? Well, perhaps two things. The first is that we cannot expect anything to happen at great speed, in the slow-grinding mechanisms of the British state. Power devolved is power retained, power won back from the EU is power regained; and the Westminster elites, as presently constituted, have not reached their end-game yet.
Yet at the same time, the history of multi-national governance, from the Romans to the Austro-Hungarians and beyond, shows us that when governing elites lose contact with what is going in the places they seek to govern - when they become less well-informed than those they dominate, and increasingly resistant or indifferent to facts that they find inconvenient - essentially, the writing is on the wall, for their long-term dominance.
And even if Nicola Sturgeon calls another independence referendum in 2018 or 2019, and loses again in career-crushing style, I now wonder whether Westminster any longer has the wit, or the fundamental curiosity and humility, to wake up to the real potential of the wonderful patchwork of nations it governs, and to give it a new sense of a possible positive future; or whether, sooner or later, the whole structure is now destined to come crashing down, destroyed not so much, in the end, by the arguments of Scottish nationalists or Irish republicans, as by the sheer weight of its own ill-informed indifference, to the whole damned lot of us.