Lack of opposition means we have to listen a lot harder, writes Andrew Wilson
HAPPY Father’s Day gentlemen – only the gentle ones mind. Doing our job properly is not simple. So many other calls on our time before we even consider our own selfish wants. But go easy on yourself today. You, most likely, deserve it. My daddy does. Still going strong in his ninth decade he isn’t perfect, as my mother is quick to point out. But as role models go, I will rest content come my hour of passing if my kids look to me as I look to him.
‘The days of leaders handing down the gospel from on high are gone’
We have a much easier task than most mothers of course, but our job truly matters.
Cast a cold eye around about you. Women are rising. Good. The gender gap in pay, position and behaviour is one of a number of uncivilised realities that will embarrass us with the perspective of hindsight. Remedying that takes guts and persistence. But the effort is underway.
In Scotland we have our first female First Minister and our first female Permanent Secretary. The leaders of the Conservative and (most likely) Labour parties as well. One of the great powers politics retains is of example and initiative, and that is being shown in spades.
Young women can see clever women not just surviving but flourishing in leadership positions and will ask themselves: “Why not me?”
To observe Nicola Sturgeon in action is to witness a completely different approach to leadership. Her ability to change the way people think about her party and country, at home and abroad, is very real. And she has a greater opportunity to reach across the partisan divide than ever before.
Many of her party’s critics can be heard saying “I admire Nicola Sturgeon but …” They should try “I admire Nicola Sturgeon and …”
Her opponents in other parties are struggling to get their head around her, the party she leads and what it all means. The result is a damaging lack of an opposition narrative. All serious governments need strong and vigorous opposition. It strengthens the sinews, brings them on to their toes, alerts them.
Happily this is a new government team in Scotland with a new leader and much it wants to prove. Its strategic and tactical challenges at Holyrood and as part of the UK system are manifest and challenge enough for now. But not for ever. I chortle as I hear some disdainfully call Scotland a “one-party state”. Yes, the SNP has 56 MPs, but they are the only one of the main parties arguing for proportionate voting reform. In 1997 Scotland returned 56 Labour MPs to Westminster. I don’t recall them reaching for plurality or voting reform as a result. Much of my life I lived with Labour Party control of council, Scottish Office, Westminster and European Parliament representation. That was real one-party culture. It ossified ambition for the people they served and the price is only now being paid.
The SNP enjoys its current level of support at Holyrood through a system designed to prevent it. It succeeds despite the system while the London parties have been perpetuated because of it. The Conservatives currently have absolute control of the UK legislature (one-party state, anyone?) although fewer than one in four of the electorate backed them. The SNP in Holyrood at least won in a proportionate system.
So much tripe is talked about the SNP and Scottish politics right now. We are not well served by the critics who only seem to view the world through a partisan, polarising lense. They don’t reflect the public view.
But what is true is that the SNP must think ahead to stay ahead.
The opportunity to lead inter-generational reform is real. Its internal purpose, discipline and culture is as impressive as any party anywhere. So how can it use this opportunity?
Sturgeon knows that in the absence of a functioning opposition, her government needs to seek out alternative views and voices and listen to them carefully. The days of leaders handing down the gospel from on high are gone. The modern world requires leaders to draw out the best of people, motivate them and help set a collective course.
In a system where we seem to have some form of election every year, the ability to make substantial reforms is hampered by short-term partisanship. The opportunity for the SNP is therefore to pitch a big tent on the lawn of policy reform and to invite others in.
Whether it is choosing the major infrastructure investments we need or reforming government itself and the level it best operates at, better policy will be made if parties can work together to think long-term. I know how counter-cultural that thought is for a party political system where wafer-thin differences are hollered about as if they mattered most. My sense is that this could be about to change for the better. In the meantime, which child is bringing me tea? «