Nicola Sturgeon’s once again been strutting on the big stage in London. As First Minister, she’d be in dereliction of her duties if she didn’t speak out, and to be fair she does so with style and ability.
But her domination of the agenda speaks more to the ineffectual leadership and useless opposition that exists in Scotland, than her undoubted political talents. Other voices have a right and indeed a duty to speak up, even if from different perspectives. Such is life in a democracy, as well as under devolution. That she rules the roost testifies more to the ineptitude and servitude of others than just that she’s more talented.
When Sturgeon was preparing to go to London, Pamela Nash, the leader of Scotland in Union, was arguing that if the UK didn’t exist it would need invented. She’s got a point as sharing the same island and having a land border makes a working relationship necessary, though it needn’t be a union as the island of Ireland shows.
However, leaving that aside, there’s also the effectiveness of Scottish representation within the UK to consider and that was shamefully exposed this week. Other countries operate with devolved parliaments which can lead to issues as in Catalonia. But others, to be fair, see their distinctness or special needs represented and not just by the federal leaders. Canada and Germany see battles rage between federal and provincial authorities with big political beasts from all parties and institutions strutting upon the stage.
There’s been the odd spat in Scotland, with Henry McLeish going his own way on free personal care and the acceptance of other issues from air guns to the drink-drive limit. In the main though, the divide has remained focussed on a narrow tribal constitutional loyalty.
There might well be less clamour though if Scotland’s distinct needs were being articulated. Moreover, there might be more respect for some individuals and the offices they hold if they were neither so supine nor so craven. But, it has not been so, as we saw this week.
It was probably to be expected that Richard Leonard, the Scottish labour leader, would be cast aside. No doubt he’s a personable enough guy, but he’s been exposed, and rather than being batted away by Sturgeon he was undermined by his own party.
At the weekend, he gave an interview and reaffirmed his opposition to Indyref 2. A perverse position given that it has harmed rather than helped Labour in Scotland but, that aside, it was what happened next that ca’d the feet from him. No sooner had he expounded his irredentism than it was announced that Sturgeon was to be meeting his Great Leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The Scottish Labour leader’s post was described as being like the head of a “branch office” by one of his predecessors but this surely highlighted it. Corbyn seemed to neither know nor care about Leonard and without a by your leave agreed to meet the First Minister. It’s clear as day that if needs be, Corbyn will allow Indyref 2 to strike a deal to get into Government. Scottish Labour and their leader were yet again exposed as totally powerless.
But, the opposition in Scotland is now the Tories and, though not in power at Holyrood, they still command the position of Secretary of State for Scotland – once described by a former Conservative incumbent as being like a Governor General. Devolution has, of course, transformed the office and restricted the political patronage but it’s still a post with power and influence, as well as a seat in the British Cabinet.
It’s a position David Mundell has held since 2015, so he’s no novice and he’s been in politics a long time and knows it’s about power and influence. Which may well be why, as with some other Tories, he took the high road south as soon as he could, preferring the bright lights of London and no doubt power of Westminster to the provincial charms of Edinburgh and the devolved administration in Holyrood.
He’s in office now and, with the Tories rejuvenated, they’ve now had time to settle in and he had a chance to seize the moment. Ruth Davidson, though now on maternity leave, got them into a good position with her new brand of Scottish Conservatism.
Seemingly distinct, she was prepared to tussle with Boris Johnson and demand protection for Scotland through the customs union and even single market. But, as the Brexit delusion has unravelled and the Tory Party melted down, it’s clear that not only will the Scottish Tories supinely accept whatever is dictated to them but that Mundell will cravenly accede to it; the Cabinet’s man in Scotland indeed.
As Leonard was exposed by his own boss, Mundell was knifed by a former colleague. After he accused Dominic Raab of being a carpetbagger when the latter resigned as Brexit Secretary – a bit rich given Mundell’s own political journey – Raab’s response was to say he found that curious as Mundell had “agreed with me in Cabinet on the substance of what I was saying and I’m the one who resigned on principle”.
Mundell thrashed about like a drowning man, accusing the Scottish Government of wanting chaos when it’s his own administration that’s causing it. Likewise, his denunciation of the “Ulsterisation” of Scottish politics sits ill with a party that’s wrapped itself in red, white and blue and consorted with loyalism not just unionism. His parliamentary group abandoned their trumpeting about fishing water rights and were likewise struck dumb.
As the political commentator James Thomson Callender wrote, albeit under a pseudonym, in 1792, Scottish MPs “were well aware of the total insignificance of their situation”, even suggesting that “elbow chairs placed on the ministerial benches would be as much good and less expensive”.
More than two centuries on, Mundell has confirmed that nothing’s changed and, until that alters, it’ll be the constitution not issues that continue to dictate Scottish politics.