Constitutional politics can shift focus from vital everyday affairs – like the state of policing, the NHS, education and councils – but that applies equally to both independence and Brexit.
If it is true that, as Boris Johnson claimed at the launch of the Scottish Conservative manifesto, Scotland is “trapped like a lion in a cage” and “paralysed” by the independence debate, then surely it’s equally true to say that Brexit has done much the same, if not more so, for the UK as a whole. To adopt a Johnson-like turn of phrase, the British bulldog is shackled in its kennel.
Given he was one of Brexit’s chief architects, it is perhaps just a touch ironic for the Prime Minister to be pursuing this line of attack.
Would the UK have been mired in more than three years of rancour and division if he had come down on the other side of his internal debate over Leave or Remain ahead of the 2016 referendum? But then, would he be Prime Minister today if he had done so?
It’s hard to argue against the idea that our public services are in a mess. Adding to problems in the NHS, councils and schools comes the news that police officers are struggling to cope.
Researchers found two-thirds of officers in Scotland experienced stress on a daily basis because of multiple competing demands on their time.
Nearly half of officers said they had suffered from exhaustion, one in five from insomnia and one in ten admitted drinking alcohol or taking prescription drugs in an attempt to cope. These are deeply alarming figures that should focus minds at Holyrood.
Scotland’s politicians are, of course, able to multi-task, to think about an array of issues while also considering independence, the Union and Brexit.
But what constitutional debates do is remove the same degree of scrutiny by the public and that does inevitably have an effect on what they say and do, however good their intentions. Such scrutiny plays a key role because politicians and governments who fail to adequately address the electorate’s priorities – or appear to fail – are likely to be thrown out of office.
It’s not actually their fault, but the SNP can, to an extent, rely on support for independence to keep them in power despite problems with public services.
If adherence to Brexit ideology is the chief concern for enough voters to elect a Westminster government, the UK could find itself in a similar situation. But no politician should mistake this for a blank cheque. Ultimately, if their lot does not improve, the roar of lion and bulldog alike will rattle the corridors of power.