Next Scottish Conservative leader must challenge the idea that vile personal attacks are just part of normal politics, writes Alastair Stewart.
Malcolm Tucker is something of a sage. One golden nugget from The Thick of It was articulating the public perception of politicians: “They don’t like you having expenses. They don’t like you being paid. They’d rather you lived in a f***ing cave.”
An increasing number of anti-social acts against MSPs gives disturbing life to this assessment. In August last year, “SNP” was graffitied on a war memorial in Shetland followed by “SNP out” on Aileen Campbell’s Clydesdale constituency office in November. Only this week Annie Wells’ constituency base was defaced with “Tory scum”.
Political parties in Scotland have always been fair game for satire and criticism, but we’ve shifted into routine ad hominem attacks. The levels of hatred are not only poisonous for civic life but undermine the functions of Scottish politics.
Open mockery of the Scottish Conservatives is particularly unhelpful. The Scottish Parliament was never designed to support parliamentary majorities. In turn, there is no official opposition in the way that there is at Westminster. The Scottish Conservatives, whether one agrees with them or not, deserve constitutional respect as the second-largest party at Holyrood. To denounce them out of hand is to undermine public scrutiny of the ruling administration.
This isn’t romantic claptrap. If we continue to pass off disgusting personal attacks as ‘part and parcel of politics’ then no one will enter the political fray. With that, we’ll be doomed to accept generation after generation of the status quo. Opposition parties have a constitutional responsibility to hold the government to account and offer an alternative, but it’s increasingly difficult to do that when there is such contempt for their very existence.
With Jackson Carlaw as the clear front-runner to take over the Scottish Conservative leadership mantle, now seems as good a time as ever to call for more respect in Scottish politics in the new year and consider how we treat candidates and incumbents alike.
It’s perhaps a hokey, cliched thing to say – but it’s necessary. Politics in this country is not civil and has not been for some time. It’s easy to hark back to better days, but they did exist, once, and it wasn’t before the advent of Twitter or social media or decades long past.
The most significant source of this? Well, yes, Brexit but behind that is what we might call a mandate muddle – 55 per cent of people voted No to Scottish independence in 2014 on the assurance that Scotland would remain in the EU, but 52 per cent across the UK voted Leave in 2016 (with 62 per cent in Scotland voting Remain).
For many, it’s confusing, and for some that becomes fury. Coupled to that is the internet’s favourite indulgence of invoking half-remembered truths. Margaret Thatcher is the left’s favourite bogeyman, Blair, Brown and now Corbyn for the right.
Mandates to implement a referendum are confused less by the referendum results and more by general elections under the first-past-the-post system (to say nothing of votes for Brexit legislation at parliamentary level).
Since 2015 there have been Westminster victories for the Conservative Party but, out of Scotland’s 59 available seats, 56, 35 and 48 seats went to the SNP in 2015, 2017 and 2019. The SNP also won a majority of local council seats in Scotland at the 2017 local elections. Any leader on the opposite benches must be able to hold the government of the day to account – it’s one of the few political roles that requires the marrying of civic responsibility and political ambition.
Respect in Brtish politics is hanging on by its fingernails, and when that affects the function of government, then there is a serious problem. No one wants a return to the days of politics being a gentleman’s hobbyhorse. This is the very reason why is a £400 salary was introduced for MPs in the Parliament Act of 1911.
The biggest challenge of any new Scottish Conservative leader is to navigate a clear path through this electoral confusion, challenge the idea that personal attacks are a way of life and the erroneous perception that politicians do nothing.
It’s not just about reintroducing decency; it’s about protecting the best mechanism to hold the government to account and avoiding what Lord Hailsham called “elective dictatorship” for decades.
We must move past the idea that politicians are ‘all in it for themselves’. A professional, competitive salary might compensation for the downsides of being an elected representative, but robust, not cruel, civil society will invite talent and ambition.
It’s staggering to think that Armando Iannucci and Peter Capaldi produced such an incisive beast as ‘The Thick of It’ before Brexit entered its half-decade quagmire. One of the unexpected things the entire debacle has done is to wound, but not kill, satire.
All political parties have a duty to root out cyberbullying and harassment. It goes much further than upset or ego, it’s not mere bickering. Dubious factoids or myths and the torrent of anonymous online abuse are the responsibility of everyone to eradicate.
Accepting, as Tucker so eloquently put it, that the public hates its elected members, is to damn the system to irrelevance without a fight. Scotland deserves much more than that.