The politics of constitution and identity has the power to disrupt normal cycles of political change, writes Joyce McMillan
It seems that Harold Macmillan never said it; but all the same, the old Tory Prime Minister’s legendary remark that “events” are what politicians in power most have to fear seems particularly apt, in Scotland this week. Of all the challenges Nicola Sturgeon and her Government currently have to face, a major scandal involving the apparent online stalking of a teenage boy by former Finance Secretary Derek Mackay was probably the last thing they might have imagined, as they prepared for what was already set to be a fraught Budget week.
Yet here it is; and although Derek Mackay’s swift resignation will doubtless limit the damage, the reverberations of his apparent abuse of power, and speculation about the kind of political culture in which such behaviour is possible, will continue to weaken his party and the Scottish Government for vital months to come. Nor is this blow to Nicola Sturgeon’s Government the only crisis she currently faces; indeed since New Year, her Government has been pelted by bad news covering policy areas from health – with the ongoing crisis at Lothian Health Board and the new Sick Kids’ Hospital – to the mounting procurement scandal surrounding the two new CalMac ferries being built, or perhaps not built, at the newly nationalised Ferguson Marine shipyard.
Reports released this week showed deaths of homeless people in Scotland running at twice the rate in England, and Scotland’s care system failing vulnerable children on a horrifying scale; Education Secretary John Swinney has been forced to announce a full review of what some statistics suggest is a system in serious decline, and the Scottish Government’s new Transport Strategy has been dismissed by the Scottish Green Party – essential SNP allies in the Scottish Parliament – as “meaningless drivel”, containing no concrete plan to achieve ambitious carbon-reduction targets.
And all of this comes in advance of Alex Salmond’s imminent trial, and the ramifications for the party that has now been in government in Scotland for 13 years; exactly the tally Harold Macmillan’s Conservatives achieved, before they were driven from power in 1964, in the aftermath of the Christine Keeler scandal.
All of which, under normal circumstances, would tend to suggest that the current cycle of SNP Government is coming to an end, with an exhausted First Minister perhaps wishing – like the fictional Christine Keeler in the recent television series – that “men were not so rubbish”. Power tends to corrupt, governments get tired, democracy requires change, and the occasional demonstration that change is possible. Unlike the UK Conservatives – given a shockingly easy ride on their decade-long domestic record by most UK media, during the recent general election campaign – the SNP Government can expect no such indulgence, come next spring’s Holyrood election campaign; and in the normal order of things, they might expect to be replaced, for at least one parliamentary cycle, by a coalition of opposition parties.
These, though, are not normal times; and the truth is that Scottish politics is currently operating on two different tracks, each pulling heavily in different directions. On the matter of the “day job”, the SNP is now accumulating the kind of list of wrongs and disasters that tends to favour opposition parties arguing that it’s “time for a change”.
On the great matter of the constitution, though, every current development in UK politics seems almost calculated to fuel Scotland’s growing sense of alienation from the entire Brexit enterprise, and from the Conservative Party that is currently implementing it. Support for independence is currently at its highest point for half a decade, and apparently rising. Boris Johnson’s high-handed and often downright offensive attitude to the Scottish Parliament and Government is calculated to rile all but a tiny minority of Scots; and his apparent embrace of the hardest kind of Brexit available, while still negotiating a trade deal with the EU, seems set to inflict the maximum possible damage on Scotland’s economy and environment, with a minimum of consent. Nor, for unionists, is there any hope to be found in the Labour Party, with its list of leadership candidates so desperately ill-informed about Scotland that they lose more voters north of the Border every time they open their mouths on the subject.
And what this decline in effective UK-wide politics at Westminster means, in electoral terms, is that despite all the SNP’s current domestic woes, there is more than a chance that as in the recent UK general election, their support in next year’s Scottish election will prove surprisingly resilient; that just as, in December, a critical mass of English voters were moved by the need to “get Brexit done” to support a party with an appalling domestic record, so a critical mass of Scottish voters will be moved by the need to “get independence done” to forgive the SNP Government for failings which in any case are much less fundamental, from a social-democratic point of view.
Whether or not this is something to be welcomed, by those who care about democracy and accountability, is debatable. It may, if it happens, be a sign that Scottish politics, too, is now passing through that looking-glass of identity politics beyond which politicians become unassailable and unpunishable, to those who have identified them as being “on our side”. Or it may simply mean that a growing number of Scottish voters have concluded that independence has to come first, if we are to have a chance of a sustainable social-democratic future of the kind being successfully pursued by many small neighbour nations in northern Europe.
What’s clear, though, is that for good and ill, the politics of constitution and identity now has the power to disrupt normal cycles of political change, and to force everyone to play by different rules. And while we can and should pray that that new politics will never reach Scotland in the dangerous and regressive form now stalking the US Capitol, next year’s Holyrood election will certainly offer an insight into just how powerful the pressure towards Scottish independence has become; and whether it now outweighs the process of decline and decay that might, at any other time, have seen the SNP driven from power, come May of next year.