SCOTS have abandoned ‘mainstream’ parties because they simply weren’t working here, writes Joyce McMillan
Thursday morning, and on the radio, Jim Naughtie is talking to the leaders of Scotland’s two main unionist parties about how to combat the dominance of the SNP. Ruth Davidson is perched on the Cairngorms, Kezia Dugdale has failed to provide herself with any such memorable setting; but all three are happy to discuss the problems that arise when, as Jim Naughtie puts it, a majority government always “gets its own way”. No-one uses the phrase “one party state” – which is just as well, since the phrase clearly bears no relation to the multi-party rammy that is Scottish electoral politics.
Yet still, it remains true that the sight of a majority SNP government “getting its own way” at Holyrood – often with little effective opposition, thanks to the weakened state of the three main UK parties in Scotland – has aroused some parts of the British establishment to levels of concern about the state of our democracy that they have rarely if ever expressed before – not in the years when an increasingly moribund Labour Party totally dominated municipal and parliamentary politics across large swathes of Scotland, or during the long periods since the 1970s when Westminster governments elected on quite a modest minority of votes have acquired enough power, through the first-past-the-post system, to impose hugely unpopular policies, ranging from the poll tax of the 1980s to the recent privatisation of the Royal Mail.
For democracy campaigners, of course, the irony is that there certainly are democratic issues that need to be addressed, 17 years on from the election of the first devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has recently called for a new Constitutional Convention, to address issues around the failing structure of Scottish local government, and its clearly broken relationship – both financial and constitutional – with central government. And beyond these urgent questions around local government and its role, there is also a whole range of pressing issues around the operation of the Scottish Parliament, and the level of democratic accountability it is able to provide. It’s increasingly clear, for example, that the Parliament’s committees are far weaker than was envisaged back in 1999, that their success in improving the quality of legislation is very limited, that they too often vote along party lines, and that the parliament has failed to develop the cadre of powerful long-term committee chairs that has emerged at Westminster in recent years.
The link of accountability between parliament, people and government has been further weakened by the extension of the Scottish Parliamentary term from four to five years, a move made by both parliaments, almost without debate, in order to fit in with Westminster’s new five-year fixed term; the absence of a second chamber makes these weaknesses the more urgent. And although no elected politician would dare say it, there is, in my view, mounting evidence that the Scottish Parliament is perhaps slightly too small, at 129 members, to provide both a full complement of government ministers across the range of powers it now has, and the kind of rigorous independent supervision of government policy that is necessary in a healthy democracy.
It’s not an interest in these vital practical details of a working democracy, though, that seems to motivate the people who complain most about “SNP dominance” of Scottish politics. Instead, the implication is rather that something has gone wrong in Scotland; that the people – or around half of them - have given up on “normal” politics and parties, have thrown reason to the winds, and are now so irrationally wedded to the SNP that nothing can shift them from their unreasonable prejudice against all things UK.
And of course, there are elements among those supporting the SNP of whom that might be true. As a general account of the reasons for the recent rise of the SNP, though, this narrative is both immensely patronising and dangerously incomplete; and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it owes some of its popularity to the fact that it lets a whole generation of unionist politicians off the hook, when it comes to recognising, analysing and dealing with the reasons why around a million Scots, over three decades, have abandoned the UK parties, and switched allegiance to the SNP.
For in the end, it is not that difficult to identify the points at which those three parties began to lose touch with mainstream Scottish opinion, and to haemorrhage support. The Scottish Tories blew it in the 1980s and early 90s, when they failed to distance themselves from the worst excesses of Thatcherite neoliberalism. Labour blew it in the mid-2000s, when Scots voters began to register the depth of Tony Blair’s flirtation with the same ideology, and the reckless foreign policy into which it was leading him. And the Liberal Democrats finally blew it in 2010, when they entered into a full-blown coalition with a Tory party that enjoyed very little support in Scotland.
If those three parties were fully to acknowledge that they have lost support for perfectly legible and rational reasons, though, they would be faced with a series of difficult political tasks and decisions which they seem strangely reluctant to undertake.
And it’s the reluctance of those three parties to face up to these fundamental questions about their future direction, and the future of Scotland, that has left them so enfeebled in their appeal to Scottish voters. It is their poor political performance, more than anything else, that has left the independence parties – the SNP and the Greens – looking like the ones who still understand the potential of politics to catch voters’ imaginations. And although the first instinct of the British establishment is always to talk as if the SNP must have achieved its current dominance by nefarious means, in truth the party is guilty of nothing but of winning elections – winning them, too, under a system that sets a much higher bar for that achievement than the Westminster one. And the unionist parties in Scotland will begin to fight back effectively on the day when they finally acknowledge that simple truth, and get to work on offering an inspiring future vision of their own.