Joyce McMillan: Sullen Scots are retreating from politics

Scots are not turning into a nation of flag-waving Brexiteers (Picture: Getty)
Scots are not turning into a nation of flag-waving Brexiteers (Picture: Getty)
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Voters seem to be turning away from politics in a state of sullen acceptance that the future is bleak, writes Joyce McMillan.

January 2018 and, to all useful intents and purposes, the people of Scotland seem to have taken themselves off the political playing-field, vowing never to kick a ball again.

In London, the performance of the Conservative Government goes from ludicrous to worse, as they preside over one disaster after another, from this week’s collapse of the massive Carillion company – one of a dozen “parasite” groups that have emerged as the major beneficiaries of the lucrative outsourcing of British public services – to their almost comically inept handling of the Brexit negotiations; so poor, let us recall, that they have already spent more than half of the available negotiation period first refusing to deal with, and then making comprehensive concessions on, the three preliminary areas that should have been dealt with in the first weeks of discussion, so that actual trade negotiations could begin.

Yet no provocation, it seems, is any longer enough to tempt the wounded bear of Scottish opinion from its den – not even the humiliating sight, this week, of the UK Government conveniently “forgetting” to table promised amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill that would have limited UK ministers’ new power to legislate without parliamentary consent on what are – or were until this week – matters clearly reserved to the Scottish Government. Asked if it would like to vote again on EU membership, the Scottish electorate – 62% per cent of whom voted to remain in the EU, just seven months ago – says no, it is not that bothered. And asked if it would like to draw the logical conclusion from the Brexit vote of last June, and take another look at Scotland’s now radically altered choice between independence in the EU or a future as a not-much-respected region of a Brexit Britain, the bear growls again; and says that in a majority, it would rather not be asked – not in a year, not in five years, perhaps not ever.

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So what is going on? Diehard Unionists say that the diagnosis is simple; that Scotland has come to its senses, is fed up of its own recently elected leader (“that Nicola Sturgeon”), has got over the “nonsense” of independence, and is knuckling down to make a go of Brexit, and wave a cheery patriotic flag at Prince Harry’s wedding.

Yet close observation suggests that there is no such positive mood abroad in Scotland; rather the reverse. Instead, there is profound division about the future of the nation (43% think Nicola Sturgeon is doing well as First Minister, 43% think she is doing badly), leading to a sullen acceptance of what others decide for us, a pervasive sense of powerlessness, and something like depression. For let’s face it, if we cannot rouse and unite ourselves even to defend Donald Dewar’s fine devolution settlement enshrined in the Scotland Act of 1998, then something is clearly amiss. The causes of this mood of retreat and withdrawal seem to me to run deep, and include a kind of existential shock caused by the high drama of the independence referendum, followed by the unexpectedness of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election. Add the fact that we are living though what is, for many households in Britain, a period of intense personal financial pressure and anxiety, against a backdrop of mounting despair about the scale of the environmental and climate threats likely to be faced by our children and grandchildren, and many people seem inclined simply to give up, and focus entirely on the personal here and now. Anecdotally, many people seem to have simply stopped engaging with the news, because they simply cannot bear the daily parade of bigotry, stupidity, violence and irrelevance of which it now often seems to consist.

All of which suggests to me that there will be a massive political premium waiting for the first party that can break free of this mire of gloom and uncertainty, and offer Scotland – under these changed circumstances – a positive vision of its future, that seems plausible, practical, convincing, and worth fighting and campaigning for. On current showing, that party is unlikely to be the Liberal Democrats or Labour – the Lib Dems because their dogged anti-Brexit stance is simply not enough to ignite public enthusiasm, Labour because the Corbyn movement has no particular vision for Scotland, only for the UK as a whole.

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It could, though, be the Tories, with a vision of a lithe, business-friendly post-Brexit Scotland distancing itself from the retro British nationalism of the Westminster Tories, and exploiting whatever opportunities come its way. It could be the Greens, who in many ways have by far the most upbeat and credible story to tell about the coming transition to a low-carbon economy, and how Scotland might benefit from it. Or it could be the SNP, rousing itself from its Brexit-induced gloom, and once again offering a vision of a new 21st century social democracy emerging from the ashes of an increasingly right-wing Britain, and embracing full membership of Europe’s community of nations.

For the truth is that at the moment, the SNP seems less like the party of positive campaigning, broad vision, and slightly insouciant hope led by Alex Salmond until 2014, and more like a disappointed party led by an anxious woman, haunted by the thought of what Brexit will do to Scotland, and what we might have done to avoid it, if opinion had shifted a little more in the SNP’s direction. And however justified that anxiety may be, Scottish voters, like many others in the West, have now had enough of fear, despair and division to last them a lifetime. The task for Scottish politicians now is to try to articulate and embody a positive, uplifting and credible plan for Scotland’s future, around which people can begin to unite. It will be hard, given the depths of the constitutional divisions, perhaps almost impossible. Yet without those messages of hope, and the surge of positive energy that would come with them, we will be doomed to many more years of depression, silence and impotence, brooding in our cave, licking our wounds, repelling all questions, and refusing to turn towards the light.