The run-up to the election has exposed a rotten Westminster fixated on short-term gain – but at what cost, asks Lesley Riddoch
DOES anyone feel genuinely impressed by the general election campaigns of the three main UK parties – or have their offerings only served to highlight Westminster’s myriad shortcomings leaving confusion and a fairly bad taste in their wake?
It’s not just the persistent demonising of Nicola Sturgeon, the Cameron-induced-Jockophobia or the hysteria behind Theresa May’s latest assertion that SNP support for a Labour government would provoke the “biggest constitutional crisis since Edward VIII’s abdication” – poisonous though all of that has been. Scot-bashing is traditionally concealed from our gaze by London-based papers which publish different headlines north and south of the Border. The same day Nicola Sturgeon was dubbed the “Most dangerous woman in Britain” by the Daily Mail for example, its Scottish headline was “Nicola wins debate”. But since the Conservatives are now fighting for their political lives, the finer feelings of Scots cannot be spared. So we are able to read the ludicrous comparison between our popular First Minister and the biblical infant slayer, Herod. We hear Boris Johnson – perhaps the next leader of the Conservative party – call her a jewel chief, fox in a henhouse, “voracious weevil,” Lady Macbeth and a scorpion. We watch, slightly bemused, as the Telegraph says the ideas of the SNP (on course to win 50 of 59 seats in Scotland) are “outside the realm of mainstream political discourse” and witness politician after politician describe the party’s possible involvement in UK government as nothing short of a hijack. In the eyes of the British establishment, Scotland’s First Minister is a devious destroyer of democracy. In the eyes of most voters (across the whole UK it seems), she is a modernising force telling truth to power while the dinosaurs slug it out over tax-cuts and immigration. Who is right?
Piers Morgan recently wrote; “The only difference between Nicola Sturgeon and William Wallace is that she doesn’t have a beard.” Now that’s probably seen as a compliment (albeit a strange one) in Scotland where Wallace is a national hero. But it was presumably meant as an insult, suggesting the peaceful Ms Sturgeon nurtures warlike, anti-English tendencies. Such comparisons haven’t helped coax swithering English voters back into the arms of David Cameron – but they have demonstrated that an insult in England can be a compliment in Scotland – so estranged have our cultures become.
Beyond name-calling though, the election campaign has also exposed the chronic short termism at the heart of Westminster governance. Proposals for constitutional change are being created on the hoof as David Cameron rolls out proposals for EVEL [English votes for English laws] without considering workability, impact on other “non-English” MPS such as the Welsh and Northern Irish and above all long-term consequences for democracy and solidarity. Other solutions to the “English problem” – English parliament or regional English devolution – have been swept aside as too complex, too expensive and not immediately vote-winning enough. Constitutional democracy in Cameron’s hands is like a Stradivarius in the hands of a gorilla.
But the Lib Dems are little better. At a time when confusion and negative voting amply demonstrate the need for PR and a new federal structure, the Lib Dems have failed to include either flagship policy in their five “red line” issues. Instead prominent Lib Dem politicians have begged Scottish Labour and Tory supporters to vote tactically and keep the SNP out. It’s like a nightmare version of proportional representation (PR) where voters grade candidates by preference but then back their least worst not their favourite option. Does this suggest British democracy is in a healthy and vibrant place? Of course not – but it’s just part of the political “game”. Perhaps Gordon Brown might have considered PR for Westminster elections – as Labour did in Scotland – if he thought the current voting system might ever work against the party at Westminster elections. But of course, the loss of northern fiefdoms was until recently unthinkable. Now even the Lib Dems are loth to make a fuss because first past the post voting actually favours them. Indeed Ukip may be the main agitators for electoral reform in the next parliament because they – not the Lib Dems – will be saddled with more votes than seats. Party political self-interest is the only engine of change in the self-styled “Mother of Parliaments”. Hardly impressive.
The past few weeks of the general election campaign have also unearthed proof that we are not all in this together. The latest rich list shows Britain has more billionaires after five years of austerity than it did when the Tories first came to power. Worse – naked greed has become the main driver in British society and has usurped more civilising values to give the oxygen of publicity to malicious “personalities” like Katie Hopkins. Mercifully the United Nations High Commission has taken a stand – describing her “cockroach” comment about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean as hate language. But the UN human rights chief could have gone further. He could have said her repellent opinions have cast a slur on the whole country. He could have said Britain is widely perceived as a sluggish, selfish ex-world power – a country prepared to reward and cultivate the most inflammatory speakers in the name of a titillation that masquerades as “free speech”.
The right-wing political consensus south of the Border has helped create public figures celebrated for their total lack of sympathy and empathy and politicians worried about appearing weak if they uphold values like fairness and generosity. So it was as predictable as it was miserable to hear our Prime Minister offer patrol boats but neither hope nor new homes for the desperate migrants of the Mediterranean. SNP Euro MP Alyn Smith called on European leaders to fund search-and-rescue operations – but why not invite some of the migrants to Scotland? Of course such decisions are taken by the British Home Office not the Scottish Government – but is it beyond us even to make a small gesture of sympathy?
They need a home, Scotland needs people who have proved their determination to survive and prosper and Britain needs urgent action to disrupt its stale, defeatist political consensus.
Perhaps it’s time for some Scottish views that really are “outside the mainstream political discourse” as we seek to regain a sense of compassion and moral purpose. Accountants have been running that mainstream for far too long.