Scotland has no hibernation option

by | 26 Apr 2024

Yes, things aren't in a good way in Scottish politics; no, despair cannot be the answer to this. Identify a problem, fix it and repeat.

First published by Common Weal

If you read the take on the state of politics in Scotland offered by one political commentator this week you’d perhaps conclude it’s time just to call it a day and make an appointment with Dignitas. In his view, literally any possible version of ‘what comes next’ is next to apocalyptic. Best just to bunker down and wait out the next decade.

Here’s the thing though; there is no escape, there is no ‘contingency Scotland’ waiting to offer us a home if this one goes wrong. Even if you can contemplate sitting out the next decade, many hundreds of thousands of Scots are in a much more precarious position and do not have that luxury. Climate change continues apace, niceties at Holyrood be damned.

Over the next decade the physical face of Scotland will be reshaped by what we build, what we knock down. Our services will be transformed one way or another. What remains at the end is not this Scotland emerging from hibernation – it’s just this Scotland plus ten years.

And like every future that ten years remains a fight, a battle, a fear, a hope. I make no apology for using the language of conflict, because the world is a conflict of ideas which must be resolved somehow. The future always contains hope, always contains fear. It’s which one you fight for that matters.

Now you wouldn’t have mistake me for a constant ray of sunshine over the course of at least the last six or seven years. I have been critical and often highly critical of the Scottish Government and how it was performing. But none of it was ever without a purpose.

There had been a widespread view that the Scottish Government was ‘already doing all the kinds of things Common Weal wanted’ and that if people would just step back and stay out the way it would be fine. I was critical because only by challenging this view could we hope to get to a better place. And equally, I was never critical without proposing concrete solutions – if we are to condemn ‘this’, we better be confident that there is a better ‘that’.

It is really, really important that you keep this distinction in your head over the coming months and years. Scotland is about to go through a degree of political turmoil which has largely been absent from our politics for all but the last two decades. The independence referendum changed much and the 2015 General Election was a symbolic sea-change.

But the fundamentals have remained the same – a fairly consistent continuity government pursuing a policy agenda which has evolved but certainly not fundamentally changed, with the opposition only ebbing and flowing against each other in the same dynamic. Don’t get fooled into thinking Labour-SNP animosity on the constitution emerged in 2014 – it was on full display in 2007.

The task isn’t to burn it all down or hide – the idea that you can go back to scratch and start again is as badly flawed as the idea that you can put a country into deep sleep for a decade and come back then when things are less mad

Those certainties look set to end. There is nothing yet to criticise in what comes next because we don’t know what it is yet. We can voice fears about what it might be, but we then also need to explain what we hope it could be. If the thing that is coming next is not what you want, then what do you want and where can it come from?

Neither the leader I know I want next nor the perfect continuity leader exist. Neither the party in power or the only one that might take power from it are, in themselves, persuasive answers to this question. And the holes and gaps in what is there do not look easily plugged based on what else is currently there. It isn’t clear there is an opposition which has the intention and skill to drag the government in a different direction or a coalition partner who will ‘do it better’ than what we have.

But there are elements of all these things. We must start from where we are. Those of us who want to see change need to look at how to piece together coalitions, on a subject-by-subject basis if we must. Those of us who feel government has let us down must look again at how we can build things outside of government.

Those of us who don’t want to keep wrestling over a political system that offers us such uninspiring options need to explain how we could change that system. Those of us who believe there is something fundamentally unhealthy about the lack of dissent and diversity of thinking need to think about how to nurture that.

This is all complicated. So for example if we want to build more things outside of the central governmental sphere, we need to break open the possibility. That means major policy change, so we need to build the coalitions for that. If we feel our politics is not representing our hopes, how do we get people into our politics who do? If we’re tired of tribalism, how can we create conditions that punish it and encourage independent thought?

The task isn’t to burn it all down or hide – the idea that you can go back to scratch and start again is as badly flawed as the idea that you can put a country into deep sleep for a decade and come back then when things are less mad. So we need to talk about approaches.

Let me give you some just for starters, building on what I have mentioned above. If you want to build thing outside the central governmental sphere there needs to be an ability to do it. That can mean many things, probably particularly local democracy and land reform. OK, so can we create a coalition around that if we have weaker government? Very possibly.

In fact this is more or less what Common Weal was proposing with Development Councils – think of them as a cross between old town councils and development trusts, a local development-focussed democratic layer.

Another bugbear of mine is the almost universal lack of interest in arts and culture in the Scottish Parliament. Where are the people who care about the arts or what would make those who are already there start to care? Again, creatives want to speak out but many are stymied by being reliant on public funding – which is why Common Weal proposed removing governmental control over that and instead democratising funding to the arts community itself (in Sorted).

Perhaps some leading arts and culture figures need to get together and form a Party for the Arts and stand candidates. They don’t really need to win to create change, they just need to challenge the politicians directly and expose them for their disinterest.

We all moan endlessly about low-quality politicians, but have we been high-quality citizens?

If we want to deal with tribalism, why not push for a different kind of constitutional debate? Again, that’s what I tried to do with Direction, a strategy for independence which is not predicated on a political leader blaming everything on another political leader. We could take the independence campaign out of party politics and thus take party politics out of the independence campaign.

Personally I would do more. I’d send out some constructive messaging about working better together. If I were a new SNP leader and First Minister I’d appoint Brian Wilson to lead a proper programme of land reform, because he actually wants to do it. Yes he’s a vocal critic of the SNP, but he’s much better than them on land reform. The ability to work together sends messages.

If you don’t think the Scottish Parliament has the personnel then you’re really arguing that the political parties are selecting the wrong people (they are, they’re selecting in the interests of the leader, not the party). Perhaps you should join and fight. Perhaps we should all set up a new party. Perhaps what is needed is local democracy to give potential politicians a first step on the ladder. Perhaps we need community initiatives to build the confidence of citizens to engage with politics.

For me the problem over the last decade was that while these issues were all live, too few people saw them as issues. The believed all was well, that this was all being sorted. They heard about various never-ending ‘local empowerment’ and ‘land reform’ reviews and assumed this was something that was happening (it wasn’t). 

They heard about plans for independence, or climate change goals, or noises about ‘affordable housing’ or reform to Council Tax or talk about regenerating high streets and so much more. They thought it was covered, that they could do something else while this happened.

Meanwhile others, either through good faith or bad, went beyond that and tried to stop those sceptics among us from questioning whether this was all actually happening or not. Too many were complacent, too many tried to close down debate, not enough voices offered dissent.

We are in this mess not because there are suddenly problems that we need to solve but because for much of the last decade too many of us behaved like there were no problems which weren’t being solved already. We all moan endlessly about low-quality politicians, but have we been high-quality citizens?

I’d argue not. I’d argue we’ve been passive, far too comfortable in our tribes and far too quick to believe our own propaganda. All the problems we face now were always there. It just feels worse just now because they’ve accumulated and so now we can see them. It was our failure too. We can stop failing. Scotland needs a civic society again, not more government apologists.

Criticism without purpose or solution is simply pure nihilism. It is destructive. We live here whatever happens (if anyone is concluding that it’s time to emigrate I’d love to know where in the developed world they want to emigrate to that isn’t going through the same crisis). We live with the legacy of what we do now, whatever happens.

We’re in such a mess because we believed we didn’t need solutions. The very best way to make that much worse is to pretend there aren’t any.

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