The Democrisis: Part Three – Home to roost

by | 25 Jan 2024

Democracy is in crisis and there is a very good reason for that. Why is it happening, what does it mean for Scotland - and what can we do about it?

The full series: Part One | Part Two


There is a reason the slogan ‘enough is enough’ (briefly) caused such waves. It is a tight articulation of a crucial human attribute – we can absorb a lot of negative impacts on us right up until we are either desperate or feel like these negative impacts amount to contempt. The most important factors to humans are social; we can deal with hunger much better than humiliation.

In the previous two articles I’ve tried quickly to sketch out the size and shape of the humiliation of the global population. They were made promises that not only now look like self-serving lies, the thing they were lied to about (an economic revolution) did the opposite of what they were told. It rained corruption throughout the public sector as the powerful got more powerful and nothing ‘trickled down’.

And now? Well, ‘we’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this any more’. Few in Europe (outside the elites) are enthusiastic about their votes in upcoming elections. Many just want to take a big kick at the liars who ripped them off. Angry people don’t calculate their rebellions, they justify them. They lash out and explain why afterwards.

To understand this, let me repeat one of the most important political anecdotes I heard over the last decade (I’ve lost the link for this). A voter in America’s Rust Belt is going to vote for Trump. A journalist asks him why. He says Trump has promised to reopen the local coal mine. The journalist points out this is very unlikely indeed. The local voter says ‘oh, I know, he’s lying to me’.

So the journalist asks why he’s voting for someone who lies to him. His answer was ‘because he cares enough about me, my community and my vote to actually tell me a lie – Hillary Clinton couldn’t care less one way or another about any of us’.

I really hope you can understand why this is so, so important to absorb. In a world of liars, are people lying for you, are people lying to you, are people lying about you, or are people just ignoring you? People don’t like being lied about or being ignored. They’re not desperately keen about being lied to, but if someone is telling a lie for their benefit…

That’s where we are now. There are basically crazy tribes on each side of political debates who believe literally anything that comes from their side, and there’s the rest of us. The rest of us are now in such a crappy democratic situation that we don’t even expect to believe politicians any more, so the question of whether they even see us becomes important. Is it about them or is it about us?

The brazen denial of failure, or turning to more tenuous whataboutery, or even the ‘mistakes have been made but I won’t tell you what they are and no-one will pay a price’ defence are likely to fail

The way this is going across Europe is that anger is leading to a hard kick to the right. The same in the US. They may or may not believe that immigrants are the problem and that social breakdown is ‘because they’re trying to change our boys into girls and our girls into boys’, but those stories treat the subject of those stories (the listener) as important, and so ‘the immigrants’ or ‘the transactivists’ being the source of their woes is at least a story which puts them at the centre.

Let’s look instead at, say, Starmer. What is his story? It’s the opposite. The far right wants to scapegoat minorities in favour of the interests of majorities (classic populism). Starmer wants the majority to sacrifice themselves for the interests of the minority – but in this case the minority is the privileged economic elite.

He’s right back at New Labour ‘discipline the public with very low expectations on the basis that industry must come first’. If I’ve been right about the broad thrust of the problem over the last two articles, you can guess how well that is going to go down. He can only get away with it because the Tories are melting down.

But in the end I’m here to try and influence debate in Scotland, and here the picture is different. In Scotland the risk of the far right is very low and the tribalism created by the constitutional debate dominates everything. Yet the broad dynamic is exactly the same – only the consequences are different.

Economically, a lot of Scots are really struggling. Almost all of us are now reliant on a number of pieces of public infrastructure or on public services which we can sense are in serious decline – potholed roads, closing local facilities, parks with the swings missing, endless. NHS waiting lists. So whatever ‘the lot in charge’ has been doing, it is not working for people.

What was different in Scotland is that where the far right uses populism to condition the public (an internal enemy), the SNP had a classic nationalist approach (the external enemy). For what its worth, the UK uses oligarchy to do the same thing (control of the public by an utterly unaccountable ruling class), and of the three there is a good case to say that civic nationalism is the least harmful.

Whatever your own view, it certainly worked. ‘It wasn’t us, it was those nasty Tories in London’ had the dual merits of generally being at least partly true (sometimes completely true) and endlessly applicable. Everything was the fault of this external enemy and blaming them was basically cost free.

The problem is that it doesn’t make it completely true. The Scottish Government really was making mess after mess for at least a decade now, but for a long time it was possible to pretend they weren’t. The crucial moment is when enough of the public switch from benefit of the doubt to scepticism. No-one can blame the ferries debacle on Westminster.

What matters for political success is how you handle that moment. It’s a Wizard of Oz reveal moment. You can perfectly well survive the shift from benefit of the doubt to scepticism, but not by shouting ‘pay no attention to that little man behind the curtain!’. The brazen denial of failure, or turning to more tenuous whataboutery, or even the ‘mistakes have been made but I won’t tell you what they are and no-one will pay a price’ defence are likely to fail.

Why? Because they run counter to the evidence of our own eyes. The denials keep falling down (it is hard to deny something which is true). We can see that these aren’t all minor, reasonable mistakes. We’re sick of ‘give us a pass for failure because someone else somewhere else is worse’.

It is not policy announcements, not ‘line one of the manifesto’ stuff on independence, not more damned speeches about values but recognition of people’s disappointment and some humility which is probably the only optio

And so we end up in the same position as our Rust Belt Trump voter – of course we broadly know that politicians aren’t perfect and part of the game is brazening out minor errors rather than looking weak. We accept that because we all do it ourselves in our own lives – but only when we think the politician is broadly acting in good faith.

That point has been passed in the case of the Scottish Government. For just too many voters, the cover-up, stonewalling and sometimes outright lies over events like Michael Matheson’s internet bill or deleted WhatsApp messages are way past that point. Sturgeon could shrug off mistakes during Covid or with her ‘indy strategy’ because people believed she was sincerely working for a greater cause.

Now? The SNP is managing to do what has caused this problem for parties on the centre left-centre right spectrum, matching a moment of profound economic distress and worry for many, many people with a lurch into self-serving back-covering and increasingly unsustainable defence lines.

I have watched the SNP loyalists trying to defend the deletion of WhatsApp messages in relation to the Covid inquiry (using remarkably consistent language as usual, like it is coordinated or something…) and it rather shocks me, because there is absolutely no defence. It is wrong in every sense and potentially illegal.

Some remain loyal but this defence does nothing positive for the SNP (actually, it is really harmful) and does not good for the cause of independence. The only beneficiary from it is Sturgeon. Likewise the only beneficiary from the Matheson affair is really Matheson himself and Yousaf. You’re not being lied for any more.

In Europe I believe the only chance of recovery for the centre ground is for it to engage in some soul searching about the real impacts on people of the economic system and the great problems with corporate capture and infiltration of democracy. It needs a ‘we get it’ moment – and actual change.

In Scotland the constitution means the collapse won’t be the same, and the devolution settlement means that the SNP gets away without engaging with the problems of neoliberalism (despite the Growth Commission still being public policy and being basically a bible of neoliberalism). But the dynamic remains the same.

At a time of economic and social duress, the political elite in Scotland look like they are ‘at it’, purely for their own gain. It is not policy announcements, not ‘line one of the manifesto’ stuff on independence, not more damned speeches about values but recognition of people’s disappointment and some humility which is probably the only option.

Political parties lose elections for being bad at government, but they very rarely get gubbed. To get gubbed in an election you need to show voters contempt. The lesson of the democrisis for the SNP is that its leaders should not plough on doing more of what is causing the disillusionment as things get worse for people. It is to recognise why they’re falling in the polls and to demonstrate the contrition it ought to generate.


The full series: Part One | Part Two


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