Why is the Scottish Government surging to the right?

by | 15 Feb 2022

Rank and file SNP members are utterly disorientated by the hard-right-turn being taken by the Scottish Government, yet its causes are straightforward.

For many in the SNP and the wider independence movement, things must be very disorientating right now. They overwhelmingly see themselves as left-of-centre social reformers.

So how did the party end up with an economic and public service reform programme that is basically indistinguishable from that of George Osborne? People theorise about this a lot and have drawn some pretty elaborate conclusions.

Secretly the leadership hates this stuff but it’s strategically necessary to get wavering voters, or the goal is to reassure the Scottish establishment so they don’t destabilise a future referendum, or that this is purely a function of the limitations of devolution and they’re all much more radical at heart. None of these carry any weight at all, they are a function of the disorientation.

The reality is much more depressing. To get an idea of what is driving all of this it is worth going back in time a bit. If you think of the early years of devolution then you think mostly of a strong degree of consensus on the government of Scotland.

The Tories were outliers and even they were very ‘moderate’ in comparison to what has followed down south. The political positioning of Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP was largely indistinguishable. They opposed privatisation, had a universalist approach to public services, were broadly into ‘stakeholder capitalism’ as a shared social mission and so on.

And actually there really was a pretty strong party political consensus. But you must not assume that politics in government is about political parties, because it isn’t. There was another secret consensus in Scotland which looked quite different from the political consensus.

I was very familiar with that consensus. I heard it at Chatham House-style dinners of the chattering classes organised by think tanks. I heard it in the halls of the management strata of universities. I heard it at high-level government strategy meetings. I heard it among the quango set over coffees at the edge of meetings. I heard senior business figures express it time and time again.

There was another secret consensus in Scotland which looked quite different from the political consensus

They were as one; it was ‘unsustainable’ to abolish tuition fees and they had to be reintroduced just as soon as the politicians could be made to see sense and advocate for them. The NHS as we know it is ‘unsustainable’ and it was ‘inevitable’ that the concept of universal treatment as we now understand it would be left behind in the 20th century.

The processes of government are really best carried out by a ruling class and everyone benefits if the firewall between vested interests and public policy-making was effectively removed. It is certainly not the case that transparency and accountability make for a better democracy. And that is because, fundamentally, the public can’t really be trusted with making decisions about how a country is run.

Private finance is crucial. Scottish businesses are small fry and the real game is attracting the big players. Politicians are basically all thick and none of them could get proper jobs at anything like the same seniority. On and on these Louis XV bon mots would go.

And yet you probably didn’t know this rock-solid consensus existed. Why? Because no-one would vote for it and every time they tried to change the national debate – surreptitiously or more overtly – they not only failed to get any public traction but got strong backlash.

The sheer amount of effort expended on persuading Scotland that it secretly wants tuition fees is impressive. For 20 years now the Scottish establishment has been trying to break this subject open. In fact I suffered because of this. I had to tell a meeting of university principals that they were not correct in their view that either the SNP or Labour would reverse their position after the 2007 election was over.

So the emergence of the current Thatcherite/Blairite agenda in Scotland is definitely not coming out of nowhere. It isn’t even correct to see it as a set of individual decisions made based on the influence of individual vested interest groups, one at a time. It is the result of 20 years of constant pushing.

Much had already happened behind the scenes. The McConnell administration let Big Finance into government via PFI. During the early Salmond years RBS et al had enormous sway. The devolution era resulted in a string of core government functions (both local and national) being spun further and further out from the civil service via an increasingly sprawling network of quangos, agencies and outsourcing.

That brought the big consulting companies into power in force and all the doors into government became revolving doors. But both McConnell and Salmond kept some forms of red line. The infiltration was real and continuous, but it was a creep, not a flood.

Scotland’s policy has been taken over by people who have spent more than 20 years trying to subvert Scotland’s democratic political consensus

That’s where the Sturgeon administration comes in. The direction of travel was set clearly by the time she appointed the founder of the most secretive lobbying company in Scotland to write the prospectus for independence. The media met this with a shrug at the time, but many of the inappropriate appointments of the Johnson era are fairly neutral by comparison.

Sturgeon was sending out the message that the corporate establishment was in control of Scotland, the ‘unruly children’ of the 2014 independence movement had all been sent to the naughty step and Scotland was a safe playground for the rich and powerful, now and in the future.

Why? Why did this incredible lurch to the right happen? The answer lies in the fundamental nature of ‘Sturgeonism’; it’s not a political philosophy, it’s a PR strategy. Throughout her career in politics Sturgeon has picked up political issues when they were fashionable and dropped them again like hot stones when the weather changed.

From her opposition to the War in Iraq to her feminist credentials, these positions come and go as if out of and back into nowhere according to whether they will boost the commentator class’s perceptions of her.

For the ruling class consensus described above to take hold, all it needed was a leader whose ego could be massaged into permitting it, and in Sturgeon they found that leader. It is a unique position – there would be a bitter internal rebellion against what has been happening had the issue of independence not been held as a hostage. “Privatise the ferries or the independence thing bites the dust” has been a brutally effective strategy.

This ruling class power-grab would not be possible under any other conceivable leader, and even if whomever succeeds Sturgeon tried they would not have the personal authority (or husband running the party’s bureaucracy) which would enable them to suppress internal dissent.

To my eyes it seems that the establishment knows it and so their scorched earth policy is accelerating as they (like everyone else) can sense the Sturgeon era grinding to its conclusion. They know that there will be no undoing ScotWind, or Freeports, or Judy Murry’s luxury housing development, or Northlink Ferries, or that god-awful shite emoji hotel in Edinburgh, or any of the rest of it.

When I write that Scotland is being ‘asset stripped’, this is what I mean. It is not just that decisions are being made which have no real democratic legitimacy, it’s that decisions are being targetted where there is and can be no democratic redress. Once this stuff is done, it’s done (privatising the ferries will prove easy enough, renationalising them a much stiffer challenge).

Scotland’s policy has been taken over by people who have spent more than 20 years trying to subvert Scotland’s democratic political consensus. They had only limited success in doing so – until one sorry little administration handed them Scotland on a plate.

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