Scotland, backwards

by | 10 Jul 2023

Returning from annual leave and looking at the events of two weeks in one go, we find ourselves on a familiar trajectory with a worrying destination. Is there anything that can be done about this?

Memento is one of my favourite films. Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough feature is thrilling not only because it is wonderfully directed and acted and has a gripping plot, it is particularly impactful because it uses the structural innovation of telling the story backwards (in 15 minute segments). The backward motif means the twists at the end are… at the beginning. Sort of.

Returning to work after a holiday is like watching Memento, though without the elegance. For me, catching up on reading, correspondence and general events tends to happen backwards because I find it easier to work through my inbox starting with the most recent (because often it saves you reading older, speculative things which turned out to be pretty useless).

My period of leave started just before the SNP’s ‘convention’ in Dundee and ground to a shuddering halt this morning. It has encompassed the exodus of SNP MPs (including ‘the future’, Mairi Black), auditors unable to find a track record of where the SNP’s money is, MPs at near fisticuffs, the collapse of two more major government policies, the revelation that another already-collapsed policy was in trouble long before it collapsed, the apparent use of dodgy stats to prove another policy has worked and more.

But looking at it backwards is particularly helpful in the current context, because so much is going wrong so fast that seeing it forwards in real time is a bit overwhelming. It leads us to sort of shrug and conclude ‘everything is broken’ and it leaves us powerless.

What it doesn’t do is give us perspective on what ‘broken’ looks like, or where ‘broken’ goes next. My fast backwards dash through two weeks of ‘broken’ helps me see things more clearly. And what it tells me is that there remains an absolutely straight line from the past to the future and nothing has changed except the frequency of events.

Nothing is different. Everything is progressing exactly as it has in recent years – just faster. For nearly a decade Nicola Sturgeon kept promising a compelling independence strategy which always looked like the same strategy but with added emphasis. Her strategy was to begin with a lot of caveats and then to remove those caveats one at a time, hoping it would look like momentum.

Along with that she dreamt up distractions to add. I still chuckle to myself when I think of how adamant some of the loyalists were that her 2019 decision to hold a Citizens’ Assembly on Scotland’s future was the breakthrough moment. Then it was ‘independence papers’…

The new First Minister is running along the same path without any real deviation. He is basically promising the same mandate but with the manifesto promise on which the mandate will be based on the first page of the manifesto. And after that he’s going to… produce a government policy paper (a draft separation bill).

The gap between action and U-turn or promise and promise broken or assurance that all is well before clear evidence it isn’t, all are getting shorter

I mainly know this from the acres of commentary over which no-one not paid to believe the unbelievable has actually believed this is a new strategy. Or a strategy at all. (There is no convention that says the further to the front of a manifesto a promise, the greater the mandate. That’s imaginary. And a strategy is only a strategy if it has a chance of working. Which this doesn’t.)

The scrapping of the troubled human rights legislation that resulted in the Scottish Government’s first Supreme Court defeat was dragged around like some kind of Weekend at Bernies, clearly dead but with it being not in our protagonists interests to admit it.

Next to that the HPMA U-turn (which itself was a U-turn from a previous U-turn) was comparatively rapid. Pretty well everyone knew it was in real trouble as a policy but that wasn’t being admitted until, well, everyone went on holiday.

Then we’ve got the MP exodus, personified by Mairi Black’s departure. It’s not that this is surprising – there was a real likelihood that she might lose her seat anyway and who wants to be the ‘Portillo 1997’ stock photo used as a shorthand for the 2024 electoral meltdown.

But that’s not quite the point. The point is that by the end of the week ‘the SNP’s future leader’ (as believed by many) was being exposed as the least hard-working MP among a group of MPs not particularly known for being hardworking. She has given her anti-Tory speech rather a lot, and she doesn’t seem to have another one.

And even as the politicians put on a brave face and claim everything is fine and there are no splits, they’re busy suspending their own over a big fight about a split. That’s before we find out that there seems to be no credible relationship between SNP self-reported membership numbers and membership income, almost as if something isn’t, well, quite right.

In all of this you might have missed the Scottish Tory challenge to the report by the reliable propaganda machine Public Health Scotland which kind of ignored seven of the eight reviews into Minimum Pricing for Alcohol which were inconclusive and instead based its entire claims on the only one that showed success. Which seems not to have been independent and has been written by a regular paid consultant for… Public Health Scotland.

None of this is at all unusual as things in Scotland go these days. But looking backwards at it does show something; its that, if you look at the gap between action and U-turn or promise and promise broken or assurance that all is well before clear evidence it isn’t, all are getting shorter.

It would take 18 months for it to become clear that any given step forward in independence strategy announced by Sturgeon was not credible, time for her to remove some caveats and do it all again. The period between legislative trouble and collapsing government legislation used to be years, not months, and certainly not weeks.

This really is what a rapid, downwards spiral looks like, the early vibrations in a moving part which indicate an exponential progression towards failure

This might be because of ‘legacy Sturgeon’, the things going wrong now being things she was energetically sweeping under the carpet. It could be because Yousaf is in a weak position and doesn’t have the political capital needed to sweep everything under a carpet. It could simply be that he doesn’t have the skill.

And the deteriorating state of the SNP could be because things are changing, or equally it could be because they’re not. We can debate all of that. But it’s not when you project backwards that things become a major problem, but when you project forwards.

How much can Yousaf U-turn his way out of? The next obvious failure is the National Care Service Bill, staggering along on its feet but with more or less zero support from anyone outside government. What’s his next indy strategy ruse when his current one fails at the General Election? How much further forward in the manifesto can he put his independence pledge – the cover?

Mairi Black was never the future of the SNP, so who is? You can look and look but it’s hard to find a convincing candidate. So what happens to the party next? The hope that someone ’emerges’ from the current cohort? Because there is no-one in the next generation who seems to me to be a persuasive candidate for ‘the future’. You can’t just keep pointing at any woman under 30 and shouting ‘her!’.

Government isn’t getting its act together; that would involve taking failing legislation and fixing it, not just dumping it, and we’re seeing no signs of that. The SNP doesn’t have a credible independence strategy; it is doing no more than trying desperately to avoid a real implosion.

And, with great care, I note that those who are coming round to thinking that the sense of major impropriety inside the SNP is blowing over are going to find out it isn’t blowing over and there is an awful lot more to come.

That’s just two weeks, two weeks which no-one who wasn’t looking backwards at it in one morning thought were an eventful two weeks. This really is what a rapid, downwards spiral looks like, the early vibrations in a moving part which indicate an exponential progression towards failure.

I need to dwell on what to do with my writing. I don’t want to sit here day after day writing the same article about how the Scottish Government isn’t good and the SNP is poorly run and floating without a credible strategy. But what is the alternative? Give up and wait for it all to fall apart?

Right now there is a straight line from here to very serious failure, a Y-axis of doom which is continuing to rise towards ‘implosion’ without any sense that anyone knows how to divert the path. That path takes us to a place where a lot of people are going to face further harm.

And that’s where the analogy with Memento falls down – because there were a number of cracking twists in that film. The last two weeks are entirely predictable. Give or take, the next few hundred will be as well. Unless something changes.

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