Commentary by Christopher Silver
Any election that is a foregone conclusion is destined to be a mediocre affair. The election for the Scottish Parliament next month will go down in history as one of those contests. Like the UK election of 2001 the imbalance between opposition and government deprives proceedings of the sense that anything is at stake. Political dynamism is almost totally absent.
It is worth considering this in context. In recent years we’ve been spoiled by a heavy diet of high political drama and unpredictability — UK elections in 2010 and 2015, and Scottish elections in 2007 and 2011, not to mention the referendum itself — were deeply historic affairs. In contrast Scotland is now witnessing an unremarkable exchange of modest proposals layered on top of that most uninspiring vein of political messaging — with us, things will not change.
All of this leads us to a situation in which serious political conversations are shelved for a later date. With a unionist ‘grand coalition’ politically impossible, it is inevitable that the SNP will form the next Scottish Government, the only question yet to be answered is how resounding the electorate’s endorsement will be. Laden with this inevitability risk-averse starting point, opposition parties and a comfortably dominant governing party instinctively scramble for the centre ground. This is an unfortunate state of affairs for a country like Scotland, still in the midst of an ongoing struggle to understand its place in the world.
This constricted debate is all the more depressing when we consider an alternative scenario. A different set of circumstances could have allowed us to embark on a conversation about what the contours of the utterly unknowable country that we will inhabit in 2021 might be. Consider how rapidly Scotland has changed since 2011 and project it forward against the backdrop of ever more febrile global events. These might be fitting topics for a nation to debate. Instead we have seen a general refusal to use this election as a chance to clamber up to the crow’s nest and chart a new course — to ask what we want from the journey and where we think it might lead.
Unfortunately, the timbre of debate amongst Scotland’s new legions of committed activists and anoraks has rarely ventured beyond an endless rammy: often fixated on the minutiae of how the D’Hondt method really works. Despite all the passions this debate has provoked, there’s not much evidence to suggest that gaming a voting system in favour of a fixed position will energise the masses. For many, it seems that achieving the outcome of majority government status (or snatching the coveted second place) is worth reducing national politics into one great first past the post race. Only a year ago it seemed possible that Scotland was ready to move beyond a winner takes all version of politics. Yet today, whether the issue is tax or electoral maths, process dominates and principle rarely gets a look in.
The question about second votes and how they might or might not ‘maximise’ the number of parliamentarians supporting independence or union has one simple answer: voting tactically in a proportional vote defeats the entire exercise. Perhaps the maths can or cannot deliver the coveted goods for either side, but democracy by numbers is a dispiriting exercise in which concepts like plurality don’t compute.
Devolution was premised on the idea that majorities would not happen and that Holyrood politics would be a more dynamic and open field as a result. As Neal Ascherson noted, ‘The Scots who designed the Parliament’s arrangements and procedures planned it to be as unlike Westminster as they dared.’ The Additional Members System was said to offer a key plank in this more consensus driven framework: providing proportionality alongside the familiarity and traditions of constituency level politics. After a brief hiatus, Scotland is once again a nation of safe seats, while only a handful of constituencies offer the prospect of a tight race.
After five years it remains painfully obvious that the rest of Scottish civil society is still struggling to catch up with this new reality. The SNP’s success as the definitive party of devolved government will probably bring it to a pinnacle of success on polling day. Ever greater representation for one party may well see a new era of political dullness descend on Scotland all over again. This indomitable strength, when considered as part of a longer process, seems odd, perhaps even (whisper it) un-nation like. Not least because the path to that inevitably controversial and high-risk second referendum is so elusive. Bizarrely, the potential for SNP dominance at all levels of representation, takes us back to a system that is eerily reminiscent of pre-devolution politics.
For all that Westminster’s traditions are arcane and redolent with entitlement it does have highly developed cultures for holding a powerful government to account, not to mention far greater levels of attention, scrutiny and debate via the media. There is also the time honoured tradition of backbench rebellions, meaning that dissent within the governing party is often as significant as that on the opposition benches. The taut discipline of the SNP, if it is to last for another five years, risks stifling the development of a more mature political culture in Scotland, as the party seems ever more comfortable within the straightjacket of devolved administration. Radical in the UK, centrist in Scotland, the SNP offers us that most tempting prospectus— that a progressive conscience does not require fundamental change at home, or within ourselves, and that the structures governing our lives do not need a radical overhaul.
The trap of devolution, which has the capacity to shackle even the strongest of political projects, is also fat with temptation. It offers politicians the opportunity to put off, or outsource, responsibility for contentious political matters. As we all know, power devolved is power retained, creating ripe terrain for the politics of deferral and mediocrity.
There is one key point that must be remembered after the votes are counted next month. Consider the most recent batch of powers ‘handed down’ to Holyrood and remember that these modest changes were only made possible by 1.6 million votes for outright statehood. This is a telling observation, reminding us that pulling at the centre of gravity in UK constitutional affairs requires a massive counterweight. In the past only widespread, radical and explicit rejections of Westminster rule have caused the dial to move towards greater power going north — the mass movements gathered against the Poll Tax and in favour of independence are probably the two key landmarks thus far. Both movements were journeys towards risky, unfamiliar, terrain. The only large party with a founding commitment to independence was at the heart of both, for good reason. It forgets such links at its peril.
As our government contemplates the precious gift of another resounding mandate, it must be reminded of the definitive fact that the creation of a new state can never be a modest proposal. Such a goal must be based on a vision compelling enough to be worth all of the inevitable risks that will come with it. While it’s impossible to know when that vision might be implemented, we can be certain that a safe, dull and consumerist Scottish politics — devoid of a clear goals or purpose — will inevitably lead to apathy.
Vast numbers of Scots, struggling in the present, are desperate for a future to believe in. A failure to chart a clear course to 2021 and beyond risks a far greater long term predicament than a fanciful unionist revival. Namely, a mass dissipation of the political energy and enthusiasm that this country thrilled with so recently.
This is the first of a series of short essays on Scottish politics by Christopher Silver, whose book Demanding Democracy: The Case for A Scottish Media, was published recently.
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