Scottish politics is stuck in a rut. The summer has been a dismal succession of familiar set pieces.
When, at the start of the summer, the child poverty figures came out, showing an increase in the number of Scottish children living in poverty, Nationalists blamed Westminster (and, in particular, the Treasury’s handling of universal credit) and Unionists pointed the finger at the SNP, saying they’d been in charge for 14 years and this was on their watch.
When, in the middle of the summer, the annual drugs deaths statistics were released, showing yet another grimly upward swing, Scotland once again being the drug deaths capital of all Europe, Nationalists blamed Westminster (and, in particular, that the Misuse of Drugs Act is reserved, meaning that safe consumption rooms cannot lawfully be opened in Scotland without London first changing the law). And Unionists pointed the finger at the SNP, saying they’d been in charge for 14 years and this was on their watch.
And when, earlier this month, the annual ritual of the GERS numbers were released by the Scottish Government, the same old dance was trotted out once more. Yes, the deficit has mushroomed, but this reflected the poor state of Scotland’s economy in the Union, said Kate Forbes, and was no reflection on how Scotland would fare if only we could slip the Union’s yoke and emerge independent. Meanwhile, the Unionists dusted off their hackneyed lines about the Union dividend, pointing out truthfully but almost certainly fruitlessly that independence would make Scotland poorer, cripplingly so if EU membership were pursued, for compliance with the Maastricht convergence criteria (which requires deficit reduction) would mean austerity on steroids – eye-watering tax rises and spending cuts all at once.
All of this happens every summer. We have a day or two of headlines about child poverty, and then everyone forgets about it again. A month later we have perhaps two or three days of headlines about drugs deaths and then we sit quietly awaiting the new stats on alcohol (which, this year, were even worse). And then we have the tedious mock routines of GERS day, as if it’s political pantomime season. Does any of this make any difference to anyone’s lives? Not in a month of Sundays. Does any of it make any difference to anyone’s votes? Equally unlikely.
Scottish politics is stuck in a rut of its own making, and no one seems to be able to see, or find, the way out.
But wait! Isn’t this new SNP/Green pact supposed to herald precisely a new way of doing politics? A break from the past? A new, more consensual, cross-party approach? You would have to have lived far, far away for the last few years to believe that.
I know the Draft Co-operation Agreement says that the SNP and the Greens are “committed to doing politics better” and that the agreement “establishes processes for building trust and guaranteeing good faith” but the truth is this is doublespeak. It is the opposite of what is intended.
For the pact will do nothing but deepen the rut. It simply reinforces the sense that there can be only two narratives in Scottish politics, each a story of blame; neither an attempt to actually solve a problem. There is the story the SNP and its supporters tell. And there is the story the SNP’s opponents tell. There is no variation. No nuance. And certainly no internal critique.
If you are a Nationalist you must pin the blame for child poverty, drugs deaths and the Scottish deficit squarely on the Union, resolutely ignoring the inconvenient facts that social policy, public health and economic development are all devolved. And if you are a Unionist you must point the finger at the SNP, as if these problems started only in 2007 and are uniquely of the Nationalists’ making.
If only we really were committed to “doing politics better”. But we are not. Our political leaders do not want a plural politics, in which rival claims over the common good are put and heard, with complex solutions to difficult policy problems emerging from multiple corners, each player making a contribution.
At its best, this is how the last session of the Scottish Parliament worked. When Labour, Tory and Green MSPs worked together we improved the SNP’s Child Poverty Bill. When Tory and SNP MSPs worked together we fixed the mess Labour and the Greens had made of the Planning Bill. When Tory and Lib Dem MSPs worked together to amend the Hate Crime Bill, the SNP made concessions that significantly improved it.
And the SNP Government resented every minute of it. They hated having to do deals with the Opposition. They disliked it even more when the Opposition did deals across the parties, forcing SNP ministers to negotiate concessions. And, of course, they were furious at having to go into confidence votes without knowing too far in advance whether the Greens would bail them out or not.
Well, there is no point in any debate on a motion of confidence in a minister now, for the SNP/Green pact commits the Greens to vote with the Government. As it does on the Budget. As it does on legislation. And as it does even on amendments to legislation. The best Acts passed by the last session of Holyrood bear the hallmarks of all those who contributed to them, from right across the Chamber. In this session, by contrast, no legislation will bear anyone’s hallmarks bar the SNP and the Greens.
Opposition MSPs may as well work from home. In Holyrood they will be redundant. Every vote in this session of Parliament is now a foregone conclusion. This is not a new way of “doing politics better”. It’s old-school command and control that will achieve nothing but the deepening and reinforcement of the Us v Them rut in which, it would appear, Scottish politics is not merely stuck but entrenched.
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