The Mirage of Progressive Scotland

With the Tories in power for a decade, English liberals have increasingly projected their aspirations onto 'progressive' Scotland – but from economic policy to Covid-19, its government is not a model to follow.

There’s a telling incident from the last few months of Scottish politics which has passed with little comment. In the months of April and May Covid-19 ripped through the Scottish care home sector. The global industry is dominated by corporate profiteering, low pay and abuse. Scotland’s system is among the worst in western Europe. By June 47 per cent of Covid-19 deaths in Scotland were in care homes – a proportion much higher than in England.

On 6 May Neil Findlay, one of the few Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) who isn’t a career automaton, pressed First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the lethal mistakes which led to so many deaths. When she rose to meet his challenge, her voice broke with emotion: “Please do not ask these questions in a way that suggests we are not all doing everything we can to do the right thing.” Findlay’s questions went without comprehensive answer, as is customary in a parliamentary setting.

The incident reveals two things about the current state of Scottish politics. First, ‘politics’ is a stretch. The concept barely exists for Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP). There are no ideological or programmatic questions. There is only competence, and as the morbidity of the system overwhelms technical competence, all that remains is to show that you are emotionally afflicted, and thereby absolved.

Second, the total failure of accountability and basic standards in Scottish public life. The whole line of enquiry basically evaporated with a quiver of the lip. Much of the Scottish press couldn’t resist a story about Sturgeon’s inner turmoil – sorry granny and granddad, you just aren’t grabbing enough headlines. The political opposition, a fragmentation of discredited old establishment parties, is simply too weak and turgid to drive home any attack.

This is the miserable condition of Scottish public life in the pandemic era. And yet, in some quarters, Scotland has become a paragon. Where Westminster is fusty, dated, elitist and dysfunctional, the Scottish Parliament is modern, sober, pragmatic and co-operative.

Such are the arguments in a recent piece for the Guardian by Adam Ramsay. The Scottish Parliament, Ramsay says “does some things well, and others badly, but it does them in the open and you can have it out when they mess up.” But the Scottish government is among the most opaque in the Western world. Journalists, from a full range of outlets and political leanings, have repeatedly petitioned the Scottish government to stop the ubiquitous abuses of Freedom of Information laws, and to tighten them up.

Media workers wrangle over access to information in practically every news environment. But in Scotland the jealousy with which basic government functioning is guarded has reached peculiar and worrying levels. Worse than simply refusing to hand over what should be public information, the government has stopped recording much of it at all. It has become commonplace for enquiries to turn up meetings without minutes, decisions with no paper trail.

This trend has reached surreal heights with the Covid-19 pandemic. Scotland’s response to the contagion was a disaster, operating in lock-step with the UK in crucial early days and weeks, when tardiness in taking swift lockdown measures did most damage. The Scottish Government claims that Sturgeon received not one syllable of written advice from Scotland’s chief medical officer and national clinical director, the two most important government advisors on Covid-19 strategy, between 24 January and 9 March.

The Scottish Parliament is crawling with lobbysits, and legislation controlling it is weak by design. Since Sturgeon rose to power, a process that has been called “Capture, Commission, Kill” has been deployed time and again to see-off useful policy. Either her party or the Scottish government itself organises ‘commissions’ of bankers, industrialists and big landlords to design economic strategy for, respectively, a future independent state or the current devolved settlement. Demands for economic and social reform passed at SNP conferences are consistently quashed by these unelected and completely unaccountable commissions.

The consequences are well documented by now: A feeble legislative record, with a host of warehoused policy promises from tax and land reform to transformations in childcare and education. What stands in place of this phantom policy agenda is a long tissue of public service failures.

The typical excuse for this performance is that the Scottish political system is constrained and malformed by its relationship with the UK. This defence might be more convincing were the leadership of the SNP actually working at their supposed foundational aim of achieving independence. But one of the forces deliberately marginalised by the SNP leadership since 2014, besides the jaded and exhausted old parties, has been the independence movement itself.

At every turn the Scottish government has lied to, demoralised and even slandered that movement. It has heaped roadblocks in its path by demanding the deep integration of any future independent state into the institutions of the world system. In the ideal of the SNP leadership, Scotland would become independent by shipping its foreign policy to Washington, its monetary policy and financial regulation to London, and very much else besides to Brussels.

Stripped of sovereignty, Scotland’s independence would then become a mere changing of the flag. But this vision, designed to be inoffensive to the rich and powerful, is not an appeal to the mass of the Scottish population, who are the only people who can actually secure independence.

Scotland’s predicament is a harsh verdict on devolution, two decades on from implementation. An attempt to manage the tensions developing in civil society after decades of neoliberal reform, it has become a playground for grifters and elite opportunists, given cover by an ill-deserved shroud of ‘progressive’ ideology. To move out of this morass, we first need to be prepared to admit what we have walked into.