Stay Calm: The Country formerly known as the UK is Breaking Up

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, April 5th 2017

Sometimes years go by without domestic and international crises. Then like buses, a whole series of them come along at the same time to the extent that hardly anyone can keep up.

It is exhausting to keep up for citizens, the media and the participants directly involved. In the last week, the Scottish Parliament voted 69-59 to hold a second independence referendum, Theresa May finally triggered Article 50 for the UK to leave the EU, and the UK got involved in a bizarre spat with the Spanish Government over Gibraltar which showed that the UK authorities and Brexiteers have hardly been doing advance planning. Former Tory leader Michael Howard upped the ante invoking the Falklands war and making bellicose noises threatening the use of military force: remarks which met with the approval of Downing Street with no slap down, public or private, coming forth.

Scotland nearly feels serene compared to such hyperbole. There is the usual stand-off and attitude between the SNP and Scottish Greens and the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems. Some of this is now so familiar it has the feel of a set piece dance arrangement from a West End musical.

There was the Scottish Parliament debate on holding a second referendum which culminated in the final debate on Tuesday March 28th. I watched it live, and nearly all the participants were going through the exact same debating points as before. Ruth Davidson in particular outdid herself in indignation and put down points, and grabbed the headlines with her ‘Sit Down’ retort to Sturgeon. Andy Wightman took the Parliament through the delights of Scottish Green manifestos past, and the only star who I thought shone was the same party’s Ross Greer, who at 22, wound up for the Greens, and is an effective debater in the making.

There is a bigger point about political argument, debate and speeches. By and large across the Western world this is a dire time for political discourse. The standards of the UK Parliament are at all time low in terms of speeches, and the Scottish Parliament has been hamstrung by coming along in this age of political cliché and spin. Sad to say, but in its eighteen years there are few speeches which stand out from any Scottish Parliament debates.

The exceptions in the UK Parliament in recent decades tend to have been ministerial resignation speeches: Robin Cook on the march to war in 2003, Geoffrey Howe on Thatcher’s growing dogma in 1990, Nigel Lawson in 1989, and Margaret Thatcher’s appearance at the dispatch box in November 1990 where she declared ‘No, No, No’ about European integration, which provoked Howe’s resignation.

Too much political debate and language is today filled with a disembodied managerial and technocratic gobbledygook which has little roots, insight or wisdom. It is the insider mumbo jumbo of a new class who has emerged from universities and professional accreditation believing that their privileged existence and experience can be translated into a universal worldview. If only we would all be like them everything would be absolutely fine.

It is difficult to find a language and tone which matches the times. If managerialism won’t do, neither will the anger and fury of the Corbynistas or UKIP – both of whom seem to know what they want to tear down, but not put in its place.

Scotland could do in these dramatic times with a bit more ambiguity, uncertainty and doubt. In both sides of last week’s Scottish Parliament debate there was just too much certainty to do any voters who aren’t already entrenched any favours. Without this we have a politics of faith on both sides: faith that it will be alright on the night if we decide to become independent, and faith that we have to cling to the sinking shipwreck of HMS Britannia come what may.

There is in our politics too much control and a fear of letting go. In the Scottish Government and SNP, there is a politics of the centre knowing best and making decisions. From this there is a very conventional, indeed, old-fashioned notion of how political change comes about based on pulling levers and mechanistic notions of change. It isn’t surprising from this that the SNP leadership’s presentation of independence for over a decade has been about the ‘full powers’ of the Parliament and getting the economic levers to be able to make informed choices: thus, about the political centre of the country accruing yet more powers.

It is a byproduct of such a political approach that power is held in the hands of a very narrow selectorate. Thus, under a decade of SNP rule few ministers have really prospered and left behind a legacy of legislative or wider cultural change. Instead, under both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, ministers have mostly embraced a politics of competence – one that in the early years was seen as a breath of fresh air after the dull bureaucracy of Labour dominated rule.

But after a decade, its shortcomings are obvious to all, with some ministers showing a flair for such an approach – John Swinney at Finance from 2007-16, Nicola Sturgeon at Health from 2007-12 – while numerous others have illustrated its limits. Ultimately, it is a self-defeating politics where decisions become made and owned in a tiny circle, who slowly become more and more out of touch. It is a journey well trodden by New Labour under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, producing some awful government decisions and a dysfunctional politics.

As important is recognising the costs that come with permanently engaged, hyperactive politics: a stance the SNP and sizeable parts of Scotland have been living with for the last four or five years. This results in a lack of mental space and capacity in senior politicians, contributing to poor judgement, being less able to listen and absorb new information, and which can cloud political sensitivities. Studies of senior CEOs in the business world have shown that such a climate can be one of the main contributory factors in how some business leaders burn out or make disastrous decisions. Politics is no different in this respect at least, and a political class and actors who have been on permanent campaigning mode for the last couple of years have to find a way to have some time off.

After a decade in office, it is possible to feel the weakening of the political antenna of the SNP and in particular, its senior leadership. The Nationalists have even at their peak popularity in the 2015 UK general election never won a majority of the voters, winning 49.97% then. That gives them a huge political party dominance in the country, but it also means that non-Nationalist Scotland is still a popular majority. This has consequences for party politics, with the SNP a minority administration at Holyrood. But it has even bigger consequences towards the running of any second independence referendum.

The SNP leadership has to recognise the wider political mood of the country after the perma-campaigning of the last few years, involving two referendum votes and the 2015 and 2016 elections. There is a political wariness and even exhaustion across large swathes of the country – the second found in much SNP and Yes opinion, while both are found in non-SNP and No opinion. This is where the lack of pause and breath in the political mood since 2014 affects the country, and could even be playing a detrimental effect in the judgement of the SNP.

These are challenging, dramatic times, but that doesn’t mean that our politics has to be breathless and without pause. That is the way to bad politics and poor democratic debate. It isn’t going to be easy, but in such a fraught environment, it is even more essential to find time for our politicians, media and all of us to find spaces for calm, reflection and doing occasionally things other than politics.


Gerry Hassan is author of Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back published by Freight Books, £9.99..