What happened to the Spirit of Scotland’s Democratic Revolution?

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, May 1st 2016

There is a Scottish election going on – played out in TV and radio studios, photo-ops and the occasional party leader debates. Its main contestants are the party leaders, no one else from the main parties, and perhaps more importantly, its key media players – Kirsty Wark, Bernard Ponsonby, Gordon Brewer and Jackie Bird.

All Scottish elections are strange affairs. In the early years the result was a foregone conclusion, with only 2007 on a knife-edge, while in 2011 the country moved to a SNP landslide during the campaign.

There is the Euro referendum. The implosion of Corbyn’s Labour Party, the Conservative civil war and open succession, the irrelevance of the Lib Dems, and UKIP finding it impossible to morph into a serious political party.

Something more serious is going on. This is the first Scottish Parliament election since the democratic explosion of the indyref – which in effect was a ‘Big Bang’ of energy and matter which affected the body politic.

This ‘Big Bang’ swept through public life like Hurricane Indyref – uprooting old buildings, places and anchorings. Eventually, the storm passes, and a new landscape emerges, utterly changed and for some completely bewildering.

All of this was democratising, even revolutionary. One where the clock cannot be put back or business as usual returned to. The 84.6% turnout was higher in this country than at in any time since universal suffrage was introduced.

The slow retreat from that high watermark saw a turnout of 71.1% in Scotland in last year’s UK election – exactly five percent above the UK average. This year’s Scottish election will be down on this figure again – but higher than the 50% figure of the last three contests. Already electoral registration at 4,100,280 is down significantly on the indyref – of 4,283,392.

There is Labour confusion. The party is not sure it should unapologetically represent the No vote in the referendum, and worries it has permanently lost former Labour supporters who voted Yes. It has given half-hearted mea culpas and apologies, walking around pleading for people to stop hating them and give them a second chance, all to no avail. This shouldn’t surprise anyone as these were the Tory tactics of self-humiliation which they tried to no effect from the fall of Thatcher until recently.

The Scottish Tories seem to be a one-woman show, but an impressive one. You know where you stand with Ruth Davidson: for the union, no tax increases, and ending some of the ‘free’ stuff voters like. They have become by a mixture of their determination and Labour incompetence, the only empathic voice for No voters and the sole party who believe in the union with no qualms.

The Lib Dems have done well to keep going, with Willie Rennie showing verve and energy to little effect. The Greens are a rising force, with interesting ideas, positioning themselves on the side of a radically different independence from the SNP. The battle for second and third position between Labour and Tories, and fourth and fifth between Lib Dems and Greens, is the main electoral battleground, and may be decided by whose voters are most motivated.

There is much that should have dominated this election. The slowing economy, the crisis of public spending and the savage cuts coming. The onward march of centralisation in public bodies and local government. The failing standards of education and widening educational apartheid facing working class kids. The SNP defending their record and impregnable lead have wanted to keep off any such substance.

Instead, we have faced blunderbusing. Easier and more convenient to talk about ‘opposing Tory austerity’, indyref2 (for or against), or the prospective impact of Brexit, than real bread and butter issues.

This election confirms that a large part of Scotland has matured, grown up and doesn’t want to be fed the same stale, spin controlled politics – but the same cannot be said for many of our politicians. There is a paucity of ideas, of imagination and serious policy, combined with a lack of candour. Worse, there is a fundamental lack of ambition for our country.

Westminster politics are broken. This leads to a conceit that all is well and healthy with home grown Scottish politics. When I watch some of the lacklustre Scottish TV political debates with their evasions and half-truths on all sides I am not sure what it is an advert for.

How would an independent Scotland be different from this childish behaviour? It even for a second makes me think we should return to Westminster direct rule, and then I remember the broken nature of that system. That leaves us in a strange place.

That is: what has happened to the democratic spirit and energy on display in the indyref? That wasn’t just about Yes or No, but a belief we could change and shape our own collective future.

This election has too many times seen the politicians of all the main parties carry on as if nothing has really changed. People have grown up. Let’s not pretend that the charade of political debate before us is adequate for a nation which aspires to more than a slightly better version of today’s status quo – whether independent or not.