Share this post
An impassable road
Written by Alex Massie
11 March 2021
Every election must always be accompanied by excited advertisements that this is the most crucial such contest in living political memory. Most of the time this is mere froth, the kind of barking required to sell tickets to the carnival. This year’s Holyrood election will be no exception, I suspect. We shall be told that it is a hinge moment in this country’s history; opening or closing a door to very different futures.
Newspapermen and women are duty-bound to talk up the prospects of insurrection. Drama sells. To that end, Scotland has been a fertile land in recent years. The unfinished business – as some would see it – of the 2014 independence referendum has, when twinned with England’s very own Brexit revolution – left Scotland in a state of exquisite uncertainty. The national question remains unsettled; the future of the United Kingdom itself is forever in doubt.
And there is enough truth in all of this for it to matter. The constitution is both stage and backdrop for every other political argument in Scotland. Every policy proposal is measured by a single metric: does it advance or retard the journey to independence? This necessarily gives Scottish politics a ‘Groundhog Day’ quality, for if you think you’ve seen it all before, the chances are you really have. Round and round we go, forever going nowhere.
Because, despite everything, I am not sure this election matters quite as much as politeness demands we say it must. The SNP will win, and the nationalists will use that victory as reason to pursue another independence referendum. Boris Johnson will refuse this request and that will be that. We shall then remain in these entrenched positions unless and until there is evidence that refusing a referendum will persuade Scots who do not want a referendum to change their minds and suddenly demand it.
So this election in May will, characteristically, be nothing new. Everyone knows the SNP will remain Scotland’s dominant party. Even the opposition scarcely pretends to suggest some other kind of government might be formed once the counting’s done.
This gives the election a kind of Potemkin quality. Every party will dutifully perform the ritual moves expected of them, but it is all largely for show. The very last thing we should expect is some argument over policy proposals for minor matters such as health or education or even, to the extent such things are within its gift, rival plans for improving Scotland’s economic performance.
Instead argument will once again be centred upon a purely hypothetical future. The SNP are duty bound to argue that the election is a proxy referendum on the question of holding a second independence referendum; opposition parties are for their part required to double-down on their opposition to such notions. The argument, then, takes place in some imaginary future Scotland: independence would either allow us to address difficulties or make it more difficult to fix them.
You will note that the SNP offers little in the way of ideas for what might be done now, even in the regrettable – as they see it – absence of independence. And one may see why this is the case: for if the performance of Scottish education or the NHS or whatever else could be transformed without a constitutional revolution there might be no – or at least less – need for independence at all.
For their part, the opposition parties are no more capable of raising their game. Fully 50% of Conservative voters believe the constitution is the most important factor influencing their choice of party. For the Tories, the optimal course is – if measured in purely or narrowly political terms – to make every fight a constitutional one and every ditch a last one. Nothing else truly motivates Conservative voters just as independence is the only item that really enthuses a plurality of SNP voters.
Labour, by contrast, would rather talk about anything else yet lacks the language or the authority to do so. Unlike either the SNP or the Tories, Labour must win support from people hostile to independence and those relaxed about such a prospect. The difficulty is persuading voters to listen seriously to Labour’s proposals when a) the national question is unsettled and b) nobody believes Labour will be in a position to influence very much of anything at all. Richard Leonard never managed to make himself heard; achieving a hearing is Anas Sarwar’s first and most urgent task.
So the SNP will win a victory in May and the chief question is whether the party will do so with a majority of the 129 seats at Holyrood or whether they will once again have to settle for being a minority government. In ordinary circumstances, this would be a ‘Time for Change’ election but the SNP’s status as the dominant voice of Scottish politics is liable to stick around for some time yet. That status is earned less on the detail of policy but, instead, rests on the sense that voting SNP is the patriotic thing to do or a means by which a distinct Scottish political sensibility may best be expressed. The SNP thrives precisely because it is not about the detail.
That affords the nationalists an enviable advantage and one reinforced by the party’s ability to simultaneously be in power in Edinburgh but in opposition elsewhere. As such, it may take credit for everything that is congenial while diverting blame elsewhere for all that is disagreeable. It’s akin to playing the political game armed with house money.
But what it does not do is address the realities of Scotland now. The past 12 months have wiped many things away and among these is the opposition’s hopes this election might be a moment to judge Nicola Sturgeon’s record in government. But failures in the NHS or the shortcomings evident in education and much else besides now seem tired to the point of something close to irrelevance.
No wonder the first minster will be able to use our gradual emergence from lockdown as a moment to wipe all slates clean: a moment to reboot her administration and start the process of rebuilding. I fancy this will prove more persuasive than a dispassionate analysis of the SNP’s record might warrant.
Whether it actually leads to fresh ideas on health or education or the economy or anything else is a rather different point and one whose contemplation must typically lead to this gloomy conclusion: it will not. For an SNP landslide will also make it clear that the constitutional issue is a kind of landslide of its own, blocking the road and rendering it impassable. If this seems exhausting or a distraction from the real business of seeing what may be done now, in this Scotland, in these circumstances, then you have my sympathy. I am not convinced, however, that it would be prudent to think much will change or the obstruction be cleared any time soon.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
We hope you enjoy his work – and do feel free to forward this email on to colleagues and friends you think might be interested. They can subscribe to Beyond the Street and our other regular briefings here.