Share this post
Conversations we have not been having
Written by Alex Massie
28 January 2021
One of the oddities of our present predicament is the extent to which it demonstrates some of the advantages enjoyed by governing parties. This, it turns out, is not actually a great moment in which to be in opposition. The pandemic has stress-tested the state and if significant parts of its machinery have been found wanting, these breakdowns are by no means confined to this country. Scotland has struggled and the UK as a whole has endured a desperate year, but most – though not quite all – of our peer countries have also had a difficult time. If almost everyone has failed, it is easy to begin to think that no-one really has. For what else could they have done?
This is an indulgent verdict but a commonly held one, I believe. Voters are both frustrated and appalled, but also prepared to extend their governments the benefit of whatever doubt is available. The question “Well, what would you have done?” is always lurking in the background. If we are interested in holding ourselves to the same standard to which we hold our politicians, we should also accept that it is harder to answer than we pretend. That helps to explain, I think, why the pandemic has produced little in the way of an incumbency penalty; voters are unconvinced opposition parties would have done very better.
You may think this amounts to giving governments a mulligan and you would be correct. Nevertheless, human nature is what it is and the time for a reckoning is not yet upon us. May’s Holyrood elections seem unlikely to be such a moment either, for the result is not in doubt, merely its precise detail.
In Scotland, of course, the pandemic is not the only show in town. It dominates the headlines but the ongoing, unending, national question remains a constant undertone. It is the backdrop to the stage upon which all our political actors play their parts.
There is comfort in this, at least in as much as all the players know their lines. Everyone knows where they stand on the independence-or-Union question. It is a comfortable issue that requires no fresh thinking or analysis. Novelty is neither needed nor considered desirable, for it might introduce something new or something challenging and that might prove both bracing and unwelcome. Much better and certainly much easier to have the same old arguments conducted in the same old style. You don’t go to the pantomime expecting – let alone wanting – to see Ibsen, after all.
This is a limitation, nonetheless. For it leaves Scottish politics mired in sloth and fatalism. Nationalists point to what cannot be done and Unionists to what should not be done. In the former instance, the constitutional chains within which Scotland operates are useful, for they justify both inaction and the keen necessity of independence. For if we could do things now, there might be less need for national liberation. Only once that is achieved may other problems be resolved. From which it further follows that these other problems – of health, of education, of society in general – are actually second-order difficulties.
Unionists, meanwhile, are always – and too easily – tempted to view any Scottish government initiative with suspicion. The SNP, they feel, is always on manoeuvres and everything the Scottish government does is designed to build a fence – I speak figuratively, of course – between Scotland the other parts of the realm. As such, these enterprises are innately suspicious and to be resisted. This is so even if they might deliver favourable outcomes. While welcome on one level, if such outcomes were to reinforce or otherwise further the independence cause they must, at some fundamental level, be reckoned unwelcome.
Hence, then, a politics of stasis prevails, in which everything is a zero sum game and, unusually, no-one may make a move of any kind. It is not, perhaps, the ideal way for a country to be.
Across the developed world, “Build Back Better” will be the post-Covid theme as and when the phrase post-Covid ceases to seem hopelessly optimistic. That ought, or would be in a better world, to be the spur for a thorough reimagination of what the state should be and what it can be expected to deliver. It should be a moment for returning to first principles and asking fundamental questions. A challenge, certainly, but also if viewed from one perspective, an opportunity. As such, it might be better not to waste it.
I fear that only inveterate optimists can cling to the hope such conversations might happen here. The pandemic has wiped away almost everything else. There has been so much bad news these past 12 months that it has crowded out almost all our usual, familiar, bad news. The health service was creaking before Covid just as, viewed dispassionately, Scotland’s education system could at best be labelled “just about good enough”.
Bad news on these fronts will return. There is a need, then, for fresh conversations and, with luck, some honest ones too. Two will do for today: how do we build a health service that honours its strengths and traditions while being refitted to cope with the demands of a world transformed since its formation? And how do we reimagine both the purpose and the delivery of an education system that was plainly failing to deliver upon its promises before the pandemic and has not been improved by anything that has happened to it in the last year?
These are just two of the conversations we have not been having and there are many others of comparable importance and urgency that could be added to the list. Some of these are questions of organisation, but rather more require a certain degree of imagination too.
In each instance, however, where we are now must be the starting point, not where we might one day like to be. The challenge is not to think of imaginary tools that might do the job but, more problematically, to use the tools available to do it. If that challenges government then so be it and if it challenges the government’s opponents too, then so much the better. Do not tell us what we cannot do; suggest what we can and should. Time to get real, I suggest.
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.