Nineteen ninety-nine, the year the new Scottish Parliament opened, was a year of excitement and anticipation. No-one knew quite what to expect. Over the years there have been some great moments, from the smoking ban to the abolition of tuition and prescription fees, from the legalisation of gay marriage to reducing carrier bag usage by 80% – and, however begrudgingly, one has to acknowledge that the most exhilarating democratic moment in British political history happened in September 2014, regardless of which side you were on. Even today, it is true to say, it is not all doom and gloom. But there is much about the state of politics in modern Scotland to be disenchanted about.
The SNP government has been stripped, by UK-wide austerity, of the funds necessary to fuel the populism that used to distract people from their inability to run schools and hospitals on anything other than empty promises to do better next time. Now, their governmental style has become one of inverse-populism, an unexciting, ultra-cautious project of not upsetting anyone too much until such time as independence is achievable. Yet they are, for the time being, the only conceivable party of government.
The largest opposition party, the Scottish Conservatives, still look a million miles from government. It is true that Ruth Davidson, a woman of as close to rock star status as a politician can get (barring Nicola Sturgeon), has gone some way to detoxifying the Tory brand. She is not a neo-liberal free-market zealot. Though proudly Protestant, she is not cripplingly conservative in her social attitudes. She is from a working‑class background – nigh on compulsory in a country where the dominance of Glasgow’s voice in our national conversation warps our sense of who and what is legitimately Scottish. And she has great personal attributes: strong leadership, great communication, a sense of humour. The Tories’ success in the last Holyrood election owes much to her personal brand – but that is precisely why winning the right to govern is still a country mile away.
Because apart from promoting Ruth Davidson, constantly bringing up the constitution using the transparent but effective trick of constantly telling the SNP to stop bringing up the constitution (even when they weren’t), and offering the electorate a “strong opposition” (as opposed to the lacklustre one Labour had supposedly been offering), there was very little of substance to their campaign. They didn’t just not talk up their policies for government; they deliberately didn’t come up with any for fear – most likely justified – that it would cost them votes. The Tories have, unlike Labour, decided conclusively what they are against (mostly whatever the SNP does). But apart from raising the 40p tax rate threshold to £45,000, neither they nor the electorate have the faintest idea what they are for.
Labour meanwhile are in the middle of something that is not quite (yet) an existential crisis, but is a hell of a lot more than a mess. Though not without her flaws, Kezia Dugdale is undoubtedly the best leader Scottish Labour has had since Donald Dewer. She is arguably the first real leader the party has had. This may have more to do with the departure of Gordon Brown, the annihilation of Scottish Labour in Westminster and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader as anything she’s done, but it is still a fact. Her main defaut is being a good party leader in an age of great party leaders. She does have a good grasp of how the country is feeling (though is not always good at showing it due to constant backtracking and triangulation). But she is inconsistent. On occasion, she has a brilliant performance in the chamber during FMQs – though this is often followed up within a week or two with one of her infamous car-crash interviews, where she manages neither to dodge nor to answer straight forward questions asked a farcical number of times.
The key to Labour winning an election again lies in getting past the constitutional question, and being (once again) a home for those of both opinions and none. Dugdale knows this, and must look at a united Tory party divided over Europe with envy. Every time she tries to move in this direction however, she is forced to backtrack, both by Ruth Davidson constantly bringing up the constitution, and by her own membership. Most independence-inclined Labour members left for the SNP during and after the referendum, thus most of the active members who remain are those who went out in the cold, and the mist and the rain in 2014 knocking on doors and handing out leaflets; who spent hours on end listening to “stop talking Scotland down” after “fuck off ye quisling” in phone banks. And they are still immensely proud of it: to them, any lurch towards agnosticism renders their hard efforts vain.
Contrary to some hysterical accounts, the Scottish independence referendum did not result in the “Ulsterisation” of Scotland. But its wake was not free from ripples. I now live in a country where, as a politically interested person, I’m expected to have a strong opinion on how strawberries are packaged. I now live in a country where what brand of teacakes I’m supposed to eat depends on the price of oil. And Twitter has only exacerbated things. 140 characters leaves little room for nuance. The requirement to actively choose which people you want to follow coupled with the ability to block or mute those you disagree with lays the foundations for deafening echo-chambers of confirmation bias.
Our print media, it is true to say, is not neutral. A large chunk of it has a right-wing bias. Almost all of it has an anti-independence bias. So it is perhaps understandable that many on the pro-independence left felt the “MSM” didn’t have time for voices like theirs, thence the pro-independence “new media” as a natural reaction. But there are now blogs upon blogs, trolls upon trolls, even satirists and political cartoonists dedicated solely to defending the government regardless of the situation and attacking the opposition no matter what. This is not the case in most advanced democracies. Some, like Chris Cairns, have made a welcome and needed contribution to Scottish satirical discourse; others, like Greg Moodie, pursue a niche vein of “humour” which uses vitriol as an ersatz for actual wit – a style pioneered by the Nazis – which the faithful lap up in blissful ignorance. This situation may (or may not) be a natural reaction to our uniquely British press setup. But it IS weird.
Despite its many positive contributions to our discourse, Twitter is an abstract, meaningless, truncated slugfest. Every party, regardless of their record or ideology, is secretly a version of the Tories (Red, Tartan etc.) – except of course the actual Tories, who are now the Ruth Davidson Party of Ruth Davidson. Any drunken bampot who supports a particular political party or cause is conclusive proof that everyone with the same opinion is vile. And everyone, of any political colour or opinion, is part of the persecuted non-establishment.
For some people, Twitter has gone from being a hobby to an ideology. There are many thoughtful contributions from across the political and constitutional spectrum. There are also a seething mass of zealous idiots. Whenever a large pool of previously disengaged people are made passionate about a political subject, there is a period of nastiness. Such has been the case with Brexit and Trump. Such was also the case with the #IndyRef. The “cybernats” phenomenon, though distorted by the press, was not imaginary. It was not the case that pro-independence trolls were ruder than unionist trolls, or even more numerous: but it was the case that many of them were genuinely and uniquely offended by the existence of a plurality of opinions, and would go for people in an indignant way that suggested they had started it. A large chunk of the cybernats of 2014/15 were of that ilk – but that period has passed, and all the major parties have today achieved a parity of zoomers.
Yoon(atic)s scour their timelines for examples of Nats(-is) being “vile,” then generalise to tar all nationalists with the same brush – in the desperate hope that History Moron will approve and retweet them. They spend hours on Twitter outing heretics who lie/“lie” about how old Rangers are, then deny that being nationalists makes them nationalists because “British Nationalism doesn’t exist”. Nats meanwhile have poly-hour debates about which Scottish journalists hate their motherland the most, and compile weekly stats on how many positive stories the BBC runs about the government versus how many negative ones to conclusively prove that it is biased.
Despite vast ideological differences, the one thing that unites the politically passionate in Scotland is the certain knowledge that the BBC is biased against them. They never stop to question whether the BBC’s simultaneous anti-Tory, anti-Labour, anti-SNP bias might not just be called holding power to account. It is an indisputable fact that the BBC in Scotland is a unionist foghorn whose sole purpose is to undermine Scotland’s national self-confidence by subduing her people with baking; and yet, BBC Scotland can definitely never be trusted to produce its own news programme without turning into an overtly pro-independence propaganda channel, because the only way to sustain the union is to force the Scots to watch cricket scores.
Though Ken Macintosh briefly managed to turn it into a weird custody battle over Laura Kuenssberg (Scotland shouldn’t settle for just seeing her at weekends), like a now wearisome number of political issues, the question of whether BBC Scotland should produce its own 6pm bulletin became polarised by the constitutional axis. It is far from alone…
Whether the government should protect children from potential abusers, whether sectarianism should be challenged in football grounds, whether an endangered ancient language necessary to access some of the most underappreciated European poetry of the 18th and 19th centuries should be preserved by spending public time (though not money) ramming it down the throats of communities that have little if any historical connection with Gaelic – these are questions decided for oneself by the constitutional axis.
Whether the only political editor working for a UK TV news programme to write opinion pieces was “shut down” by the keyboardist from Runrig, whether David Torrance was bullied off Twitter, whether Stuart Campbell is the divine messenger or the dear leader of an organised cult of anti-English trolls, all depend on how you voted in 2014. Even such trivial issues as whether Harry Potter is a work of genius or a toilet book, or whether “hit the nail on the head” is an idiom or a threat are determined by which flag makes you tingle downstairs.
There is much about the state of politics in modern Scotland to be disenchanted about. Let’s hope things pick up in 2017…