PICKING what to write about this week isn’t easy – I could happily unpack what I think is going on with Cherrymandering, the SQA debacle, the return of lockdown in Aberdeen, the virtual admission that Sturgeon misled parliament about a crucial meeting, the latest nonsensical stuff coming out of unionism…
But are they really separate issues at all? Or is something systemically wrong with our political system and our democracy?
Let me start by doing something which isn’t done enough; stating specifically the foundational principles on which Scottish democracy is based (remember the 1998 Scotland Act anyone?). This isn’t a random system – it has specific elements for specific reasons.
Scotland’s entire political system is designed around the intention of cabinet government and parliamentary government (alongside powerful committees). It expects a professional and autonomous civil service to facilitate the elected government, but also to stand as the first line of defence against unlawful actions and to answer to the nation’s democratic institutions.
It has a series of checks and balances on executive power written into its ‘constitution’ (which isn’t actually codified in one place). It assumes a mass party-political system in which the priorities of the system are driven by the large-group participation of ordinary people who ‘own’ and govern the parties they choose to join.
It is built on the assumption of a plural democracy in which a competent group of opposition parties hold government to account. It is based on a diverse free press to monitor all of this and it assumes this takes place in a society with a broad and active civil political culture.
So does it not seem of great concern that every single one of these foundations has crumbled to a point where asking us to believe they are fit for purpose is a very big ask indeed.
Let’s look briefly at each.
There is no longer any point in pretending (not that anyone has been pretending): Scotland suddenly has a hacked-together presidential system forcibly imposed on top of a democracy which is not designed for it.
I’m weary of writing about this – I’ve spoken to five cabinet members about this exact issue and not one of them has sought to pretend that government policy is made in cabinet. This is reflected in the fact that the first minister barely mentions it and the media never shows any interest in it.
Every week, the UK media discusses what will be on the agenda for the Westminster cabinet meetings; this isn’t even a subject of mild curiosity in the Scottish press, and everyone knows why.
Presidential systems generally have checks and balances built in, like legislatures in which the president does not sit and can’t fully control. We, on the other hand, have one politician who governs according only to what she wants.
Let’s take the SQA debacle; like everything else, it seems clear to me that the only real consideration was how the exam problem would make the first minister look. She clearly wanted a slight improvement – but not too much. In other words, to look like last year with a slight uptick.
It’s plain as the nose on your face that the methodology was retrofitted to achieve the outcome. Fearing that the Scottish Government would catch a Daily Mail backlash if poor kids got decent results, it was made sure that they didn’t.
Had I pages and pages to spare, I would document dozens of examples where government in Scotland has been calibrated primarily to the interests of a first minister who behaves like a president in a system ill-equipped to deal with this concentration of power. It is why virtually everything this government has done in five years has failed – you can’t weld a presidential model onto a parliamentary democracy without consequences. They’ve been dire.
Another consequence of this presidential model is that the civil service and its agencies have all gained the clear signal that they will always be protected if they work in the interests of the first minister.
Let’s look at the SQA again – it at no point ever behaved as if it was answerable to Scotland’s democracy. A government agency refusing to talk to a Westminster parliamentary committee would be virtually unthinkable; in Scotland, it’s pretty routine. The first minister will keep every loyalist in their job no matter what, so there is only one incentive.
This is an acute problem at the centre. The ‘independent’ head of the civil service in Scotland thinks nothing of aligning herself with the First Minister in what she calls a ‘war’ with her predecessor which is absolutely and purely political. The civil service has no business being within a country mile of this stuff.
When even one of Sturgeon’s most loyal sidekicks states the bleeding obvious – Evans should resign or be fired – what does Sturgeon do? Extend her contract. Contempt is a currency for this administration.
What Evans and those below her should have been doing was the core business of, you know, providing the government with regular written briefings on the unfolding virus crisis around the world. That is not what it was doing; it seems to have been trying to work out how to provide the least information it could to another parliamentary committee.
Much more is going to come out on this, and again and again the conclusion returns; it is hard to identify where the Sturgeon team ends and the civil service begins. This might seem obscure to some of you, but it’s hard to overestimate how dangerous this is.
I may be critical of many UK institutions – and the civil service no less so – but its scrupulous independence (I’ve seen it in person a number of times) is why endemic governmental corruption isn’t one of the UK’s problems. I’m not sure you can say that in Scotland now.
Checks and balances
The first and most important check on the Executive (the government) ought to be the Legislature (the parliament). But since every SNP politician knows that one act of dissent and their internal career is over (forget constituency support from HQ for their next election), there hasn’t been a single dissenting vote this entire parliament.
And since either the Tories or the Greens (alternating) give them a majority at the drop of a hat, they don’t seem to see parliament as a decision-making body so much as a theatre.
As for the other checks and balances – well, when parliamentary committees can’t get crucial information from the civil service or its agencies, they can’t function. And while there just isn’t space to cover the other ways this administration is degrading other little transparency and accountability measures, I’ll give you just one example.
How many countries in the world made the first act they took when Covid hit to effectively suspend freedom of information laws and float abandoning jury trials and the suspension of elections more than a year in advance? Not Trump. Not Putin. Not Bolsonaro. Sturgeon.
It is I think finally possible to write in public what everyone has been saying in private; SNP HQ is utterly corrupt and has been for years.
This is an entity in which the person in charge of the rules can receive a very serious complaint of sexual abuse, suppress it, be publicly exposed for this – and not only face no consequences but be there corrupting the party’s decision-making processes months later.
Everyone, in my experience, has been saying that SNP HQ is an utter disgrace for five years. I talk at SNP branches a lot, and when I do I am the picture of diplomacy (you don’t go to someone else’s house and criticise the wallpaper). Three years ago, I was asked at one meeting why the SNP’s political campaigns are so incompetently organised.
I gave a diplomatic non-answer. Asked again, I suggested there was a quality deficit in HQ. A respectable-looking older woman immediately got to her feet and shouted “Peter Murrell is a disgrace!”. The room burst into loud and unanimous applause and shouts.
I know a group of business figures in the party were proposing a vote of no confidence in Murrell (based on the fact no Chief Exec could be that bad and keep their job in their sectors). They backed off when they were told (effectively) that Sturgeon/Murrell would burn down the whole house if they tried.
“It’s an indivisible package,” one told me, “unless we are willing to rip the party apart”.
HQ routinely (and remarkably openly) smears internal critics. It rigs things to favour preferred candidates. It simply ignores serious complaints if they’re about ‘the wrong person’. It is toxic and nasty, but people have believed they have no option but to stomach it.
The real truth is that it doesn’t pretend to act for the party as a whole, but only for the leader and a small clique organised around her. It is a stain on Scotland’s democracy.
The great majority of these above failures are the direct result of the Sturgeon/Murrell regime and can be traced back directly to their household. But even I can’t blame them for the opposition.
It’s barely worth covering this so obvious to everyone is the state of things but Labour is more hobby than party and the Tories are obsessive and irrelevant. Both are transfixed by the constitution and, frankly, their hatred. They don’t seem to want to recover – go read Hothershall and you’ll get the idea.
Among them there is only one who has asked effective, competent questions on a regular basis. I may have had my differences with Neil Findlay, but our democracy will miss him. So unusual was the competence of his questions that Sturgeon could get away with ‘choking up with emotion’ and refusing to answer.
(This isn’t completely fair, particularly on the Greens who individually have done great work, and others like Adam Tompkins, Iain Gray and Monica Lennon who have had their moments. But this ain’t an opposition.)
Every time Sturgeon fails (which is a lot), they manage to fail worse. What’s a democracy without an opposition?
Is Scotland’s media incompetent and biased or under-resourced and powerless? I swing between emphasising either view on a daily basis. Let’s just say a bit of both – but it’s definitely not working.
It’s hardly worth detailing this, but let me give one case study. Last year, Nicola Sturgeon announced that she intended to make Scotland a ‘world leader’ in 5G. For anyone not technically literate, 5G has a very short transmission distance and so roll-out in sparsely populated and mountainous territory is very difficult.
There are only three players in the technology side: the US, China and Finland. Scotland isn’t at the races, so it can only be roll-out she meant. So what is her plan for overcoming the enormous physically difficulties in making Scotland a ‘leader’?
Just so we’re clear, this claim is as off-the-wall and impossible to support as anything Donald Trump has said. So was she questioned on this? Nope – the newspapers wrote it up and moved on. She wasn’t mocked for weeks like Boris Johnson or Trump (or Corbyn or May or Cameron) would have been.
And earlier in the year, when the UK Government announced the banning of Huawei equipment (delaying roll-out for two years at the UK level), did the Scottish media ask Sturgeon how this would impact on her (non-existent) plans to be world-leading? Nope, they did not.
Scotland is a country in which the first minister can blurt out utterly ridiculous bursts of unsupportable braggadocio with no consequences at all.
This is a minor matter, but it tells the story. Right now, it is my belief that the Scottish Government’s point-blank refusal to put in place the pre-symptomatic randomised test and trace system Common Weal detailed, costed and called for four months ago is going to lead to substantial new lockdowns – if not another national lockdown.
Every day Johnson is held to account for the failures of his test and trace system, and yet I’m dubious Scotland’s is actually better from what I can see. Up here, the first minister says she’s done it, so the journalists are satisfied.
Where are you? Where are the academics documenting the decline of democracy in this country? Where are the health or wellbeing charities holding the government to account for its Covid response?
Where is the vibrant and wide-ranging debate about our economic future given the crisis we face? Where was there a proper public debate about what to do about this year’s exams?
The little players (like Common Weal or Living Rent or Friends of the Earth) are carrying much, much more of the civic weight than they should be. This is deeply unhealthy.
Why? Partly the ‘complicity strategy’ started by Tony Blair and loved by everyone since (make charities reliant on you for income and they stop talking and put their hands out). Partly its the desperate lack of funding available in Scotland. And partly it’s because they all know what happens if you’re marked down as a ‘dissident and enemy’ in the Sturgeon/Murrell era.
Should you worry?
This should worry you deeply. This is not abstract. This is a real and present danger to Scotland’s democracy.
But you shouldn’t despair, because while not all of it is temporary, one of the core reasons for all of this is that Sturgeon/Murrell won’t be around forever – perhaps not much longer, by the looks of things – and at this stage almost anything would be better for our democracy.
And there is nothing at all in the above which cannot be fixed – and fixed quickly – by a government actually keen on democracy.
But I beg you; please greatly up your vigilance between now and then, because there is one final element of democracy they haven’t quite managed to degrade yet. The people.