David Jamieson asks how much longer official anti-politics can hold the ring in Scotland.
There’s an odd discrepancy between the historical moment of this election and the feeling of the campaign. In the middle of dramatic global changes and at a supposedly pivotal moment for the Scottish independence cause, Holyrood 2021 has been stale, sluggish, even gloomy.
For all the partisan claims that the election is about ‘national recovery’, independence or even climate change, it’s hard to see how it connects more than loosely with these larger questions. Perhaps it is easier to understand this subdued mood if we consider it a product of the overthrow of the old political establishment (principally Scottish Labour) and the triumph of ‘anti-politics’ in the form of the SNP leadership. The insurgent force of the independence movement, in antagonism with Westminster, lifted Nicola Sturgeon and her team to a position of mighty political dominance, from which it simply does not know how to proceed.
From the standpoint of the pro-independence activist, the next logical step would be another referendum. However, as Conter has noted many times, the SNP leadership has made next to no preparation for this huge task, has no working prospectus, and no strategy. We have to ask, therefore, whether anti-politics – an ethos keen on the rejection of existing elites and forms of authority, but rarely supplying any real programmatic way forward – is actually capable of a massive constitutional change. Overstepping the British state is a completely different task, in character and magnitude, to overturning Scottish Labour.
The new anti-political centre is so dominant as to survive happily, for now, among its own fragmentations. Both Alba and the Greens represent chunks of this centre, the former riding on its more intuitive, cultural-nationalist and majoritarian ethos, the latter its more technocratic and minoritarian wing, the constitutional question binding them together behind their mother-ship the SNP (explicit in the case of Alba, but just as obviously true for the Greens).
The forgotten reality of each of these parties is that they all share extensive involvement in the governance of the country over the last 14 years – the SNP as the dominant party throughout, the Greens as co-signatories of every cuts budget passed by the Scottish Government in the last five years, and of course, Salmond as former First Minister and the architect of modern Scottish nationalism.
All three parties are deeply involved in the spirit of anti-politics, all disregarding responsibility for the state of the country, all asserting their status as insurgents, even in the case of an SNP set for 19 years of power.
The three major unionist parties are caught in the ‘insurgent’ frame, jostling to be the official opposition, and saying little-to-nothing beyond a repudiation of Scottish independence. They too, naturally, ignore the record of Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats in office, and the Scottish Conservatives are positively allergic to association with Boris Johnson. Appeals to authority and power as such are few and far between.
This repudiation and collective amnesia are brought together in the claim and counter-claim of Scottish independence. And most of the claims are false.
Sturgeon and co promise a vote for the SNP is a vote for another referendum, but they lack a coherent case or a strategy for independence. Alba promise their ginger-influence upon the SNP and a dubious ‘supermajority’ will supply this referendum, though Salmond certainly knows this is an electoral pitch, not a strategy. The Scottish Conservatives insist that an SNP majority means a second independence referendum, to jolt their base into action, though they have presumably already been told by the UK Government that no legal referendum will be tolerated (and Sturgeon has insisted that this is the only vector she will consider).
It’s fashionable now to be jaded about the national question and with so much fakery on display this is understandable. Yet, something powerful still adheres mass popular consciousness to the constitution. Wrapped though it is in the mystifications of anti-politics, in utopian visions of instant gratification upon its eventual settlement, the national question is still a focus on the fundamental questions of our social order: the collapses of social democracy, working class representation, and meaningful political contestation. Too often when we talk about the ‘democratic deficit’ we imagine it can be fixed by policy or dialogue, by tinkering with electoral systems or by remedies which sound an awful lot like the problems themselves (post-ideology, an end to political partisanship, less deference to authority, and so on).
The hope must be that after anti-politics comes the politics of real and meaningful social conflicts. These are more likely to emerge from without than from within the electoral sphere, where anti-politics has closed over into an officialdom admired only by professional politicos.
But this does not mean we can simply ignore the rather tawdry spectacle at Holyrood. We’ll know perhaps not too far into the next parliamentary term just how much disappointment and stagnation anti-politics in power can deliver, before the popular moods which gave it life start to dissipate or push-back.