James Foley argues that Scottish politics has become a spectacle, reflecting back to us a warped image of our class relations and recent history.
In the past weeks, a series of seemingly banal events have served to illustrate the governing ideologies of Scottish politics:
1. “Green Jobs”. The Scottish Government awarded wind farm development contracts to Shell, BP and other multinational firms that range from shifty to downright malevolent. The Scottish Trades Union Congress, having doggedly campaigned for a “green jobs revolution”, expressed dismay “that so few successful bids are from domestic companies [when] multinational companies regularly offshore work to Europe and the Far East”. But this was a minority sentiment. ScotWind was otherwise applauded across the aisle: by the SNP’s Scottish Green allies, naturally, but also by the Liberal Democrats;
2. Poverty. Five years ago, MSPs unanimously agreed to statutory promises on tackling child poverty. Scotland was committed, by law, to achieve a reduction in relative poverty to 10 per cent by 2030/31, a drop of 14 percentage points: a radical move backed equally by nationalists and Tories. This week, however, the respected Fraser of Allander Institute rubbished any notion that Scotland was progressing towards these targets. Achieving them would require substantial social change and disruption: “Meeting child poverty reduction targets will mean structural change in our economy”. And nothing in any Holyrood manifesto intimates structural changes in the Scottish economy. Scotland thus has targets in law, agreed by a cross-party consensus, that no party feels compelled to honour in practice;
3. Self-Rule. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon reaffirmed commitments to a referendum on Scottish independence by the end of 2023, ignoring jibes from journalist Sophie Raworth, who pointed to a succession of unfulfilled referendum threats/promises. Raworth’s sceptical eyebrow had no counterpart in the Scottish public sphere, where the usual polarisation ensued. The National did their part, jubilantly reporting that Sturgeon was making “no apologies” for her pursuit of a referendum; Scotland in Union did likewise, complaining that Sturgeon was hellbent on independence and ignoring the day job.
These events surprise nobody and only tell us what everyone already knows. But that is precisely why we should examine them in greater detail: the essence of ideology lies not in the appearance of conflict, but rather in what is uncontested. This is often forgotten, because we tend to understand “ideology” in the more trivial sense, as the opposite of our own (well-founded, scientific, etc) opinions. Unionists thus contrast their hard-headed mastery of “economic fact” to the delusions of nationalists; Sturgeon’s allies contrast the childish antics of Westminster to Holyrood’s grown-up governance. In both cases, ideology is the dumb things that others believe, rather than the collective delusions that nobody questions because they make “normality” possible.
Based on the anecdotes above, the true ideology of Scotland’s governing class is as follows. “Everyone agrees” that “everything must change” to meet the climate emergency; but nobody wants to disrupt “the rule of law” and the norms of competitive globalisation. “Everyone agrees” that “everything must be done” to address the scandal of child poverty; but nobody wants government intervention to disrupt the established model of economic growth. Finally, “nobody agrees” on the constitution; but everyone privately trusts Sturgeon to maintain the status quo.
Can we really blame our First Minister for these organised hypocrisies? Naturally, a critical account of SNP-Green hegemony must start with the clash been the appearance of virtue and the reality of, well, Scotland. But taken alone this would make for a limited analysis. Governing ideologies only gain credence when they set down social roots. Scots are renowned for their “canniness”, yet willingly accept moralising hypocrisy and romanticised guff that would be ridiculed elsewhere. This is most especially true of the broadly defined Scottish Left, who, with few exceptions, function as cover for the governing class. Perhaps the Scots, contrary to reputation and self-image, are a credulous people. But the reality of our mystifications is more a reflection of Scotland’s political trajectory.
Our ideology emerges, firstly, from the rebellious, righteous anti-establishment energies of the 2014 referendum, to which add Brexit and (most of all) the uprooting of a hated Scottish Labour governing class, who for decades took working-class voters for granted. Ignore this, and nothing about our political consensus makes sense. Our national brain-worm would be easier to dismiss if the whole thing was founded in falsehood. But Scotland’s governing ideology carries the stamp of justice, having overthrown our intellectual-moral dependence on the Westminster governing class. Scotland’s populist moment – and it was that – provides fat layers of insulation against electoral winds.
Sturgeonism is unimaginable without these rebellious energies. Yet her governing philosophy is, formally, the opposite. It is rooted in the professional-managerial class, a group who trade on radical pretensions but invariably emerge as crusaders for the status quo. While they might favour a well-designed governance agenda for “engaging communities”, their aims are anti-populist and counter-majoritarian: harm-reduction, consensus-building, top-down behaviour modification. They are terrified by any political mobilisation that is not well-policed, NGO-led and corporate sponsored.
Holyrood’s hypocrisies would be laughable without these class compromises. Yet those who should hold government accountable – on class, climate, and hell, even on race and gender – are either compromised by their unionist baggage or dependent on the wheels of patronage. Everyone looks to Holyrood for national leadership which it cannot provide. Accountability is non-existent. The worst thing about Scotland’s grievances with Westminster is that many of them are well-founded in fact. And that fact of Westminster’s “badness” means we easily ignore the meagreness of our own accomplishments.