David Jamieson

David Jamieson

Nicola Sturgeon is Powerless

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Scottish Government bear responsibility for their negligence on everything from the attainment gap to the cost of living, argues David Jamieson.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said nothing when it was revealed the educational attainment gap had almost doubled from 7.8 to 15 percent in just one year. Which is strange because this is usually the point at which she protests that, despite leading the government of Scotland for eight years, she in fact has no power.

This is what she pleaded in regard to the cost of living crisis:

This is a governing party that makes extraordinary claims for itself: “Stronger for Scotland” of course implies we will be protected from Westminster and Tory rule, the most recent electoral slogan “Ease the Squeeze” was a clear (if moronic) slogan promising a fight to reduce the economic impact on households. No sooner are the votes in, than the slogans are forgotten, and the message is “we are powerless” because of the nature of the devolved settlement.

To this argument, there are three basic answers. First, you are not powerless. A party in office for over 15 years has had very many opportunities to make structural changes to the Scottish economy and society – tax reform, land reform, controls on some of the biggest expenses like rent and energy – there are literally hundreds of options. Indeed, many of them have been proposed by the SNP and their Green coalition partners at election time, and subsequently abandoned.

Second, Scotland’s situation is far from unique. Indeed, structural barriers to state action to aid the majority population exist, in one form or another, for every government in the world. Capitalism enforces its logic over every square inch of territory, in every social relation, in every structure of governance. The excuses deployed by Sturgeon and her government find mirrors everywhere, under all manner of political regimes. This is a question of will. Sturgeon, like her fellow politicians in various jurisdictions, is committed to a defence of big business by conviction.

And finally, the plea that independence is the only answer to the weaknesses of Scotland’s tax and borrowing powers might be spoken with somewhat more authority were it not apparent that we aren’t heading to an independence referendum. We are, lets remind ourselves, supposedly in a live independence campaign for a vote next October – does anyone still believe this?

Closing the distance between the wealthiest and poorest students is, according to Sturgeon, the defining matter of her government. Her 2016 Programme for Government said: “it is the defining mission of this government to close the poverty-related attainment gap”. We can only conclude, therefore, that the government must be “defined” a failure.

The growth of the attainment gap speaks to a much deeper failure in Sturgeon’s worldview. Her conception is that efficient governance can overcome the class stratification of society. What the new figures reveal is the collapse of this New Labour trope. Her policy of the defence of British capitalism will naturally undermine not only the education of working class children, but all of the conditions of their life and happiness. Again, this is a decision she and her cohort have made.

They would prefer you believe in their powerlessness – that Sturgeon is not the perpetrator here but the victim. Sturgeon is far from alone in this – practically everyone in a position of power now pleads that they are subject to powers far beyond their influence. We could make a tour de horizon of the global political and business scene, but it’s sufficient to note that both candidates for British Prime Minister and the energy companies themselves all claim to be overwhelmed by wholesale prices over which they too are powerless, and about which they can do close to nothing (something likely to change if grievances in the population appear unmanageable).

This culture of victim-leaders is partly a hangover from the now closing neoliberal era, when dogma asserted that the economy was an autonomous, mysterious force beyond mere human control. But it also represents a deep shift in relations between governing layers and the governed, with politicians deserting supposedly representative forms of democracy and publics learning to expect little from rulers.

In Scotland, this general tendency is addled by the now water-thin pretence that Scotland is engaged in some ‘progressive’ innovation in politics. Sometimes our government has enough power, then it loses it, then finds it again. This is the world according to Green MSP Ross Greer who first demanded a publicly owned National Energy Company, then said the government lacked the ability to actually create it, and now again backs the nationalisation of energy in the face of the cost of living crisis. Demanding, that is, that the British government does this – not the government he supports, in which Green ministers serve and (at least in theory) have influence.

All of this begs the question: what is Sturgeon and her government actually for? If they really can’t do anything about the biggest questions of the day then why are we paying them? Not even the pretence remains that Sturgeon, her ministers, MPs, MSPs and councillors owe anything to the people who elected them – not even the policies they were elected on.

Nothing going on in the Scottish Government has much to do with the interests of the Scottish people at this point. It’s all about Sturgeon preparing for as clean an exit as possible. The ridiculous ‘defacto referendum’ is expected to secure one last big election result and allow Sturgeon to say she’s done everything she can on the constitutional front.

Her acolytes should be worried about that. Because Sturgeon isn’t just coated in Teflon. She is Teflon for the entire project. She has been able to pose simultaneously as a populist defender of Scottish national rights and a technocratic statesperson. The resulting para-social energies are repressing dozens of urgent problems, from a failing education system to a moribund ‘just transition’, the sale of the country to international capital and powerful landlords, runaway inflation and collapsing living standards. We should all hope that when she goes, the spell will lift.

In the meantime, we cannot continue to look south to London and ignore the ‘powerless’ elephant in Edinburgh. The Scottish Government is the British state in Scotland. The only way to meaningfully oppose a state that is passing the costs of economic crisis onto the working class population, is to fight that state here. We should ignore the pathetic cant about the ‘powerlessness’ of all the politicians and corporations – it is a transparent attempt to get off the hook for their own cynicism and mendacity.

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