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If it matters to Scotland it matters to us
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It is so rare to see a Conservative push back against devolution creep that I didn’t believe my eyes at first. Stephen Kerr, newly elected to the Scottish parliament as a list member for Central Scotland, highlighted this week the £2 million per year the Scottish government spends on a Brussels office with 17 staff members. This crypto-embassy is joined by similar set-ups in Washington DC, Beijing, Dublin, Berlin, Ottawa and Paris. All in, Nicola Sturgeon’s administration is spending just shy of £6 million each year to run these offices and employ almost 40 staffers across them. Kerr says: ‘It’s clear the SNP are doing this to try and boost international support for separation, using taxpayers’ money to do so.’
Now, it’s true these overseas ‘Scottish government offices’ didn’t begin with the SNP. They started under the deservedly forgotten first ministership of Labour’s Henry McLeish. It’s another one of those things set up by Labour that definitely wasn’t going to undermine the Union and help the SNP. Those always work out well. What the SNP has done, however, is aggressively expand the quasi-diplomatic estate established by Labour, something I’ve been banging on about for years. While a separatist-run Scottish government creating an embryonic network of embassies for a future independent state is audacious enough, it is far from the only facet of the SNP’s foreign policy strategy.
Glorified junkets to foreign capitals are stage-managed by the Scottish government as state visits, and dutifully reported as such by much of the Scottish media. Following the Brexit vote, Sturgeon sought meetings with representatives of European governments (sometimes successfully, sometimes less so) to ‘set out Scotland’s perspective on the result of the UK referendum on the EU’. She even delivered a speech at the French parliament in which she pronounced that ‘Scotland and the Scottish government is committed to the European Union’, branded Brexit ‘isolationism’, condemned the UK government as ‘unwilling to recognise the complexity of the vote across the UK’, and talked up independence. This was not Sturgeon firing off some tweets from her personal Twitter account. Holyrood’s First Minister — a minister of the Crown — addressed another country’s parliament in the name of the Scottish government to undermine the policies of the UK government on reserved matters. This brought no censure or sanction.
Westminster’s complacency about such challenges to its authority has only spurred the nationalists on to further power-grabs over reserved matters. Law professor Andrew Tettenborn has noted how the SNP’s recent incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international treaties into Scots law will create potential obligations on the UK that ministers in Whitehall have hitherto avoided by not making them domestic law. The Scottish government is openly pursuing a foreign policy not only independent of that pursued by the UK government but at times directly contradictory to it. A folly begat by Scottish Labour’s diet nationalism (and political vanity) has, with the relentless efforts of the full-fat nationalists, become a serious challenge to Westminster’s sovereignty.
Nor are such challenges limited to foreign policy. When a mob prevented UK Border Force officers from detaining two suspected illegal immigrants in Glasgow earlier this month, Sturgeon branded their actions ‘unacceptable’. The actions of the Home Office, that is, not the mob. ‘To act in this way, in the heart of a Muslim community as they celebrated Eid and in an area experiencing a Covid outbreak was a health and safety risk,’ she opined. Her justice secretary Humza Yousaf said: ‘I abhor Home Office immigration policy at the best of times, but to have taken the action they have today is at best completely reckless, and at worst intended to provoke.’ Yousaf, now health secretary, later agreed with an interviewer that it was proper for him to ‘delegitimise’ the UK rule of law because, he reasoned, ‘I think people look to me for ensuring that I, and the Scottish government, are the voices of justice’.
While it is commendable that Stephen Kerr is pushing back against the Scottish government’s separatist empire-building, it is a dismal state of affairs that it has been left to an MSP, barely five minutes in the door, to do what the UK government should have been doing years ago. Maybe the blame lies with Boris Johnson’s utter terror at having to even think about Scotland, let alone act like the prime minister of the place. Maybe it’s down to Michael Gove, whose love-bombing strategy seems to begin from the assumption that Westminster needs permission from the SNP or the wider Scottish establishment to govern Scotland. Maybe it’s the quality of advisers at Downing Street, some of whose ideas for saving the Union have major 9 a.m.-tutorial-and-not-done-the-reading energy. Whatever the cause, if the UK government wants to keep the ‘UK’ in its name much longer, it might want to start doing some governing.
fter the UK finished bottom of Eurovision on Saturday, you might have thought British hopeful James Newman was the big loser of the night. But step forward, Rhiannon Spear, SNP Greater Pollok representative, who managed to embarrass her newly re-elected party with a late night display of classlessness.
The SNP’s national women’s convenor posted: ‘It’s ok Europe we hate the United Kingdom too. Love, Scotland.’ Spear also serves as chair of Glasgow City Council’s education committee, tasked with the development of school curricula and educational attainment of children – what an example she sets them.
Predictably her tweet sparked a social media backlash, with Scottish Conservative chief whip Stephen Kerr leading the charger over her ‘abhorrent language’ claiming: ‘the mask has again slipped from the SNP and this is another example of their toxic obsession with division’ and adding ‘We should be teaching tolerance and inclusion, not hate and division.’
And now as sure as night follows day, Spear has deleted the tweet and apologised ‘for any offence caused’ only after her words gained traction online. Steerpike wonders why a party which created the new offence of ‘stirring up hatred’ as recently as March should have so many members obsessed with repeatedly publicising their own hatred of the UK.
Good to see that ‘civic nationalism’ on show once again…
n March, Nicola Sturgeon was asked about her response to Scotland’s drug deaths crisis. She said failings were ‘not because we didn’t care, or because we weren’t trying to do things, but we have concluded because we couldn’t do anything else, that we didn’t get it right’.
This is how she addressed the worst drugs death rate in Europe and the government failings which fuelled it. An admission of regret and some self-justification: a recognition of the harm done but little in the way of a roadmap for future prevention. Drug deaths were a matter of regret rather than a health and social problem that needs solving. It wasn’t about what ministers did but whether they ‘cared’.
Let’s spend a while on that word ‘care’: to care about something is to view it emotionally — I can care deeply without responding practically. Indeed, if I focus on my care over my response, it implies an inability to properly respond.
To ‘care’ in politics is to view problems through this emotional lens rather than the practical lens, to view issues as traumas requiring acknowledgement instead of material failings demanding change. This is what we see in the Scottish government’s response to any criticism: trauma recognised but never remedied.
Welcome to traumocracy, our new politics of feels over fixes. Recognising trauma is necessary, but it is not primarily a matter for politics. Indeed, when acknowledging trauma becomes the prime duty of politicians, the demand for concrete action is lessened. Think back to Sturgeon’s talk of being ‘deeply concerned and moved’ by deaths in care homes in May last year, when we now know that her government was moving Covid-positive patients into those homes. This is traumocracy at its worst: name-checking consequences without substantively responding to them.
The appearance of caring — rather than the doing of things to actually make people’s lives better — is intrinsic to traumocracy. As an approach to public policy, it is a form of political inactivism, and the accompanying discourse of ‘care’ spurs on a cycle of neglect.
We can see this in education. Last August, Sturgeon apologised for failing to get exam results right — but only ‘after a lot of soul searching’. Almost one year on, students are sitting exams in all but name and there have been warnings that another results fiasco is on the way. If you believe politics is about material action, you would be working in earnest to head off a repeat of last autumn. If you subscribe to traumocratic politics, you just need to have some warm words lined up for when it all goes wrong.
Naturally, if you fail to remedy a situation it will get worse — and, when it worsens, you have to care more. Thus is politics becoming a matter of who ‘cares’ the most rather than who offers the most effective solution. Policymaking is being rendered a matter of morality over practicality: a competition to see who claps loudest for the NHS or is the most regretful over a failing. In the process, problems get worse and the cycle of neglect continues.
This cycle is not simply a matter of worsening outcomes and declining standards. It is toxic for pluralism and civic society. A politics primarily about caring rather than acting is just another branch of performative morality: a battle between Good Parties and Bad Parties. If that discourse takes root in a pluralist democracy, as it has done in Scotland, it entrenches partisan divides and further chips away at political trust.
Compromise becomes an exercise in moral surrender rather than productive pragmatism. This moralising also blends roles and damages institutions. Politicians exist to fulfil a practical purpose and answer real-world needs: to fix the roads or to close attainment gaps. They are not supposed to provide moral guidance. They should behave morally, of course, but they should not use virtue as a shield. Morality is a matter for individual conscience, civil society and spiritual institutions.
Yet traumocracy is usurping these institutions as politicians assume for themselves roles that were hitherto thought beyond politics. In doing so, they undermine pluralism and replace neutral civic spaces, in which we can be free of political partisanship, with a new, highly politicised version of public morality. Professing to ‘care’ holds such sway that it allows you to neglect tangible needs, contribute to the tribalism around fulfilling them, then congratulate yourself on your empathy.
Traumocracy has become the dominant mode of Scottish politics. A third of all Covid-19 deaths occurred in our care homes but instead of confronting how that came about, the decision-makers get away with pivoting the conversation to how they feel about it. Scotland has the highest drugs deaths rate in Europe, with mortality figures spiking year on year since 2015. Ministers cared — I’ve no doubt they did — but their empathy didn’t stop almost 9,000 people dying from drugs misuse since the SNP came to power. But at least they had a sympathetic face ready for the cameras.
Traumocracy is politics as therapy session: everyone’s feelings get a boost but no one’s circumstances change. But politics without the possibility of change is a dead end. It’s not enough to care, you have to care enough to act.
Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinet reshuffle is an object lesson in making a very limited talent pool go a long way. John Swinney, who has been education secretary since 2016, has been shifted into a new brief in charge of the Covid recovery. Swinney’s tenure at education won’t be fondly remembered, presiding as he did over the SNP’s fundamentally flawed Curriculum for Excellence, a stubborn attainment gap between the richest and poorest pupils, a long-running teacher shortage and the 2020 exams fiasco.
Any other minister in any other government would have been sent on his merry way long ago but Swinney is too valuable an ally for Sturgeon, having proved his political worth most recently in the Holyrood inquiry into the Sturgeon-Salmond affair. He remains deputy first minister and minister for Scotland Tonight, the Holyrood equivalent of minister for Newsnight. Swinney is not a terribly adept minister but he is a skilled tactician with a gift for verbal thuggishness that comes in handy with the Scottish parliament’s easily cowed opposition parties.
The education brief goes to Shirley-Anne Somerville, hitherto in charge of Sturgeon’s stalled plans to gut the Gender Recognition Act in favour of the self-declaration model that removes medical experts from the process and is favoured by trans activists. Meanwhile, Humza Yousaf has been moved from justice, where he spearheaded the authoritarian Hate Crime Bill which will soon see Scots at risk of prosecution for remarks uttered in the privacy of their own homes. Yousaf has solid patter but might be a more accomplished minister if he spent more time with his briefing papers and less with his Twitter account. His appointment to the health brief is unlikely to further his leadership ambitions.
Sturgeon is the only health minister since devolution to become First Minister and only then because she got out in time. Yousaf will be responsible for the reopening of the NHS post-Covid; a forthcoming public inquiry on the handling of the pandemic; tackling the worst drugs-deaths rate in Europe; rolling out the proposed National Care Service and abolition of dental fees; addressing shortages of GPs, doctors and nurses; and meeting long-missed waiting times targets. If Yousaf has any sense, he’ll get out in time, too.
Replacing him at justice is Keith Brown, the SNP’s deputy leader. A former Royal Marine who served in the Falklands War, Brown is a political bruiser who previously held ministerial roles on the economy, infrastructure, transport and skills. Popular among the party’s grassroots for his unapologetic nationalism, Brown’s return to the fold suggests Sturgeon is mindful of the need to keep her impatient activists on side even if she can’t give them the second independence referendum she’s been promising for almost seven years. Brown’s new title is cabinet secretary for justice but his more important role will be as Nicola Sturgeon’s ambassador to her party’s membership.
Another political resurrection is that of Shona Robison, a personal friend of Sturgeon who was forced to resign in 2018 amid near-universal criticism of her management of the health brief. She takes on the social justice, housing and local government portfolio. If she fails again, it’s unlikely Sturgeon will be so forgiving a second time, even if she is a mate. Transport minister Michael Matheson remains in post, though his title has been rejigged to ‘net zero, energy and transport’. He will take forward the SNP’s plans to nationalise the ScotRail train franchise, address the ongoing island ferries row and achieve net-zero emissions by 2045. Matheson is the invisible man of the cabinet and, though having no discernible achievements to his name, has survived so long by being blandly forgettable. It’s hard to get the sack when even the First Minister would struggle to remember your name and what you do.
Kate Forbes stays on as finance minister and assumes the economy role too, a sign of Sturgeon’s confidence in the 31-year-old. Forbes has proved a safe pair of hands in the job but discontent is growing in the business sector over the SNP’s prioritising of a second referendum, delays in passing on Treasury Covid cash to small firms, and a general lack of economic direction. While the bulk of fiscal and economic policy failings either pre-date Forbes’ tenure or should more properly be laid at her boss’s door, it falls to the Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP to rekindle business confidence and encourage the economy in a pro-growth direction.
A fellow member of the 2016 intake, Mairi Gougeon, is bumped up from public health minister to cabinet secretary for rural affairs and the islands. Gougeon has largely kept her head down and put the work in, particularly in her earlier posting as a junior rural affairs minister, and her promotion should be seen as a reward for living up to the faith Sturgeon showed in her in 2018, when she found herself a minister after just two years at Holyrood. It is telling, perhaps, that the two ministers who have shown the most capability each have only five years as MSPs.
The generation who became involved in politics at a time when the phrase ‘SNP government’ was barely computable have a decidedly mixed record in ministerial office. The generation for whom government by any party other than the SNP is just as unfathomable so far look more impressive. Successful parties typically attract more capable politicians (plus a tonne of dreck, careerists and chancers) and it will help sustain the SNP longer in power if that trend holds up.
Rounding off Sturgeon’s gender-balanced cabinet (because of course) is Angus Robertson, the former Westminster leader of the Nationalists who lost his Moray seat in 2017 to Douglas Ross, who is now the Scottish Tory leader. On May 6, Robertson got into Holyrood by winning Edinburgh Central, which had previously been held by Ruth Davidson, who is no longer the Scottish Tory leader. Robertson will be constitution, external affairs and culture secretary, even though the first two of those are reserved powers. The way devolution works is that Holyrood unilaterally makes policy on Westminster matters and when Westminster eventually notices and objects, Holyrood accuses it of a ‘power grab’.
Robertson’s role will come into play when Sturgeon decides to fire up the independence juggernaut again but until then expect more of the routine undermining of the Union, including internationally, which the Scottish government doesn’t even bother to do quietly anymore.
Among those getting the boot are rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing, a right-winger (in SNP terms) accused of, though denies, bullying civil servants, and Fiona Hyslop, the Nicola Murray-esque economy, fair work and culture secretary who has been a cabinet minister for 14 straight, inexplicable, years. Noticeably unpromoted are Europe and international development minister Jenny Gilruth and public finance and migration minister Ben Macpherson, neither of whom has caused any headaches deserving of a snub.
Overall, this is less a reshuffle than a meh-shuffle. Even though major portfolios are changing hands and big-ticket policies are in the offing — a National Care Service, rail nationalisation — there just isn’t enough talent at cabinet level to get excited about. Plus, few if any of these ministers are likely to be judged on any failure to deliver. The SNP has a death-grip on the 40 or 45 per cent of Scots who want independence and are willing to look the other way on health, education and economic outcomes until they get it. There is no incentive for improvement when, in all likelihood, you’ve already won the next election anyway. Sturgeon’s new cabinet is a B-level team for a B-level government, but B-level is what the public keeps voting for.
A poll conducted on the eve of the Holyrood election has found that 50 per cent of voters want the next Scottish Government to focus on the NHS and social care, with the economy and jobs being the next priority – and a second independence referendum coming eighth on the list.
The poll by Survation, for the Scotland in Union campaign organisation, found that just one in eight people believe independence is one of the most important issues for the new SNP government.
It also found that only 37 per cent of Scots believe there should be a referendum before the end of 2023, which has been suggested by Nicola Sturgeon as the right time for a second vote on the constitution.
The survey, of over 1000 adults, also asked how people would vote in a referendum – using the option of leaving or remaining in the UK rather than the usual question of whether Scotland should be independent or not with a yes or no choice – and found 58 per cent would choose to “remain part of the United Kingdom”.
Asked to select up to three of the most important issues the new Scottish Government should prioritise, 50 per cent chose the NHS and social care, 46 per cent economy and jobs, 45 per cent Covid-19 recovery, 30 per cent education – and only 12 per cent opted for independence.
On the possibility of another referendum, 51 per cent agreed it would make “Scottish society more divided” – and only 34 per cent disagreed.
Scotland in Union said it would promote the findings on billboards and on social media “as a reminder to the SNP that it must listen to the people of Scotland and focus on people’s priorities – and not treat every vote it received as support for a referendum.”
Pamela Nash, chief executive of the organisation, said: “The new SNP government must listen to the people of Scotland, who are clear that independence is not a priority. The very last thing we need right now is more division in our society.