Calling Out the Con
Making the SNP take responsibility for their failure requires making the case for devolution.
In the 1980s James Hydrick claimed to have magical powers. He appeared on television and seemed to be able to move the pages of the telephone directory through telekinesis. The scientific sceptic and debunker of fraudsters James Randi challenged Hydrick to repeat the feat in his presence. Randi knew that Hydrick was simply blowing the pages of the directory, so he created a context that would expose the trick for what it was. He surrounded the pages with polystyrene packing peanuts which would have also been moved by Hydrick’s breath and the conman suddenly lost the power to move objects with his mind.
The lesson of the importance of context in overcoming those who would want to dupe the masses came to mind when I was looking at today’s Survation poll.
The survey has truly terrible numbers on people’s views of how the SNP are performing. In every area the SNP are responsible for, a majority of voters believe Nicola Sturgeon’s government are not performing well. These results are obviously driven by people’s lived experience of the SNP’s mismanagement of public services, but the answers in this survey are also, I think, shaped by the way the question is framed. Before voters are asked how they think the SNP are doing in government, they are reminded that the policy areas they are being asked to evaluate are devolved.
It shouldn’t be surprising to us that when people realise that someone is responsible for something they are more likely to hold them responsible.
This maybe seems too obvious to point out but another poll finding that went largely unnoticed at the end of 2022 reminds us why this matters. A Redfield and Winton poll found that, after a quarter of a century where the NHS, education, transport and policing have all been devolved to the Scottish Parliament that too many still believe the Scottish Government is powerless to deliver change on these issues. 28% believed that the UK Prime Minister has the most power over Scottish education. 30% believe Sunak controls Police Scotland. 35% think Westminster controls transport in Scotland. A third do not believe that the NHS is devolved.
These numbers might seem astonishing but remember that since 2007 we have had a government in Edinburgh whose central communications objective is to convince voters that change is not possible within the UK. Think back to the budget debate last month where the SNP were desperate to embed the lie that their budget is fixed. Or look back at all the times health workers warned that successive Scottish Ministers were mismanaging staffing levels only to be told that the problems in the NHS were because of Westminster.
This is a government run by a First Minister so addicted to avoiding responsibility that she wouldn’t tell STV yesterday whether she knew that her husband had secretly loaned £100,000 to the party that she leads and that he manages. On this, as in so much else, she has total control and an absolute lack of responsibility.
Chris Deerin wrote on the “It’s not our fault” mantra of the nationalist government for the New Statesman:
“We seemingly will not wake up to this neglect because the SNP’s greatest trick of all has been the secret behind all magic: diversion. As long as Westminster can be blamed for all bad things, and as long as all sorts of prospective wonders can be cooked up for an independent Scotland, it is easier for the voters to simply look past the uncomfortable truth, which is that the devolved government you elect will deliver the public services you deserve.”
Politicians who find themselves explaining rather than emoting tend to lose. However, those of us who want better politics in Scotland should spare a few words at the start of anything we say to remind voters that Scottish Ministers have real responsibility.
Because if we don’t call out the trick, the audience will go on believing the con.
What We Share
If those of us who favour devolution over either separation or centralisation need to talk more about what Scotland’s government is responsible for we also need to talk more about what it makes sense to pool with our neighbours. As Eddie Barnes wrote over on his substack, most Scots and even most Yes voters want to do some things in Scotland and some things alongside our neighbours.
In the past, the debate has been about what new powers would be offered. The problem for both sides of the independence debate is that those areas still shared are, with few exceptions, the areas people want to share. For the pro-devolution side that means there is less to offer going forward, for the nationalist side there are fewer grievances to exploit.
That is why it was so welcome that Labour’s proposals for constitutional reform go beyond that old transactional model of politics. Instead, it places Scotland within a reformed UK and gives the opportunity for us to place the balance of devolved powers within a story about a new decentralised state. The phrase that summed it up for me was “the right powers in the right places”. That is where the Scottish people are.
We should never forget that the SNP’s efforts to divide Scottish society are an attempt to obscure what we share: most of us want to share decision-making with our neighbours in a shared democracy.
I rewatched some of The Good Place over the break and this scene sums up why nationalists struggle so much with the idea of balancing autonomy with solidarity.
“As humans evolved the first big problem we had to overcome was me vs. us - learning to sacrifice a little individual freedom for the benefit of a group. Like sharing food and resources so we don’t starve or get eaten by tigers - things like that. The next problem to overcome was us vs. them - trying to see other groups different from ours as equal. That one we’re still struggling with. That’s why we still have racism and nationalism and why fans of Stone Cold Steve Austin hate fans of The Rock.”
This is an excellent article, to which I would add only that the more we know about Sturgeon the more we can reduce speculation to fact (or dismiss it). That is why I started writing a book about her performance in parliament, as it seemed to me that words spoken there would fairly reflect her own view of political life and the future in Scotland.
Inevitably, the book evolved into one that was as much about the parliament as her, the reason being that the opportunity for disruption that she has taken so boldly (and not unreasonably given her status as a politician) is one which was made possible (and arguably inevitable) by what I term the "Dewar Constitution". The interaction of the politician and the open goal for disruption presented by the New Labour idea of devolution is a major theme of my narrative.
I call my book a "citizen's biography" as it makes comment from the side-lines, from the point of view of the citizen who has nothing to do with the political bubble. This to me, in modern conditions, is a trend which ought to be replicated widely as the bubble is so tightly controlled these days that almost no information comes out of it to the wider community without censorship - except, of course, the Official Report of the Scottish parliament, which was my main source for the book.
Forgive this advertisement, but really I think anyone interested in the problems raised in this article should be informed of the real Sturgeon, and the realities of our "provincialized" parliament.
This is what Scotland’s leading constitutional authority has to say about my text:
“This is a citizen’s biography not just of the current First Minister but also of the Parliament of which she has been a member since it was first elected in 1999. While some of the language and ideas may be new and unfamiliar, Ian Mitchell’s biography deserves reading by all those who care about Scotland’s political and constitutional future.” (Alan Page, Emeritus Professor of Public Law, University of Dundee and author of Constitutional Law of Scotland)
More details here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0BPVLR9ND?ref_=pe_3052080_397514860
Nicola Sturgeon – Vol. 1 – The Years of Ascent 1970-2007 – A Citizen’s Biography of a Driven Woman in a Drifting Parliament (Ian Mitchell, 2022) available on Amazon.co.uk
Good analysis as usual Blair. As Eddie Barnes' research shows many people have very little idea what "independence" means. That is not just because the natural implications of leaving the UK have not been explained or have been covered up by nationalists (though they have). It is also because the nature of "independence" would only become clear once the very difficult withdrawal negotiations were concluded.
That is why the SNP's plans to rerun 2014 are not fair, democratic or honest and it is past time for non-nationalists to say so loud and clear. The Brexit calamity provides all the evidence needed.
Many people do however think that the Scottish people should decide their future. At the minute Nicola's referendum seems to be the only process on offer. Equally, though the term "independence" is almost meaningless it sounds good to many and by using it in the same way as nationalists, non-nationalists give it sanction. The SNP can therefore get away with living on air.