Last week in Scotland, politics clearly won. Democracy feels even more vibrant. Following a campaign that often felt sedate and even boring, Scotland once more rose to the occasion and made very good use of devolution and the autonomy it continues to enjoy.
We all know how almost two years ago, the Scottish Independence Referendum was firmly won by the No campaign. However, while the No vote did not give the Scottish National Party (SNP) the Independence it campaigned for, it gave both the Greens and the SNP a surge in membership and popularity, which resulted in the SNP winning almost all Scottish Westminster seats in last year’s British general elections.
There is a lot of talk as to how far did the Referendum influence the Holyrood elections. It seems that the Scottish Tories’ clear stance on the Union won them votes that two years ago went to the Yes campaign, winning 16 seats. In contrast, Labour’s failure to take a clear Constitutional position, lost them 13 seats.
Those familiar with Holyrood know well that since the Scottish parliament was reopened thanks to Devolution in 1999, after almost 300 years that Parliament was disbanded in 1707 by the onset of the Union, Scottish politics has shown great maturity and a sense of ownership which is radically different from the adversarial cultures that still grip Westminster and those Parliaments bequeathed by British rule (such as Malta’s).
Though there is always a sense of competition and rivalry between parties, Scottish democracy is distinctly agonistic
Though there is always a sense of competition and rivalry between parties, Scottish democracy is distinctly agonistic. When a sense of antagonism emerged, as in the Referendum, this was clearly rejected by all sides.
There are many interpretations of the Holyrood election results, but I was mostly impressed by how politically demanding the Scots are, and how ideologically principled they remain on their polity, while how further they keep themselves from any European country where anti-politics and quietism have taken grip of the democratic imaginary (an issue that I discussed in my previous article Dwight and Varist).
The five Scottish parties fought a clean and cordial election. They also run on clearly differentiated political programmes and the parties that suffered were those whose programmes were less clear and somehow stuck in the centre. In my opinion, this is why Scottish Labour lost many seats. Although much distanced from London, and notwithstanding Kezia Dugdale’s young and enthusiastic leadership, Labour did not come across as independent and clear enough for its grass roots.
Labour lost out on the opportunity to present a clearly Left of Centre programme with a different approach to Scotland’s Constitutional autonomy. Lacking this, most Left of Centre votes went to the SNP and the Greens. In contrast and against all odds, the Scottish Liberals held onto their seats by presenting a clear programme and kept consistent in their call for Scottish home rule within a federal union.
So is there a Scottish lesson here? What struck me in these elections is that those parties that were not afraid to present a clearly positioned political programme were clear winners. Whether it is a Unionist Centre-Right Conservative programme, or a Green programme focused on social justice and the environment, or indeed a Liberal Democratic programme that stuck to its principles, they were all winners.
While the SNP got a third mandate because it did not compromise on its social-democratic programme, one chink appeared in their campaign when there was talk and confusion about a second referendum.
The Scots have shown that their will must be respected — whether it is about the Referendum for which they voted NO, or indeed their disapproval of a Blairite Labour Party, which they wiped off the map in their Westminster elections. The fact that the SNP, against all predictions, failed to win a majority, and that Labour found itself playing third fiddle in Holyrood, shows clearly that the Scots wanted clarity of principle.
In the past, when there was a slight hint of corruption with a First Minister, he had to resign post haste. Likewise whenever there were second thoughts or doubts about political programmes and directions, those parties found themselves punished.
In the light of the current move towards a quietist centre in most of our European democracies, the Scottish lesson is that this would lead to nowhere. It might lead to a spike in popularity as we had with Blair’s Labour government, but this soon goes to the other extreme once it is found out for what it is.
The Scottish vote confirmed that managerialism is not enough. They want substance and they want to know how issues with education, health and social care would be addressed. The results have shown that this was not a beauty contest and that far from quietist or tribal, the Scots made good use of their two-ballot system and voted tactically and intelligently.
Though a winner, premier Nicola Sturgeon cannot afford to be arrogant in government. Likewise, as the Tories are promoted to the official Opposition, their charismatic leader Ruth Davidson knows very well that most of her voters are not dyed-in-the-wool Conservatives. Besides, with five political parties in Holyrood, the Scots know that their MSPs would never contemplate to take them for a ride.
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