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Voices Of Scotland Slouching towards Ballyskeagh

Scotland is suffering a depressing – and growing – democratic deficit, writes STEPHEN LOW

SCOTLAND’S politics now have a depressing similarity to Northern Ireland. 

What politicians do in, or out, of office is secondary to their stance on the constitution.  

It’s a situation that as well dispenses with comparative trivialities like accountability. 

That in turn is a recipe for incompetence, mediocrity and eventually corruption. It’s also effective in keeping social change off the menu.

This trend has been developing for a while but was spectacularly evidenced by the recent schools results debacle presided over by the SNP’s John Swinney.  

The discrimination inherent in the process had been warned against. The Scottish government, however, despite receiving the results five days before they were made public, saw no problem and made no move to intervene. Swinney went on to defend the results publicly for days despite growing controversy and angry pupils taking to the streets. 

The SNP was, it should be said, acting consistently here: in the best interests of the Scottish middle class. It doesn’t matter if it’s health, housing or education, that bias is pretty much always there.

It was only when Labour lodged a no-confidence motion at the Scottish Parliament that the government agreed to act. 

It’s at this point that the role of nationalism in derailing decent government starts to become obvious. 

The Scottish Greens had, to their credit, been early and strident critics of the results process. They refused, though, to back the no-confidence motion. This despite it being far from the first failing on the part of Swinney. These were plentiful before he unapologetically threw the futures of tens of thousands of working-class kids under the bus.

For the Scottish Greens criticising a policy was one thing, dealing a major blow to the independence-supporting government was a step too far. They spoke up for him in Parliament and voted to keep him in office. It showed that no matter what the failings in either policy or practice, SNP ministers will be sustained in office by the Greens rather than held accountable. 

The results fiasco should definitely have been the end for Swinney, and possibly the government he is part of. He carries on regardless.      

In fairness to the Greens, this attitude does seem to be reflected in wider Scottish society. 

Support for the SNP remains massive, regardless of any failings in government, be it in education, health, worsening inequality or a Covid death rate that is among the worst in Europe (but — in the only gauge that matters — slightly better than England). 

What matters most is indy, or not.

The parallel with Northern Ireland is striking. The “cash for ash” scandal was enormous. Such an event might be expected to have devastating consequences for its authors, the DUP, but they paid little price for it. 

The resulting election saw the party’s vote drop by a mere 1 per cent. Even with their locally unpopular Brexit stance, its 2019 general election vote was comfortably above its 2015 level. Why? Because border policy takes precedence over all else. The SNP seems to be getting into that sort of invulnerability. 

It’s a situation where performance and holding to account become increasingly difficult.

This isn’t helped by another resemblance contemporary Caledonia has to Northern Ireland: the increasing reliance on an increasingly state-dependent third sector.  

“Third-sector organisations which rely on the government for 75-100 per cent of their income cannot call themselves independent in any meaningful sense,” was one estimate of Northern Ireland’s third sector. It applies equally to Scotland.

Classically there is “civil society,” that part of society separate from the state. Here we have “civic Scotland,” that part of society grant-funded by the state. 

At the moment a horrendously incompetent SNP Bill on hate crime is being considered by Holyrood, so bad it has created a massive and unprecedented alliance against it that includes the Catholic church, the Orange Order, the Humanist Society and grassroots feminists’ organisations. 

When debated last week it was noticeable that almost all of the organisations the SNP cited as being supporters received more than 80 per cent of their funding from the Scottish government. 

Again, this is merely the latest in a long line of incidents where supposedly separate but government-dependent organisations queue up to endorse Scottish government proposals.

Taken together, the prioritising of a stance on indy, the neutering of Parliament as a forum to hold government to account, the effective purchase of the third sector, all add up to a growing democratic deficit. 

That it’s one entirely of our own construction doesn’t lack for irony. Scotland hasn’t had its “cash for ash”-type scandal yet, but if we carry on like this, it’s not far off.

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