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Think bigger than 'Tory-free'

Untribal had the pleasure of being invited along to Holyrood Sources Live the other night. Wasn’t the best podcast on Scottish politics we’ve ever heard (hint hint, wink wink, nudge nudge) but it had some decent patter, to say the least.

There was a clear consensus amongst the guests that the UK needed less heat in conversation and more collaborative work across party divides going forward. More substance, less hate. A reset in relationships. More agreement on what our problems are, so that meaningful conversation can grow from that consensus.

Bernard Ponsonby, one of the big-ticket items, captured a resounding applause as he urged politicians to “grow up” and escape the “idea-free zone” that Holyrood currently operates in.

This wasn’t to down-talk the institution. In fact, it received massive praise right throughout the evening. Especially when reminiscing about iconic moments like the smoking ban or when compared to the days of total Westminster control in which Scotland was barely paid attention to.

Some might be thinking ‘och so it was a big SNP fest then, with that chat?’

Wrong. These were the words of Labour politicos from the early devolution days. Wendy Alexander, Jack McConnell and Henry McLeish all spoke passionately about Scots having control over their affairs and how decision-making closer to the Scottish people was absolutely necessary to make significant change.

They also spoke at length about the benefits of collective decision-making and the strength that cross-party work showed to the public. McLeish received similar applause to Ponsonby when he looked out to the crowd and gave the following line to describe Westminster’s two-party, opposition politics:

What a mess that is.

Unimaginable honesty about the UK’s political framework from union-favouring politicians. Makes you wonder where we’ve gone wrong.

…not for very long but.

We know why politicians aren’t agreeing. We know why they can’t even be seen to agree. Even if, most of the time, they’re singing from the same songbook.

Nobody’s budging on independence. We’re at a stalemate.

Forget Westminster. That is a mess. Nothing will change until it’s stripped top to bottom and radically modernised. There are decades of deep-rooted structural issues which make it seem too far gone.

The lure of power in that place changes people. It’s hard to imagine anyone outgrowing the cloak of imperialism that suffocates so many as they rise to the top.

We expect better from Holyrood. It’s not long established and it’s designed to evolve from the archaic politics of Whitehall.

Yet the independence question has, with regret, set us back on this journey.

Not regret that the conversation exists, just the manner we’ve had the conversation. This isn’t the fault of the independence movement, despite what Conservatives, for instance, would have you believe.

It’s far more plausible, in my opinion, that the Conservatives are the ones who have sought to entrench the Parliament in unmoveable battle lines on this one issue so that we cannot move forward. They don’t stand for any political capital without it.

In Ponsonby’s words, the party would be nowhere near the Scottish Parliament if it wasn’t for their blind devotion to unionism.

However, the independence movement, embodied by the SNP, has had its part to play as well. For good and for bad.

Any sane and rational person would feel sympathetic to the view that the SNP have had the right to demand another referendum post-2014. Not only because of the mandate provided by consistent victories in elections, but the fraudulent promises of maximum devolution and EU membership guarantee that the ‘No Thanks’ campaign selt us. Independence polling was sitting at around 60% around the immediate post-Brexit era.

That might’ve been because of the “f*cking clown” that was Boris Johnson… but the point still stands. A true democracy would’ve given Scotland a recount.

There is also the bad, however.

The SNP have had their fair share of downfalls in governance. As tremendous as Nicola Sturgeon was, for instance, in tackling child poverty compared to her UK counterparts or her handling the pandemic, she also presided over budget cuts to crucial areas like drugs and mental health. The blame on the bung we get fae Westminster’s wasn’t flying here.

Continuity leader Humza Yousaf hasn’t added much to his predecessor’s outlook for Scotland so far either. His flagship policy to date has been a freeze to Council Tax which seemed wildly out-of-the-blue at the announcement. It felt like a random, knee-jerk idea to glamourise repetitious sentiments from previous SNP leadership. Hardly the mark of a transformative leader taking Scotland into a new age of history.

His political messaging has also been riddled with incoherence. A universal Council Tax freeze is at odds with the God-like loyalty to progressive taxation. He wants a ‘Tory-free’ Scotland alongside a proportionally representative voting system UK-wide. He’s pledged to ‘govern Scotland for all’ and yet personally uses language that demonises Tories. He vows to ‘defend Scotland’s democracy’ and simultaneously declares independence negotiations with less than 50% if the SNP get most Holyrood seats. It’s all over the place.

There are diplomatic ways of saying we need rid of Conservative policies. Sturgeon, for example, talked about addressing the ‘democratic deficit.’

Instead, he’s trying to hit harder. He knows populist language will shore up his own support, a short-term move, at the expense of shooting for the kind of score that will give him a proper independence mandate. It’s deliberate yet reckless.

I don’t think the ‘free from Tories’ language was offensive per se. Labour talks about booting the Tories out all the time… but it does speak to a wider, pressing issue in politics all over the UK: policy is determined by short-term polling and election life cycles.

And it isn’t working.

Our politicians need to be braver. They need to start acting less obsessed with Tweets, likes and polls. More committed to the job in front of them. It’s clear for everyone to see.

We’re all complicit mind; our attention spans have been decimated by social media, newspapers are only after scandal and commentary is ridiculously tribal. As John Nicholson said on this week’s Debate Night: “Kumbaya” news doesn’t do very well… but politicians need to take the lead.

Do the job properly and the votes will take care of themselves.


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