RUNNING ON EMPTY
Populism has hidden the hollowing out of Scottish democratic institutions, but for the SNP it's a fuel losing potency
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POPULISM offers the promise of democratic renewal, pulling into the forum of politics new actors and simple easily-digestible policies. But while the sentiments of direct democracy inherent to populist political outfits can make democracies more representative, they are also fundamentally corrosive.
As US government analyst Patrick Liddiard wrote for the Wilson Centre, populist movements
“can undermine accountability when their lack of ability or interest in legislating shifts policymaking to other actors outside the ruling party. Populists in government can also erode the institutional checks on executive power necessary for durable democracy, even in previously resilient advanced democracies, and populist mobilization has precipitated democratic breakdown in the wealthiest democracies to ever revert to autocracy”1
While I realise the importance of not over-egging the pudding, nevertheless I am surely not the only one regarding some of that as pertinent to our own devolved Scottish democracy. But perhaps feeling concerned about the health of the institutions of democracy in today’s Scotland is somehow regarded as démodé? Nevertheless it’s a subject worth reflecting on.
I recall writing last year for the pro-free market think-tank and discussion forum ‘Think Scotland’ about the previous Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC’s discomfort at having to answer questions before the Holyrood Inquiry into the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints. That revealed a Crown Office that had become reluctant to answer questions about how it operates, with the issue raised of how transparent it is.
One of the issues raised back then was the antics of the then-Lord Advocate (James Wolffe QC) - who headed the Scottish prosecutorial service - attempting to prevent the Holyrood parliamentary inquiry from publishing (therefore including in its deliberations) key aspects of Alex Salmond’s testimony. All despite the fact the same Lord Advocate had not felt particularly bothered about the Spectator magazine seeing, reading and publishing the same evidence.2
Why that all mattered, and still ought to - is that the head of the supposedly independent Scottish prosecutorial service was bullying the Legislature in service (intentional or otherwise) of the same Executive branch he himself sat in.
Lord Advocates sit in the Scottish Government, in the cabinet. So the previous Lord Advocate had effectively sought to influence what evidence a Holyrood committee of inquiry could take in, when it was probing the same executive he himself sat in. An entirely problematic affair. In fact, it is indicative of a chronic weakness if not outright failure of separation of powers in modern Scottish democracy.
But that was back in March last year, which seems a lifetime ago now. Yet it is far from an isolated example of corroding democratic institutions and norms inside devolved Scottish democracy.
I have also written previously about the shocking failures inside the Crown Office, where previous Lord Advocate Mulholland presided over a series of failing legal advice to the Scottish Government, but also the “malicious” and “wrongful;” prosecution of innocent men3. All of those failings from the prosecutors service has left Scottish taxpayers to foot a bill running into the tens of millions (potentially hundreds of millions ultimately).
What all of that suggested was the independent Scottish prosecutorial service struggling under mounting scandal, controversy and financially costly errors in legal judgement. But as if that isn’t damaging enough to the health of a robust democracy, Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland QC; who had headed the institution during much of all of that; retired to a new job in the Scottish High Court Judge, Senator of the College of Justice. Some less generous than myself might say that could be construed as ‘failing up’.
What all of these events over recent years point to is a Scottish democracy which has weak institutions and norms.
A lack of separation of powers: those heading the independent prosecutorial service sitting in the Scottish Government; and able to influence the ability of a parliamentary inquiry to see and publish evidence regarding that said government.
Institutional failings undermining public confidence: a Crown Office struggling under the scandal of engaging in “malicious” and “wrongful” prosecution of innocent men. And also a Lord Advocate and law officers whom have a record going back a number of years of providing the Scottish Government with poor legal advice concerning the legality of major legislation.
And we can add to that a governing party, the Scottish National Party, which itself resorts to the politics of populism to sustain itself. The SNP does not have any great ideological glue. Unlike the Scottish Labour Party it is not properly socialist democratic (let nobody forget the SNP’s love-affair with free market deregulation and the once-vaunted ‘celtic tiger economies’4). Nor is the SNP rooted in a philosophical political or cultural conservatism which defines the Scottish Conservative & Unionists (today the SNP are pushing radical self-identification reforms to the Gender Recognition Act).
The SNP are really only united around the question of independence, and their unified aspiration for it. But beyond that you have radical socialists, free marketeers, blood-and-soil nationalists and woke identity politics peddlers butting heads with social conservatives.
And the lack of a deeper ideological ‘ism’ has resulted in quite a staggering series of failures in office. Child poverty is rising5 (and was before the pandemic), food insecurity is rising6 (and was before the pandemic), A&E waiting time targets not met since 2017, and Scottish business innovation is the lowest since 2008 financial crisis amid a looming tax and spending crisis7. They preside over failing democratic checks and balances, corroding public trust in the institutions for impartial justice and major domestic policy failures.
It does not bode well for the health of Scottish democracy, except for one silver lining. We see a governing party running on the fumes of populism; but after 14 years and innumerable policy failings, they’re finally running out of road and gasoline.
Only 14% of Scots think there should be a referendum on independence next year in 20238. And despite brexit being weaponised, a deeply unpopular Boris Johnson to play off against, still the SNP can’t break the 50/50 public split on the constitutional question. The one thing their politics of populism aspires to engineer just isn’t materialising.
And thus we are left with the sight of an intellectually bereft Scottish Government becoming ever-more exposed as events start overtaking it.
This brings us to the increasingly obvious reality that even Nicola Sturgeon and her carefully focus-group tested soundbites just don’t cut the mustard anymore…
The picture Nicola Sturgeon arguing on television that we shouldn’t rule out NATO enforced no-fly zone over Ukraine; even though doing so could precipitate a general European war with a nuclear armed Russia; was a sight to behold. Especially as she insisted we should nevertheless surrender our own nuclear arsenal as we do so.
This is the end result of the SNP's populism. It’s the intellectually bankrupt land where 'kick out trident' plus 'but keep NATO' meets 'Westminster must always be wrong'. And you end up with an SNP First Minister advocating a course of action that risks a NATO war with nuclear armed Russia all whilst insisting on unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Perhaps this is why Nicola Sturgeon’s personal favourability score has collapsed from +26 (Feb 11, 2021) to a mere +12% (January 21, 2022)?9 People are starting to see through the empty populism, the lack of substance and absence of meaningful delivery. Perhaps Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s political legacy will be a hollowed out Scottish democracy, with key institutions weaker than they were before? All wrapped up with a stagnant economy and tremendous inequalities.
Liddiard, Patrick (2019, August), ‘Is Populism Really a Problem for Democracy?’, The Wilson Centre, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/publication/liddiard_is_populism_really_a_problem_for_democracy_august_2019_0.pdf
Thomson, Dean MacKinnon (2021, March 2), ‘The Lord Advocate gives a masterclass on how not to give evidence to a Parliamentary Committee’, Think Scotland, https://thinkscotland.org/2021/03/the-lord-advocate-gives-a-masterclass-on-how-not-to-give-evidence-to-a-parliamentary-committee/
Thomson, Dean MacKinnon (2021, October 28) ‘Can a new broom sweep clean in legislative legal advice?’, Think Scotland, https://thinkscotland.org/2021/10/can-a-new-broom-sweep-clean-in-legislative-legal-advice/
Scotsman News Room, (2007, October 12) ‘Salmond reveals dream of Celtic Lion economy’, The Scotsman, https://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/salmond-reveals-dream-celtic-lion-economy-2512575
Child Poverty Summary (2021, March 25), Scottish Government, https://data.gov.scot/poverty/cpupdate.html
Scottish Health Survey (2019), ‘Scottish Health Survey 2019: summary report’, Scottish Government, https://www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-health-survey-2019-summary-report/pages/1/
Thomson, Dean MacKinnon, (2022, March 8), ‘Scotland’s economy has never been so mismanaged’, Think Scotland, https://thinkscotland.org/2022/03/scotlands-economy-has-never-been-so-mismanaged/
SavantaComRes, (2022, January 21), ‘January's edition of the Scottish Political Tracker’, https://comresglobal.com/polls/scottish-political-tracker-january-2022/
SavantaComRes Scottish Political Trackers can all be sourced in the archive here: https://comresglobal.com/our-work/poll-archive/