Whatever happens in the election next month, new populist parties are emerging
‘Two cheeks of the same arse’ suggested Ruth Davidson writing for UnHerd this week when discussing George Galloway and Alex Salmond, respective leaders of the new Scottish pro-union All for Unity and the independence-supporting Alba Party.
In criticising Galloway and Salmond, Davidson serves to highlight the most interesting trend in this Holyrood election: that two marginal figures might encourage voters to move beyond the traditional parties.
For some time, the most important trend in western politics has been the exhaustion of traditional parties. Rather than the old politics of Left and Right, across Europe long-established parties have pursued expert-led, technocratic governance. In the process public life has become largely de-politicised and the result has been a disconnect. On one side: a managerial political class supported by a clerisy from the worlds of academia, culture and the media. On the other: the demos where citizens are rendered passive observers.
In Scotland, such divisions have been obscured by debate about its place within the United Kingdom. This has meant that a New Labour-style technocratic party such as the SNP could realise popular support on the back of harnessing disdain for Westminster. In the 2014 referendum, as many as two thirds of voters in some working-class areas and the ex-industrial heartlands voted ‘Yes’.
The result for some years now has been stalemate — a country trapped by a ‘Neverendum’. However, there are signs that voters may not be prepared to put up with this for much longer.
On the one hand, it is beginning to be unclear whether the SNP even wants to secure independence given the Brexit type political upheavals that would be necessary. ‘Independence’ is better understood as the means to avoid responsibility. The fiction of ‘independence in Europe’ — i.e. subject to rule under the auspices of the EU, and retaining sterling currency and life under The Crown and NATO have long been the means for the independence movement to evade difficult questions of how to establish a genuinely independent sovereign state.
On the other hand, pro-union parties are equally bereft of political vision. With Brexit forced by voters rather than led by political parties with clear ideals for a newly sovereign United Kingdom, unionists in Scotland have few intellectual resources to draw upon.
Meanwhile, Conservative leader Douglas Ross woos support by asserting “I want them to look to our Scottish Parliament and be proud”. But he fails to understand concerns of voters who rightly experience Holyrood as fundamentally destructive of representative democracy. Not only has its vast centralising powers sucked the life out of local democracy, but as many witnessed during the recent Salmond-Sturgeon ‘psychodrama’, it allows politicians to avoid scrutiny and accountability and bows to the whims of the Civil Service and Crown Office.
All of which means that the most interesting and refreshing feature of the coming Scottish elections is that, in the face of the crisis, of the political mainstream, dissenting voices and new political parties are emerging, prepared to set up shop and stake out a claim.
None of this should be overstated, and at the moment, support for both parties is difficult to predict.
It’s a shame that the new parties didn’t have the confidence to break more decisively and reject the often anti-democratic ideas of the mainstream rather than being prepared to support them through alliances.
But at a time when Scottish public life suffers from the insulation of policymakers from the public and the marginalisation of its citizens, those challenging the ideas and authority of the existing political class and its institutions should we welcomed.
Alastair Donald, associate director, Academy of Ideas; author of Letters on Liberty pamphlet, The Scottish Question