Serve the party and no questions shall be asked

Serve the party and no questions shall be asked

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 17, February, 2020

THE DUST is beginning to settle after Derek Mackay was forced to resign on 6 February, within a few hours of being due to deliver what would have been his fourth budget as Scottish Finance Secretary.

At least this unfortunate politician was spared any extended criticism over having bombarded a 16-year-old boy with around 270 texts on Facebook and instagram, indicating a desire to get to know him. He remains an MSP. The nationalist blogger Wee Ginger Dug has confidently asserted that the resultant uproar won’t affect the level of support for Scottish independence. People will see it as a regrettable personal lapse.

In the short-term, he is probably right. One thing the scandal highlights is the absence of a vigilant civil society ready to hold senior politicians to account for unacceptable behaviour.

Children’s charities were invisible.

The religious world, which used to have much to say about the wicked temptations assailing the human heart, was silent.

The only extensive intervention from a Scottish man of the cloth came from the Free Church’s Rev David Robertson who is now living nearly 11,000 miles away in Australia.

He wrote on 7 February that “the case has shaken Scottish politics to its core.”  But it hasn’t. The reaction of the opposition was tepid. The serious end of the media soon returned to the obsession it shares with the Scottish National Party (SNP) – constitutional politics.

Robertson was perhaps on firmer ground when he wrote that the grotesque affair “was a warning to the wider Western world.” Certainly foreign governments and media outlets following Scotland during the Brexit drama will have now seen a different side to the SNP than the one pushed by the party’s slick PR machine.

But personal morality has ceased to be of much account when it comes to how much of the public judge politicians. The desire to get Brexit accomplished one way or another after three years of gridlock meant that the onslaught on Boris Johnson by parts of the media over his colourful private life never resonated with ‘swing voters.’ In Scotland there is even less likelihood that personal behaviour will result in an electoral reprimand for a ruling party. That is because around one-quarter of the electorate no longer seems to base its assessment of politicians on matters that usually require a degree of probity.

Finance is one such area. Many pro-independence voters no longer assume that a post-British Scotland must be economically solvent and equipped with financial safeguards that will minimise the risk of harm to everyday citizens arising from independence. Michael Russell, an SNP minister whose only purpose seems to be keeping alive the preoccupation with Brexit, rejects the government’s own figures that Scotland receives almost £2,000 a head more public spending than the UK as a whole.          

Instead of saying Scotland can balance its books Nicola Sturgeon has taken to saying that the nebulous concept of ‘national well-being’ is as fundamental as GDP. Unfortunately for the First minister her move was ill-timed. Scotland has slid down the well-being league table at an accelerating rate over the past two decades.

In a more hard-headed polity, the initial appointment of Derek Mackay as finance minister in 2016 would have produced a backlash. He had dropped out of university and his work experience had been completely inside the world of politics. In European countries which have declined economically since the onset of the Euro crisis, such politicians and the parties sponsoring them have been increasingly punished by voters on account of incompetence and worse. But in Scotland the domination (since the 2014 referendum on independence) of emotional issues bound up with territory, allegiance and ‘stateness’, have led to a completely different outcome.

Politicians are not held to account.

Due to the absence of public censure, the likelihood that they will carry a burden of guilt after being exposed for irregularities is far from clear. The journalist Kevin McKenna described Mackay as ‘a broken man’. But if he is, this is more likely due to having been deprived of some of the fruits of office than anything else. He has been suspended from the party but that was the fate of a recent successful general election candidate for making what were seen in various quarters as anti-Semitic remarks and he now functions at Westminster as a de facto part of the SNP team.

Even if the seriousness of misconduct ascribed to a politician meant that he ended up in jail who is to say that he couldn’t bounce back as long as he continues to display the talents that enable him to cater for the emotional needs of a large section of the voting public?

Scotland is unlikely to be the last country where a party enjoys mastery over politics even though what it delivers to its supporters and the wider public is emotional pabulum combined with poor-quality governance. In modern times, the Peronist movement in Argentina arguably pioneered a form of grievance politics that is emotionally satisfying for some but brings a steep decline in national fortunes in its wake.

Influential parties which have little or no ethical criteria around which to base their conduct, inevitably attract more than their share of unbalanced or unscrupulous people. Where society is unable or unwilling to sanction them for their abuse of power, gangrene can easily take hold of the body politic.

The world is likely to be open-mouthed as the trial of a man under whom Derek Mackay began his rise, starts next month. Nicola Sturgeon pursues foreign contacts that rarely have any economic value and are often meant to derive some leverage from the fall-out over Brexit.

Increasingly under the SNP, Scotland lacks real interest in what the rest of the world thinks of it as shown by its readiness to cling ever-closer to those under whom its reputation has fallen ever lower. It is a party that lacks any kind of ethical dimension in its own conduct as well as the governance of Scotland.

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who divided his time between Cumbria and Scotland. His book on the SNP, Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published in 2016. His twitter account is @cultfree54 Photo: Eva Peron courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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