In March, Nicola Sturgeon was asked about her response to Scotland’s drug deaths crisis. She said failings were ‘not because we didn’t care, or because we weren’t trying to do things, but we have concluded because we couldn’t do anything else, that we didn’t get it right’.
This is how she addressed the worst drugs death rate in Europe and the government failings which fuelled it. An admission of regret and some self-justification: a recognition of the harm done but little in the way of a roadmap for future prevention. Drug deaths were a matter of regret rather than a health and social problem that needs solving. It wasn’t about what ministers did but whether they ‘cared’.
Let’s spend a while on that word ‘care’: to care about something is to view it emotionally — I can care deeply without responding practically. Indeed, if I focus on my care over my response, it implies an inability to properly respond.
To ‘care’ in politics is to view problems through this emotional lens rather than the practical lens, to view issues as traumas requiring acknowledgement instead of material failings demanding change. This is what we see in the Scottish government’s response to any criticism: trauma recognised but never remedied.
Welcome to traumocracy, our new politics of feels over fixes. Recognising trauma is necessary, but it is not primarily a matter for politics. Indeed, when acknowledging trauma becomes the prime duty of politicians, the demand for concrete action is lessened. Think back to Sturgeon’s talk of being ‘deeply concerned and moved’ by deaths in care homes in May last year, when we now know that her government was moving Covid-positive patients into those homes. This is traumocracy at its worst: name-checking consequences without substantively responding to them.
The appearance of caring — rather than the doing of things to actually make people’s lives better — is intrinsic to traumocracy. As an approach to public policy, it is a form of political inactivism, and the accompanying discourse of ‘care’ spurs on a cycle of neglect.
We can see this in education. Last August, Sturgeon apologised for failing to get exam results right — but only ‘after a lot of soul searching’. Almost one year on, students are sitting exams in all but name and there have been warnings that another results fiasco is on the way. If you believe politics is about material action, you would be working in earnest to head off a repeat of last autumn. If you subscribe to traumocratic politics, you just need to have some warm words lined up for when it all goes wrong.
Naturally, if you fail to remedy a situation it will get worse — and, when it worsens, you have to care more. Thus is politics becoming a matter of who ‘cares’ the most rather than who offers the most effective solution. Policymaking is being rendered a matter of morality over practicality: a competition to see who claps loudest for the NHS or is the most regretful over a failing. In the process, problems get worse and the cycle of neglect continues.
This cycle is not simply a matter of worsening outcomes and declining standards. It is toxic for pluralism and civic society. A politics primarily about caring rather than acting is just another branch of performative morality: a battle between Good Parties and Bad Parties. If that discourse takes root in a pluralist democracy, as it has done in Scotland, it entrenches partisan divides and further chips away at political trust.
Compromise becomes an exercise in moral surrender rather than productive pragmatism. This moralising also blends roles and damages institutions. Politicians exist to fulfil a practical purpose and answer real-world needs: to fix the roads or to close attainment gaps. They are not supposed to provide moral guidance. They should behave morally, of course, but they should not use virtue as a shield. Morality is a matter for individual conscience, civil society and spiritual institutions.
Yet traumocracy is usurping these institutions as politicians assume for themselves roles that were hitherto thought beyond politics. In doing so, they undermine pluralism and replace neutral civic spaces, in which we can be free of political partisanship, with a new, highly politicised version of public morality. Professing to ‘care’ holds such sway that it allows you to neglect tangible needs, contribute to the tribalism around fulfilling them, then congratulate yourself on your empathy.
Traumocracy has become the dominant mode of Scottish politics. A third of all Covid-19 deaths occurred in our care homes but instead of confronting how that came about, the decision-makers get away with pivoting the conversation to how they feel about it. Scotland has the highest drugs deaths rate in Europe, with mortality figures spiking year on year since 2015. Ministers cared — I’ve no doubt they did — but their empathy didn’t stop almost 9,000 people dying from drugs misuse since the SNP came to power. But at least they had a sympathetic face ready for the cameras.
Traumocracy is politics as therapy session: everyone’s feelings get a boost but no one’s circumstances change. But politics without the possibility of change is a dead end. It’s not enough to care, you have to care enough to act.