Here is a list of things that happened in Scotland this week. See if you can guess which caused the biggest political row:
GDP statistics showed economic growth less than half the UK rate, the third consecutive year Scotland has lagged. One in 12 under-25s is now on a zero-hours contract. The chair of NHS Tayside was forced to resign after the health board dipped into donations to buy a new computer system. Labour councillors voted to increase the allocation of Tory seats on Falkirk Council’s executive committee. Attempts to quit smoking hit a record low after the SNP slashed cessation budgets. Primary classes with 30 or more pupils soared by 44 per cent. School exclusions for assault with a weapon reached a five-year high.
If you guessed the finer points of Falkirk Council committee composition, you obviously have some experience of this devolution business. The bellwether local authority is run by an SNP minority administration which has nonetheless gobbled up a majority of key posts, something the opposition parties were trying to correct. Yet this low-level dispute has seized the political class. SNP MSPs have accused Labour of a 'power grab’ and of ‘oust[ing] the minority SNP administration’, a curious charge since the administration remains in place. Denunciations abound of a ‘dirty deal’, a ‘toxic coalition’, ‘a mutiny against democracy’ and the Nationalists are demanding Scottish Labour suspend its councillors for voting against them. (A novel concept, that.) Meanwhile, Falkirk SNP has posted a warning on its Facebook page for one councillor who voted against them: ‘Be feart, be really feart’.
All this over a procedural vote on a committee. Local politics is where skullduggery is honed to a low art and politicians at all levels are fluent in practised outrage. Still, the sheer hysterics on display are telling. A Freudian would call it displacement, transferring the blame for their increasingly unpolishable record in government onto plotters and power-grabbers. There is something else at work, though. The economist John McLaren noted this week:
'One of the reasons that the Scottish Government can get away with its facile comment on the state of the economy is that so little scrutiny is brought to bear on its performance. This is a political problem, in the sense of a general lack of interest, as well as a wider one, with few think tanks and media specialists highlighting the economic issues. If the UK economy had grown by less than one percent a year for the last three years there would be uproar and possibly a new Governor at the Bank of England. In Scotland, silence reigns.’
Former Labour minister Brian Wilson suggests an explanation:
'Most of “civic Scotland” has shown a resolute lack of interest in being awoken. Organisations which once existed to stand up for Scottish workers and public services now operate as if wholly owned subsidiaries of the Scottish Government, acutely aware – and regularly reminded – of where their funding comes from. The tentacles of dependency run deep.’
We alight once more on the condition I call Wee Scotland Syndrome. Scotland is a small country and lacks the advanced democratic infrastructure to match the expansive scope of devolution. Even as a minority government the SNP enjoys near-untrammelled power. It is echoed by obedient backbenchers and unchecked by a second chamber. Holyrood ministers are scrutinised by a fraction of the journalists who cast an eye over Whitehall. The think tank scene is anaemic, academia fertile with sympathisers, third sector groups in financial hock, and businesses that speak out learn reticence the hard way. Scottish politics is an object lesson in how not to create governing structures.
To point this out is to invite calumnies about self-hatred. Wee Scotland is a satisfactory set-up for the on-message and the mediocre and they don’t take well to its flaws being pointed out. Perversely enough, many are nationalist true believers yet few yearn for the kind of reforms that would embolden parliament, grow the economy, and improve public services. There is a conservatism of the imagination that passes for radicalism and sees reaction in the merest hint of change. It is why this week brought such dismal news and the governing class obsessed about a bun fight at a bin-collecting body. Scotland is a small country and there’s no shame in that but it is the sheer weeness of the place that holds us back.