Scotland frequently struggles to remind itself of certain basic facts about its politics. Such is the lot of a half-country: with its lack of a coherent public sphere and its truncated democratic life.
Today, the all too readily forgotten truth about Scotland in 2017, now defining the current shape of political events, is democratic fatigue.
Since the SNP won its shock landslide in 2011, the country has been to the polls in two general elections, one further Scottish election, two local elections, and two high-stakes referendums.
The ensuing voting fatigue has brought with it a weary cynicism, born of the urge to wonder what tangible change can be shown for all this participation.
There is no salient narrative ready to respond to such doubts. The SNP’s universalism, the central policy plank in making home-rule tangible in Scotland, has solidified to the point where it is taken for granted. The party now faces the unenviable task of renewing itself, whilst in government, at the start of a second decade in power.
At a UK level meanwhile, when the people have cried for change – for the upending of the present order in campaigns for Scottish independence or Brexit – the political class has simply used the opportunity to embellish a prolonged crisis of confidence.
Though the passions of the partisans on all sides rise more readily than ever before, this only seems to frame the new pessimism abroad. If the question of what has changed has no compelling response, there is another even more vital query that demands political attention: After this great glut of polling, can we really say that confidence in the ballot box is any higher?
For those of us on the Left, the concept of too much democracy might sound like a misnomer at best, a heresy at worse: it discomforts our core belief in the people. But in simply repressing that question, we ignore one of the most crucial factors that shape how people understand themselves as political subjects. To put it bluntly, it is the quality, not the quantity, of democratic participation that is key.
The idea of a Scotland that is good at democratic participation was one of the biggest consolation prizes that pro-independence opinion gathered to itself after it lost the 2014 vote. But the notion is fraught with contradictions.
Thus this nation, that is ‘good at democracy,’ is also the nation that has the most dysfunctional and distant local democracy in Western Europe. It is a nation where electoral registration still provokes fear in some quarters, because local government taxation is an absurdly regressive machine for generating debt in the poorest households.
It is also a nation that has witnessed a decline in turnout from the high of 2014 to a mere 55.6% in 2016 and 66.4% in 2017. The latter was a decline of 4.7% on the 2015 General Election in a contest where turnout rose in other parts of the UK.
Rather than seeing a source of comfort, the achievement of political engagement in 2014 should compel us to look at the underlying crisis of agency and alienation that is the daily experience of so many Scots. The possibility of freedom tomorrow is cold comfort.
Intriguingly, the political fatigue now setting in means that, for the first time in six years, no one wants to talk about Scottish independence. Andrew O’Hagan’s lyrical and futuristic intervention in favour of independence, seemed oddly out of place.
The formidable online pro-independence community is busy discussing Wings Over Scotland’s defamation action against Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. The Scottish Conservatives, ensconced after a brutally effective single issue campaign against a second independence referendum, have now signalled a turn towards a focus on policy. Labour is contemplating a conference season that will be dominated by its own internal Brexit divisions.
With the SNP plan for a second referendum now shelved, that sense of onrush, kept afloat by the possibility that another go at independence might just be round the corner, has abated after an unprecedented three years of buoyancy. As a result, supporters of independence, instead of seeking out the nearest available exit, need to pause in order to find a compelling means to re-establish the relevance of independence.
As Stephen Maxwell put in in his review of Tom Nairn’s Break up of Britain in 1977, independence needs to be about “the demand to give Scots the fullest opportunity to articulate their own sense of crisis as a contribution to an international debate.”
After the far more torrid loss in 1979, Scottish nationalism’s journey back to relevance was long and bitter. The process of becoming relevant once again took eighteen years.
Baby box to ballot box
Eighteen years. The equivalent of the journey from infancy to adulthood – from the baby box to the ballot box – this is a long time in politics. In today’s febrile atmosphere, it’s the equivalent of an epoch.
There are number of reasons why the process needn’t take as long this time round, but factors such as Brexit don’t make it any less formidable, nor do they guarantee any kind of swift, easy, escape route.
A place to start this ‘reset’ process would be to turn the now established truths of politics on their head.
For example, it could be observed that throughout Scottish history there is a clear common thread that transcends the constitutional divide.
On both sides, there are Scots for whom every threat, or opportunity, is externalised away from the home turf. This is the great unspoken fidelity between the Scot for whom every ill in the land stems from the yoke of Westminster, and the Scot incapable of imagining life without London rule.
The rest of us – Yes, No or Undecided – need to make a claim for changing Scotland regardless of its nation status. For power to reside here, rather than elsewhere. This must take the form of articulating distinct responses in Scotland to another era of crisis.
The latter approach is not only the single feasible route to maintaining independence as vital and relevant, in the face of multiple crises – it may also be the only way to re-energise a country scunnered by the hard grip of political fatigue.