As you approach the Scottish Parliament from the Royal Mile, a modest curve juts out from the obnoxious angles. This camber, the Canongate Wall, is studded with 26 slates of Scottish stone each bearing a quotation from the Bible and scriveners of more questionable repute. Among them is the instruction to ‘work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’, etched on Iona marble and attributed to the novelist Alasdair Gray. The words are totemic for Scottish nationalists, a rallying cry heard often during the 2014 referendum. And why not? They bear the promise of national rebirth, of hope in even the darkest days.
Inside, where the SNP can not only work but legislate for a better nation, inertia reigns. MSPs have only just returned to law-making after a year without passing any bills except the budget; Ministers were otherwise engaged, seeking to parlay England’s Leave vote into support for Scottish independence. That didn’t go entirely to plan and after a punishing reversal in the General Election, Nicola Sturgeon has graciously allowed that she might wait a while longer before pushing a second referendum. On Tuesday, after ten years of SNP government, the First Minister declared: ‘We look forward to getting on with the job in the best interests of all the people of Scotland.’ On Thursday, Holyrood went into recess for the summer.
It is just as well. The Presiding Officer’s gavel fell on a parliament at its lowest ebb since reconvening in 1999. Scottish education is in crisis, embarked on yet another bout of tinkering masquerading as ‘reform’ as surveys show literacy and numeracy rates across all levels, genders, and incomes stalling or tumbling. The Scottish Government is now abolishing the surveys, the third such metric they have withdrawn from because its findings were unpalatable. Schools are now light 4000 teachers, colleges 150,000 places and youngsters from deprived backgrounds are four times less likely to reach university. Since 2010, spending on education has been cut by more than £1bn.
Cancer referral waiting times are being met by only two of 15 health boards and accident & emergency departments continue to miss the four-hour wait target. Little wonder, since the Scottish Government has U-turned on a promise to cut junior doctors’ hours and left 3,000 nursing posts unfilled. A usually sober think tank warns Scotland could tip into recession any day now; a troubled IT scheme has delayed CAP payments to farmers for the second year in a row; and for reasons which even SNP MSPs struggle to understand, the government reintroduced the banned practice of tail-docking puppy dogs.
This is what politics looks like when everything must revolve around the constitution or go spin. And even that they can no longer do properly, forced to publish their second referendum consultation quietly on the last day of parliament, so unhinged were the public responses. A clanjamfrie of prejudice and paranoia, demands ranged from stripping English-born voters of the franchise to safeguarding against MI5 rigging the vote again.
Scottish politics has been poisoned by nationalism but, worse, it has been enervated by it. In the early days of our better nation, cynicism abounded about devolution. Holyrood was a diddy parliament with diddy powers and diddy politicians. Eventually MSPs decided that the country would only take them seriously if they took themselves seriously, and they embarked on a restless legislative agenda of land reform, repeal of Clause 28, free personal care, a new teacher pay agreement, abolition of tuition fees, and a ban on smoking in public places. There was still cynicism — and resistance, scandals and rows — but Scotland’s parliament had finally grown up.
What changed, and there is no way to dress this up or wish it away, was the election of an SNP government in 2007. For the first four years, their lack of a majority and Alex Salmond’s political nous, saw Holyrood rumble along much as usual, if in a less radical direction, with extra police, a council tax freeze, and cuts to business rates. But the SNP’s surprise majority in 2011 made independence a live issue and, as soon became clear, the only issue. Other legislation did not stop, even if it slowed, but all became secondary to preparing for, holding, and campaigning in the independence referendum. At the same time, the single-mindedness that unites the SNP made for a parliament that was boorish and Politburish. Opponents were branded ‘anti-Scottish’ and routinely accused of talking down Scotland; comically unrebellious backbenchers and Nationalist-dominated committees nodded along to most of the executive’s wishes.
The wages of Scotland’s ten-year romance with the politics of identity are all around. Holyrood is now a proper parliament with proper powers and even the odd proper politician but it has a diddy government. For a nationalist party, the SNP is remarkably unambitious for the country it professes to love. Alasdair Gray’s injunction — actually a paraphrase of Canadian poet Dennis Lee — does not require the better nation to be near or even plausible; it merely tells us to strive in pursuit of improvement. The Nationalists seem to strive only in pursuit of independence and where independence looks impossible they seem not to strive at all.
Devolution has stopped working and will not restart until the SNP settles for a better nation on the way to an ideal one.