Whilst the final figures are not yet known, the turnout at Scotland’s recent local government elections is set to disappoint. Prior to polling, senior figures from mainstream parties feared that nationwide turnout could fall below 40%. As though confirming their fears, turnout at Glasgow was an historic low of just 32.42%. With such poor voting figures, it is questionable what sort of a mandate any ‘winning’ party has.
Certain sections of the media and political classes will inevitably argue in a variety of ways that the 'epidemic' of political apathy is a disease whose symptoms - ignorance, complacency or disdain for the personalities of politicians - are largely self-inflicted. According to their upcoming diagnosis, this epidemic could easily be cured if only the public would just "get involved and invigorate democracy."
But claiming that apathy is the public’s fault is deeply condescending. The simple truth to which politicians and journalists alike persistently refrain from admitting is that a large segment of the Scottish public lack interest in politics because politics is no longer interesting. Seen from another perspective, the only thing 'interesting' in contemporary politics is the corruption that it breeds. The truth that many apologists of the status quo reflexively disavow is that the public's apathy stems just as much from a disaffection with politics of late, than it does from politics as such.
It’s often a struggle to remain politically engaged whilst numerous examples of sleaze and corruption in contemporary Scottish politics pile up. Whilst the First Minister, Alex Salmond’s numerous and intimate meetings with Rupert Murdoch and other News International editors and executives have been making headlines, lower profile cases like the Labour candidate for Edinburgh, Norma Harts changing her surname to appear first on alphabetically-ordered ballot papers just weeks ahead of elections do little to redeem the political classes in the eyes of the public.
There are more examples. In Aberdeenshire, Donald Trump‘s links to local council officials have been described as “too close“ following a senior council official‘s offer to work with the tycoon in handling an expected backlash against plans to evict homeowners standing in the way of his £750 million golf resort. Documents obtained under freedom of information laws reveal that Dr Christine Gore, the council’s senior planning officer, told Trump’s lawyers that “close liaison” would be required to “manage” any negative publicity. One recent documentary about the project claims that the Scottish Government overturned its own environmental laws to grant Trump the green light. Incidentally, the figure of £750 million that media sources report that Trump is set to invest in the resort has been questioned. One investigation found that Trump’s current investment in the resort stands at barely £7 million.
In Edinburgh, a property repairs scandal has resulted, to date, in the dismissal of 21 council officials. The claims now under investigation run the gamut from mismanagement and fraud, to bribery and contract-fixing.
More of the Scottish public will vote when their faith in politicians and political institutions is restored - when politics ceases to serve the interests of political and financial elites.
On the face of it, modern Scotland is a two-party social democratic state, with Labour playing second fiddle to the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). But the reality couldn‘t be more different. Both parties have thoroughly imbibed neoliberal economic orthodoxy: the view that a ‘hands off' approach to the markets is sufficient to provide for lasting human flourishing.
Neoliberalism has been thoroughly discredited (by John Gray, amongst others), so I won’t go into it here. It suffices to say that the past few decades of neoliberal orthodoxy have enriched a small elite at the expense of the majority. The stamp of this mistaken economic philosophy can be seen in the SNP’s commitment to lowering both personal and corporation tax in an effort to boost Scotland's international 'competitiveness'. The question remains, however, in what respect the SNP can consider itself 'nationalist' when international investment must be sought for infrastructure projects they assume domestic industry is loathe to fill.That Scotland’s elites cling to a mistaken economic philosophy as an ‘intellectual‘ support for their self-serving business practices is another reason why a segment of the Scottish public do not vote.
Thus, Scotland’s illusion of social democracy can only be maintained by a judicious mincing of words. A recent article by Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the SNP, perfectly demonstrates the doublespeak in which politicians engage that does little endear them to the public. Writing in The Economist, Salmond notes how Adam Smith, the intellectual father of neoliberalism, "observed that economic progress must, inevitably, be accompanied by social progress."
But notice the ambiguity of 'must, inevitably': this could either mean that progress in economic affairs delivers social progress as a matter of course - the neoliberal view - or else it means that politicians must actively take measures to ensure social progress keeps apace with economic progress - the social democratic view. By equivocating on this crucial point, tight-rope walking between libertarian and social democratic view, Salmond ensures that he pays lip-service to left-wing ideas at the very same time as trumpeting one of the more salvific items of neoliberal economic orthodoxy.
The urge of Scotland’s politicians to appear as all things to all people is both a reason why today’s neoliberal 'business as usual' and the corruption which it breeds remains largely unchallenged, and the last part of the story of why an expanding segment of the Scottish public find politics a turn off.
Christian Eriksson is a freelance journalist living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Read his work at christian-eriksson.co.uk ↑
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