openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Scottish devolution is a disaster… if you’re Boris Johnson

The contrast between Sturgeon and Johnson’s COVID response is awakening a new political imagination.

Peter McColl
17 November 2020, 6.50pm
Boris Johnson & Nicola Sturgeon, pictured in 2019.
Jane Barlow/PA Archive/PA Images

The greatest power in our political system is the power to set the bounds of what politics can achieve. Devolution is a 'disaster' – because it shows exactly how different things can be. At a time when Boris Johnson is under pressure for his chaotic handling of the COVID-19 crisis, it must be frustrating to have a devolved administration dealing with the pandemic in a way that inspires public confidence. The Scottish government’s approach hasn’t been flawless, of course. But compared to the UK government’s response it looks impeccable.

Where the UK government seemed most interested in giving huge contracts to well-connected friends in a ‘chumocracy’, the Scottish government sounded more interested in the health of the Scottish people. As Alex Massie points out in the Spectator, the latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey shows 61% of Scottish people trust the Scottish government to act in the national interest, just 15% of trust the UK government to do so. And Nicola Sturgeon is more trusted in England than England’s own prime minister.

When it emerged early on in the pandemic that the Scottish chief medical officer had broken lockdown rules by visiting her second home, she was removed within 48 hours. Dominic Cummings – who’d travelled the length of England with coronavirus symptoms – was indulged with months more in post, until being ousted in a bizarre soap opera.

Where the UK government allowed the notion of ‘herd immunity’ to delay its response to the pandemic, the Scottish government’s clarity and decisive action was praised, even by Tory MPs south of the border looking on.

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Johnson and his team have exacerbated a long-held feeling that politicians are untrustworthy and self-interested. The more blatantly they act this way, the more the message comes through – your preconceptions were right, and politicians cannot be expected to do anything that actually improves our daily lives.

For too long, political imagination has been squeezed to the margins - even north of the border, given the very limited powers that devolution originally bestowed upon us. But Westminster is now so fragile that almost anything that’s done differently breaks its spell.

The power of a good example

And this is why devolution is becoming dangerous. Simply looking trustworthy, altruistic and able to manage in the pandemic is an eye-opener. Those leaders who do, show that all politicians aren’t “all the same”. They demonstrate that we have more choices than a run-off between an incompetent but lovable rogue who’ll make you laugh, and someone who is portrayed as merely incompetent.

There is nothing like the power of a good example. Normally good examples can be swatted away by pointing to national differences (‘what works in Norway can’t possibly work here!’).

But Johnson now finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. He claims that Scotland is no different to England; it’s just north Britain.

But it is different. It has a government that isn’t exclusively pre-occupied with court intrigues, sub-’Shakespearean’ enmities and COVID cronyism. Scots can be directed, but they are much less likely to be fooled by the notion that politics is nothing more than a Westminster village show.

Johnson, Gove and other Scottish Tories hope to replace the EU’s popularity in Scotland with the union flag - or perhaps just to impose their will. “The UK Government is back in Scotland. Get used to it,” was Andrew Bowie MP’s brazen comment.

Grown-up versus game show politics

But a look at how the UK government has conducted itself in recent years suggests any such project is doomed to failure. Instead we will end up with a series of half-baked and mismanaged ideas, like the bridge to Ireland, which experts have warned would likely need to cross a huge munitions dump in the Irish Sea.

Many of the countries that have tackled COVID-19 best have been those that have political systems that aren’t focused on foreclosing political space. They are vibrant multi-party democracies, often with highly autonomous local decision making. From New Zealand to Germany, the grown up approach of political parties both in government and opposition has led to better government. Because not all politicians are the same. Not all politicians are self-interested. Electing someone because they were on TV, be that The Apprentice or Have I Got News For You, hasn’t turned out that well.

We need to rebuild our political imagination. Politics isn’t just what distant politicians do to us. It’s not mere entertainment, a gossip column or game show. It’s about our lives, and the way we create a better world.

We need a more vibrant democracy, with more devolution not less. We need more ideas, which come with the parties you get when you don’t have a winner-takes-all electoral system. Dominic Cummings masterminded the messaging campaign against electoral reform in 2011 for a reason. If we change our system, the opportunities for people like him to exert undue influence would be greatly reduced. We need more confidence in civil society to put forward ideas.

At the last General Election the electorate were allowed to pin whatever hopes they may have to ‘getting Brexit done’, and encouraged to sneer at Labour’s ideas, even simple ones like giving everyone access to the internet.

But we are going to have more crises like COVID-19 to deal with, as we lurch from one failed response to another, as economies struggle and the climate breaks down. It is vital that we have the politicians who take that task seriously. Not people who survive by keeping the alternatives hidden out of sight.

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