This article was originally published on the 1st September 2022
Campaigning during May’s local elections, I found myself at the door of a small terraced house in Glasgow. The conversation I had with the woman who lived there, her children peeking round her legs to see who was at the door, has stayed with me in the months since.
A single mum and unpaid carer for her child who has special needs, I will never forget the fear in her eyes or the desperation in her voice, as she told me how terrified she was about rising energy bills. Gently pushing the most inquisitive child back into the house, she confided that she simply “would not be able to pay” the forecasted bills. This was in May, heading into summer, when the price cap was expected to increase to around £2,800. This month, Cornwall Insights forecasted bills will increase to £5,300 next year. Inflation is now threatening to hit 22% next year.
Everyone from barristers to bin men are striking. The war in Ukraine looks to be escalating, its tendrils reaching into our daily lives. Globally, there is flooding, a poor harvest, famine. Closer to home there is rising inflation, insane energy prices, drought and record high temperatures. Every other day there is a news report of someone dying waiting hours for an ambulance, drug death figures have became a morbid, soul searching annual event and the attainment gap in schools is wider than ever.
As I dodge piles of rubbish Nicola Sturgeon dodges responsibility, seeking refuge in the adulation of Fringe audiences. A decade of gouging council budgets and centralisation of power has led to the effective castration of our local government and the consequences are biting. As the rubbish piles up, Scotland’s government are pointing fingers, trying to shift the blame rather than dealing with it. Local residents and businesses, particularly the crisis hit hospitality sector, deserve much better than this.
At a UK level we have a lame duck prime minister. Our phones have aeroplane mode, Boris Johnson only has holiday mode. The endless Tory leadership election trundles on, increasingly pitched at appeasing a small minority, with Michael Gove labelling Liz Truss’s campaign a “holiday from reality”.
It is clear we are living in an era of crisis and change. Writing in The Times, William Hague argues “once in a lifetime events are the new normal” and that we should strap ourselves in for more pandemics, more energy insecurity and more catastrophic weather events triggered by climate change. Cheery. But it is important to face the world as it is rather than indulge in the fantasy optimism that it’ll all be fine on the night.
Proponents of The Great Man Theory believe that exceptional individuals are born great and will naturally rise to the top, shaping history through their own particular qualities… Well, where are they? Two of the most powerful politicians in the UK, likely PM Liz Truss and Nicola Sturgeon, give more credence to ideology than ideas. For Truss, there is no problem that a tax cut won’t fix, no matter what the sums say. For Sturgeon, there is no problem that independence won’t fix, no matter what the sums say.
This messianic commitment to dogma is out of touch in this new era. This is a time for strategic flexibility, courage and above all, action. The war in Ukraine looks set to continue into next year as the Ukrainian’s prepare for counter offensives before the winter months. Putin’s weaponisation of energy will continue. It is clear that as the chapter of unfettered globalisation ends, self sufficiency must be a policy priority, particularly in energy. Yet in Scotland the SNP/Green coalition is resolutely opposed to nuclear power, which clearly needs to be part of a diverse portfolio of energy resources. Similarly, they also oppose gene editing on crops, which would improve food security by making them easier to grow and resistant to a host of diseases. Far from being at the vanguard of change as the SNP and Greens carefully crafted image would have you believe, they more resemble a grey haired village council, passionately opposed to progress.
In Scottish politics, aside from the almighty elephant in the room, it feels like the parties are broadly aligned on key areas. On paper this may sound like a positive, but the slow dead hand of consensus results in a dearth of innovative policy. If Stranger Things was real Scotland would be the Upside Down. It is, for lack of a better word, weird that state funded freebies to the wealthy is championed as progressive, when in reality this cult of universalism entrenches inequality.
Opposition parties also have to shoulder their share of blame. Whilst this is beginning to change, the answers to problems cannot always be more money and a bigger state. A large part of what the public expect of a government is for them to have the backbone to say no. Failure to realise this leaves the SNP looking like the only adult in the room. Quite the feat.
With news reports of a coming “jobs bloodbath” and Goldman Sachs warning of a recession lasting til 2024, the rotting rubbish on the streets provides the sensory backdrop to a general feeling of decline and decay. This is particularly acute in our public services. As I never tire of saying, the public are ahead of the politicians. Over the weekend the Sunday Times revealed that Brits had lost faith in the NHS’s ability to treat them quickly. Exacerbated by the pandemic, this has been bubbling for years. Yet rather than face the issue head on and have the difficult discussions the public know to be necessary, we have been treated to politicians of all stripes telling us how much they love the NHS -as if that were a cure- and creating a situation where people feel guilty to complain about a public service. The public are ready for reform, it’s time for the politicians to catch up.
As we head into the autumn, the SNP are, naturally, preoccupied with independence. Publishing pamphlets, fighting in court and ploughing on in the pretence that there will be a referendum next year (there won’t be), it is clear their priorities are different to the publics and that they have not won consensus on a prospective referendum next year. The Scottish government should be called out and challenged for being asleep at the wheel, but this is not a time for complacency. Going back to my doorstep conversation with the worried mum, she firmly informed me she would be voting SNP. Not because she was impressed with them, she had several well founded complaints, but because she supported independence. She wasn’t really voting for a party or a politician, she was voting for an idea. Since 2010 the centre left has been scrambling for a project. As we look to the dark storm clouds on the horizon we should acknowledge the scale of the challenge we are facing, but realise this is also a time of opportunity. With people feeling the economy is not working for them and soaring dissatisfaction with public services, the situation is ripe for a bold, reforming project of modernisation that meets these concerns, provides solutions and safeguards the future.
The last decade has shown that dodging decisions and government by soundbite has consequences. We now face several crises that to navigate will require the best of us. Our politics has to rise to the occasion.