A golden age for Scottish politics

'Scottish Parliament' / Andrew Cowan / CC
'Scottish Parliament' / Andrew Cowan / CC

This is a golden age for Scottish politics. No, don’t close this page and go back to Twitter just yet. It really is. The referendum was an extraordinary democratic event, which engaged — and expanded — the electorate like never before, and we’re still feeling some of that being reflected in the way that the General Election is being approached. Many of the campaign groups that emerged to fight the referendum have turned their attention to this new battle, and new groups specific to the election — not least those interested in grassroots tactical voting — are starting to come to the fore.

But the referendum’s impact wasn’t restricted simply to we, the people. It was also the making of several of its leading elected protagonists, many of whom now find themselves at the centre of the electoral fray. In a few of a seemingly endless series of pieces on the proposed UK leaders TV debates, the BBC have included a vox pop segment and, without fail, a member of the public will say something along the lines of “Who cares? They’re all the same anyway!” I’m not sure we’d see that response, in terms of Scottish leaders, in Scotland at the moment; sure, individually there would be declarations of incompetence and dismay, but as a collective? I doubt it.

Watching Question Time, broadcast from Glasgow on Thursday, I became aware that I wasn’t experiencing my usual feelings of despair and anger. The panel, five-sixths Scottish, put together a coherent, mostly good-tempered and often arresting discussion. Some of it was probably because I was familiar with, and interested in, most of the issues, but even allowing for that, it felt unusually cogent.

Nicola Sturgeon has stepped seamlessly into the role of First Minister, and has set about differentiating herself from her predecessor with aplomb. Poll after poll finds that she has the highest satisfaction rating of any political leader in the UK and it’s been revealing to see the reactions of commentators outside Scotland — generally surprised by her effectiveness — as they are increasingly exposed to her.

Jim Murphy had a good referendum. Perhaps, as some have suggested, it was a cynical one — but if it was, it worked perfectly. Since assuming Scottish Labour’s leadership he’s combined a cheery optimism with a welcome honesty — especially in reacting to recent polling — and has dragged a tired party back to its feet with a relentless stream of policy announcements (even if some might argue that not all of these have been either terribly original or hugely consequential). In Kez Dugdale he has an excellent deputy, one who I think is at her best when she’s let loose to talk on her own terms and in her own language, particularly on issues like education and skills.

There was general agreement that two politicians in particular came out of the referendum with higher profiles and enhanced reputations. One was Patrick Harvie of the Greens, appreciated by many for the passion he brought to the debate. The other was Tory boss Ruth Davidson, an outstanding media performer; ironically, were she leading the new, independent centre-right party proposed by her sometime leadership rival Murdo Fraser, she’d probably be seeing even greater success. What both Patrick and Ruth bring to the debate is a fantastic ability to articulate ideas from beyond the traditional centre of Scottish politics.

No one is having a harder time politically than the Lib Dems. Every poll, at both the Scottish and UK levels, in reference to the General Election and to 2016’s Holyrood election, shows that they are on course to be more or less wiped out. But even then, they’ve had some significant policy wins and have actually helped to make a lot of the recent Scottish political weather, fighting — and, so far, winning — a long battle with Police Scotland over stop and search figures, and in recent days playing a large part in bringing to light somewhat unsettling Scottish Government proposals to make private health records much more widely available.

The General Election is now just fifty or so days away and it’s set to be as interesting as any I can remember. For the first time in a very long time multiple potential outcomes are possible. The Scottish public is interested — cares, even — to the point that the BBC’s James Cook declared that politics is now a Scottish national pastime. Scotland is playing a huge part in the discussion at the UK level, somewhat to the discomfort of some commentators further south (but that, I suppose, is how an asymmetric devolved union will occasionally function). And the current cohort of political leaders is the best we’ve had since devolution.

So. There’s the case for the proposition: it really is a golden age in Scottish politics. What do you think?

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Kenny Stewart 4 Articles
Kenny Stewart is a public affairs, communications and policy person with particular interests in human rights, social justice, politics and sport. He was able to combine the latter two as Government Relations Manager at the Organising Committee of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

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