Where’s The Opposition? – 19 January 2023

My old friend Alex Neil, the former Health Secretary, raised hackles when saying there were too many careerists in the Scottish Parliament and MSPs were simply nodding donkeys for party whips.

His fire was ranged across the Chamber, not just at Scottish Government benches. The ills of Holyrood are also a microcosm of Westminster, although greater numbers and different operating structures allow for some more mavericks and dissent there. But centralised control remains, along with the loss of old political titans who once sat on all benches.

I share his concerns and hope that the working group he’s on will come up with changes that’ll help deliver parliament’s founding principles. But the malaise in our democracy goes deeper than the individuals in elected office. And sadly, focussing on them’s often counterproductive and simply deters good people from standing for public office. It’s the limited agenda that they operate within, more than the quality of the representative that’s stifling democracy.

The rot goes deep and to the very ideas and ideologies that are represented in parliament. The gaps between parties have narrowed as political centrism has become the vogue and neo-liberalism the only real ideology and the only real alternative to the current order being that of the radical right. Leaving aside the constitution, many looking at Parliament, whether north or south of the Border, simply see an echo chamber where parties slug it out but the gap between them’s often superficial.

The major issue in the UK’s Brexit and its damage to our economy and society. But Labour and even Lib Dems have now signed up to the Tory agenda. They’d do the same but just not as they did or in the way they did it. Big deal. Where does that leave those who oppose it or at the very minimum seek mitigation of the harm through single-market membership?

In Holyrood, the major issue’s the NHS crisis. But what would Tory or Labour do differently? The Tory attacks are rank hypocrisy given the even worse situation down south and the effect of Barnett consequentials on Scottish funding.

Opposition attacks in both chambers are predicated on damaging the administration with little regard for a solution and, more importantly, an alternative. Labour’s NHS reform plans are an attack on GPs but fail to address chronic underfunding or pernicious privatisation. SNP attacks on Brexit fail to explain what will be done in the years before membership could be restored. Tory attacks on employment rights see a rhetorical response from the opposition with little visibility on the picket lines by either Labour and SNP leaders. Political fights on gender simply bemuse many whilst they literally freeze. Class politics and the communal good abandoned for individual rights.

It’s no wonder more and more people don’t feel represented by current parties, let alone their “nodding donkeys”. For many on the left, it’s Mick Lynch and other trade unionists who articulate their feelings. For environmentalists, it’s Extinction Rebellion for some or less confrontational groups for others. Even on the constitutional issue, many in the independence movement despair of the SNP.

We have parliaments of centrists, not just careerists. Democracy’s undermined when legitimate opinion goes unrepresented and extra-parliamentary action’s all that’s left. That needs to change or many will simply say a plague on all of you.