The Scottish National Party's government record in Scotland is a litany of failures. Nevertheless, due to the nationalist mood, the SNP is still very popular and seems practically unassailable.
With the upcoming elections to the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood – a powerful body that, thanks to the UK government's exodus, regulates virtually all Scottish affairs except military and foreign policy – the SNP will be vigorously seeking early next year to steer clear of any repeated scandals and poor government results and focus solely on the separation of Scotland from the UK. This is an attractive tactic for many Scots given the state of the rest of the UK – but, as events elsewhere show, it is ultimately counterproductive. And it's a sign that the focus on ideology rather than competence is ruining western politics as a whole.
Until recently, Scotland had a zero COVID-19 strategy. Despite the natural advantages of a far less dense and centralized population than England, it did not go that way. The most recent scandal in Scotland is the nursing home debacle, with the Scottish National Health Service's SNP instructing hospitals to move elderly patients from their beds to nursing homes, allegedly to make room for incoming coronavirus patients. Some of those who moved into nursing homes already had the coronavirus and spread the virus among the most at risk. In addition, when patients in nursing homes tested positive, homes were instructed not to admit these patients to hospitals.
Prior to this scandal, there was the exam debacle where the Scottish SNP government decided to evaluate students for their standardized tests using an algorithm that relied on the history and reputation of the school they attended rather than their own hard work. England had its own version of these two scandals. But the SNP repeated it in Scotland, despite its power and its promise of competence.
Before that, there was the fumbling of the nationalization of an almost dissolved ferry company as well as the rough meanders of cabinet member Derek Mackay and the shocking assessment errors made by him and his colleagues. All of this is just last year.
Now there is another potentially big scandal in the oven: the Salmond affair. It looks like a number of the current SNP leadership, not least First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's husband, SNP CEO Peter Murrell, was inappropriately involved in the investigation and prosecution of former party leader Alex Salmond for sexual offenses. Earlier this year, Salmond was acquitted of all charges. Since then, his followers have consistently claimed that some kind of politically motivated conspiracy was underway. While this seemed completely too convenient from the start, the suspicion that something very wrong is going on has only grown after the Scottish Parliament's weak scrutiny. From today's perspective, even Sturgeon seems to be under suspicion.
Most other parties in a democracy would be affected by this failure, and yet the SNP continues to enjoy ranges of popularity that defy political gravity, especially in a country with at least a partially proportional electoral system.
Politics in the 1990s and 2000s was widespread and sometimes rightly ridiculed for the lack of actual party differences not only in the UK but also in most of the West. The ideologies were barely noticeable sorts in the same shade of gray. The main criterion for political success was “competence”.
Sure enough, all too often the perception of competence has been a product of the spin and decisions made by the influential owners of media companies. However, rank and apparent incompetence were usually punished quickly and severely. If a minister did something particularly stupid, they were gone. If their party leadership stood by their side, the whole party would instead be punished.
That could lead to unfair judgments – and the dominance of a narrow and ultimately inadequate view of the world. But nowadays the public seems to be so overcorrected that competence considerations seem to play practically no role in democratic conversation.
If a majority of the Scottish population now supports at least a new referendum on independence and the SNP seems the most likely way to get there, they will continue to support the SNP. This impunity is dangerous – especially when carried over to the future of an independent Scotland. The record of liberation parties in government is mediocre, especially when changes are never possible in the first few years.
The ultimate consequences of placing loyalty in the name of just one defining issue can be seen in the United States. Despite President Donald Trump's gruesome record of inhumanity, theft, and incompetence of murderers, over 40 percent of the U.S. public still supports him on ideological and identity grounds. This is in stark contrast to former President George W. Bush, whose popularity fell well below Trump at the end of his tenure – not because he was worse, but because the public was still able to judge by competence rather than identity to judge.
Nicola Sturgeon is not Donald Trump. But in her long tenure, she made many errors of assessment. Her biggest, however, has to be the way she stands by some of her dangerously incompetent ministers – and apparently all in the name of protecting the SNP brand. The SNP has continually put the party before the country and the citizens it serves.
In the old days, the party would have been punished for this overall, and the party brand would have suffered. But not today. Today, Sturgeon can almost eliminate any of these scandals with the autopilot: we realize that mistakes have been made. We will investigate. We will get back to you at some point with our findings. They never do and the electorate never follows. The voters never punish them at the ballot box.
Unless the electorate holds the SNP accountable for mismanagement in all other aspects of governance, the party won't lose sleep over anything other than independence – especially when a split seems so near.
None of this is necessary. There are ways in which Scottish politicians can be required to have basic skills in all areas of governance, even if those voters ideologically agree on key issues. A cheeky SNP could deliver a better country inside or outside the UK. But for that to happen it needs to be admonished at the ballot box not to throw around the same old excuses.