Sunday National, 26th December 2021.
What will you remember 2021 for? Bookended by two cold Christmases where the country wheezed through Covid and wondered what the new year would bring, for many folk, the last twelve months have felt a bit like Groundhog Day. I don’t blame them. Without the usual waystations in the year to navigate by, it feels uniquely difficult this December to squint back through the last year and to see the highlights and lowlights of the past year clearly.
After another spring in the deep freeze, a summer in suspended animation, and a winter of returning restrictions, in melancholy moments, 2021 might feel like the year the pandemic ought to have ended and didn’t, where the promise of normality appeared and promptly disappeared again, despite the swift emergence of vaccines, despite the effectiveness of their rollout, despite the military efficiency of the booster programme which has seen 72% of eligible adults in Scotland received their third jabs already.
I’m generally an optimistic soul by nature, but I can well understand those of you who feel deep in the scunner. Several friends find themselves locked in alone again this Christmas having turned up positive tests. Family trips home have been cancelled. In universities, the emergency remote teaching in the spring of 2020 looks highly likely to turn into the emergency remote teaching of 2022. It is the right thing to do – but by gum it is a miserable chore for everyone involved. And so this disembodied life continues. T.S. Eliot thought that April is the cruellest month. Late December 2021 must be in contention for this year’s bastarding winner.
But it hasn’t all been stasis in 2021, and it hasn’t all been setbacks. Politics has kept moving on, and 2021 will mark some significant milestones in the country’s political trajectory. In May, the SNP comfortably won its fourth election in the Scottish Parliament in a campaign which recorded a record turnout at the polls. Before the election, the First Minister survived scrutiny which could have brought her career to a premature and very final terminus. Green Party ministers entered government for the first time, forming a parliamentary majority and fortifying Nicola Sturgeon’s administration against the kind of external challenges it faced throughout the last Holyrood term of minority rule.
This political development has been to some extent two-edged for the government. So long as the Green accord holds, the government doesn’t need to go begging to the opposition parties for its majority on Bills, motions of confidence, and budgets. This has had the effect of sucking the jeopardy out of the Holyrood process. It has deprived opposition leaders – particularly Sarwar and Cole Hamilton – of political oxygen and opportunity to cause mischief, but has also had the indirect effect that coverage of major political events like the Holyrood budget are perhaps more muted than once they might have been.
Particularly in the second half of this year, Douglas Ross is beginning to show signs of a familiar political evolution. Sooner or later, every Scottish Tory leader comes to realisation that their ties to the UK party are a source of untold difficulty for them. Sooner or later, they realise the virtue of putting a little distance between themselves and the Westminster leadership. Unlike Davidson and Carlaw – who at least enjoyed notional independence from UK party whips as MSPs – Ross has the unenviable responsibility of being a loyal party man in Westminster, and his own man in Holyrood at the same time.
In 2021, Ross has finally stumbled across the pleasures of disloyalty. This is a change of tune. After Carlaw was done in by his party bureaucracy, Ross’s case to take up the reigns rested on an implicit critique of his predecessors, and the freedom they gave themselves to be rude about the Prime Minister and his policies. In contrast, Ross pledged he would be a “Boris-backing, Brexit-positive, anti-Nat” leader of the Scottish Tories, ending the chuntering hostility to Johnson which characterised his predecessors, bringing the Scottish party leadership into closer alignment with the passions and enthusiasms of its membership. Times change. During the dismal days of December, loyally defending Johnson has finally become too politically costly even for Ross.
2021 has not been kind to the Scottish Labour Party either. The days when Labour ploughed through Scottish constituencies like an electoral juggernaut, painting the map of Scottish politics red, seems a lifetime ago. As the year ends, the party continues to struggle to find not only an identity – but any kind of political voice. Starmer isn’t working and contemplating dustbins during Cop26 has been Anas Sarwar’s most memorable contribution to Scottish public life this year. With the best will in the world, this is not the stuff a government-in-waiting is made of.
At the start of December, Ipsos-MORI found that support for Scottish Labour had slumped by 5% in constituency ballots to 17% support, and by three to 15% in the Holyrood regions – just 3% ahead of the Scottish Greens. Other pollsters have spotted the same trend. Like many centrist Labour politicians with Blairite hinterlands, Anas Sarwar received a friendly write up from much of the Scottish media after he took over in the spring of 2021 – but was sent home with poor reviews from the voting public just months later. In its worst Holyrood performance since 1999, Labour dropped two more seats, tumbling to twenty MSPs, taking just shy of 18% of the regional vote.
Now Scottish Labour continues to lose ground, reduced to erratic headline-grabbing in the search of the oxygen of publicity. The party’s worst performance since the advent of the Scottish Parliament was written off as Richard Leonard’s fault, positioning Sarwar as a new leader who played a bad hand as well as he could, preventing a wholesale rout. Flattering and consoling as this explanation may be for Sarwar and his team – the evidence of 2021 suggests that the problem isn’t the personalities but the movement, comrades.
Impressed by Sarwar’s debating performance, most political commentators weren’t rude enough to point out how obviously unstrategic his main attack lines were. Throughout the campaign, Sarwar served up microwaved Obamanisms, still frozen in the middle. It was a campaign for centrist dads who think the West Wing is a political how-to guide to politics rather than a liberal fantasy of America. It is just one of the things which makes the Scottish Labour leader seem curiously old before his time. He’s only in his 30s, but seems like he has been around forever. In another political context, he’d be the new kid on the block – but because he inherited his dad’s Westminster seat in 2010 and was mired in late-term New Labour politics, he already feels like old hat.
In 2021, Sarwar’s tried to rise above ugly constitutional disagreements. He wanted to take the constitutional out of constitutional politics, and the political disagreement out of politics. We need an adult in the room, he said, casting wee Douglas Ross and Nicola Sturgeon as the squabbling weans of the piece. Sarwar’s strategy represented an audacious inversion of the usual political mantra that you should focus your political attacks on the perceived weakness of your opponents rather than their strengths. You don’t see Keir Starmer embarking on a spaffing competition with Boris Johnson for good reasons. Fans of gross moral turpitude in British politics are already comfortably in the Johnson camp. If it is adults are what you’re after, why send for Sarwar?
He’s still at it. The other day, the Labour leader was arguing we should “take the politics” out of yet another political issue. I suppose this is intended to suggest a statesmanlike approach, but as far as I’m concerned, there is nothing more suspect than a politician arguing we should take the politics out of political decision-making. Imagine your doctor suggested we should take the medical considerations out of the decision whether or not to whip out one of your kidneys? Politicians who hate getting political should find themselves another job.
Voter management remains a problem. Unlike the Scottish Tories and Greens, who ratchet up a healthier share of the vote on the regional list, Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats continue to outperform in constituency races and see their support slide in the critical second vote. Around 100,000 votes disappeared from Labour’s tally in Scotland’s eight electoral regions. The Liberal Democrats misplaced some 50,000. Some of this is attributable to the vigorous tactical voting we saw in some constituencies which kept pro-union politicians in post against Nationalist challengers – in Dumbarton, Edinburgh Southern, Edinburgh Western, North East Fife – but if they are going to stop the slow slide into LibDemsville, Scottish Labour need to find a more effective second vote strategy.
And seen as I’ve mentioned them, what of the Liberal Democrats? Well, what of them. It often comes as a surprise to the public, but many politicians have friendly enough personal relationships across the aisle in Holyrood. They may disagree about policy and the constitution. Some MSPs won’t get on for personal reasons. They’re only human after all. But most are able to share a friendly word and rub along fine across the party lines. In Alex Cole Hamilton, the Liberal Democrats have chosen a party leader who is unencumbered by this kind of goodwill.