Scotland’s Leaders Are Using Independence to Distract From Scandal

Bad governance and sexual abuse claims have left the Scottish National Party in urgent need of another referendum.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon arrives at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Feb. 6.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon arrives at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Feb. 6. Robert Perry/Getty Images

The Scottish independence referendum in 2014 was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation event. Yet just over five years later, the main policy goal of the Scottish National Party (SNP) for 2020 is holding another vote. The justification given is that Brexit has changed everything and that the people of Scotland—who overwhelmingly supported Remain by 62 percent to Leave’s 38 percent—were effectively voting six years ago to stay in both the European Union and the United Kingdom.

That’s a fair point—and the strongest case the SNP has, especially given that the economic situation is even less favorable to Scottish independence than before. Every year sees the North Sea oil fields—the crown jewel of Scottish finances—diminish a little more, for starters. But a scandal-ridden SNP also has some very personal reasons to get another referendum as soon as possible—which have very little to do with the Scottish people’s choices.

To be sure, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is riding high as one of the most successful and popular politicians in the U.K. She completely dominates the Scottish political landscape, and though she is exclusively a regional politician with a secessionist agenda, she is more popular among Scots at the national level than any political leader in the U.K.

It might seem against her own political interest and that of her party to keep flogging this particular dead horse to see if it comes back to life. If Sturgeon does manage to get her second vote, a premature second independence referendum might once again lose, and if that happens, both Sturgeon and the SNP will be sunk, this time actually for a generation.

But Scottish independence is the raison d’être for the SNP and for Sturgeon’s entire political career. Not only are they mostly sincere believers in the cause, but the political incentives demand it. The SNP’s political high is thanks to the aspiration for independence—and while it’s broad, that sentiment is more for Scotland than for the SNP itself. If the SNP stops pushing, there is a real danger that the nationalist vote will splinter. And if that happens, Scotland will end up with the kind of nationalist/unionist party political hotchpotch that is paralyzing the devolved government in Northern Ireland.

The rise to political prominence of the SNP since devolution in 1998 has been one of the most significant political achievements for any political party in modern British politics. In a system hostile to single-issue politics, the SNP has managed to get its cause to the forefront of national politics. And by wielding it, the SNP has claimed 13 years in power as the governing party in Scotland and an outsized voice and weight in Westminster to boot, where it became the third-largest national party since the Liberal Democrats crashed and burned in 2015.

Yet there are even more acute reasons for Sturgeon to be beating the drum of a second independence referendum in the coming months.

Alex Salmond, the former leader of the SNP who built the party into the political force it is in Scotland and led it into the first independence referendum, will be standing trial for alleged sex offenses in March. Some expect this to be the most significant trial in Scotland since the conviction of the Lockerbie bombers and, with some 300 police officers involved already, also one of the biggest.

Salmond is claiming that the accusations are politically motivated, and the issue is hugely polarizing even within the SNP itself. This makes the trial a very delicate moment for Sturgeon because various wings among the party faithful take diametrically opposing views on Salmond’s claims and credibility. One wrong word or emphasis from Sturgeon and the party could fracture.

In this context, Sturgeon is desperate to focus the attention of her party in just about any other direction. It is therefore opportune that the Brexit situation has put a second independence referendum firmly on the agenda—if one thing can get the SNP faithful to look away from the past scandal, it is the plausible promise of independence in the future. Sturgeon will keep reminding her party members to keep their “eyes on the prize” in the following months because she must.

Yet there’s also a political distraction needed. The SNP’s actual record in governance is hardly impressive. It was Salmond who moved the party away from its “Tartan Tory” conservative roots to the left-wing social democratic platform it holds today—but that platform has largely failed to deliver. To be sure, there’s one big success—the channeling of an active, multiethnic civil nationalism that has made Scotland a more open and friendly place today and put a lid on the kind of ugly ethnic majoritarianism that is emerging all over Europe. In fact, just before the last referendum, 64 percent of Scottish Asians polled said they would vote for independence. But much else is a slow-burning disaster.

The Scottish National Health Service, though somewhat more protected from the U.K.-wide austerity imposed from Westminster under David Cameron, continues to be plagued by high-profile failures and scandals, most of which can be traced directly to government failures.

Education has also suffered from pressures imposed by political choices, leading to Scotland underperforming the rest of the U.K. and the international competition, despite the SNP setting itself up as a champion of education, in contrast to the Conservative government at Westminster.

The justice and prisons system are “on the brink.” Social policies continue to be an unmitigated failure, most evident in the drugs crisis, where Scotland’s fatalities are worse than anywhere in the EU. Emerging systemic social issues stemming from economic trends such as youth unemployment continue to go unaddressed, with inevitable dire consequences.

Local councils have been financially suffocated and unable to serve their local residents, with predictably devastating consequences. It is hard to find an area of devolved administration that is not struggling. After 13 years of social democratic SNP governance, the social fabric of Scotland is severely strained.

The SNP argues that any Scottish government—SNP or otherwise—would be fiscally constrained by the choices made by the Westminster government. And to be fair, the party has used the limited financial tools available, such as income tax differences, to mitigate some of the most stringent austerity policies coming down from Westminster.

But public spending per capita remains significantly higher in Scotland than the rest of the U.K. Part of that is thanks to the marginally higher tax in Scotland, but most of it is due to the Barnett formula that has historically granted Scotland more money from the central Westminster government. Every Scot gets 117 percent of the U.K. average spending per capita, compared with 97 percent in England—a scheme worked out partially to compensate for the low population density and relative poverty, partially as a sop to keep them in the union.

That means that the dirty secret of the current Scottish government is that its problem is not mostly financial. Rather, it is one of poor management and misuse of power. Even with more money than any other part of Britain, the SNP just used it poorly and often squandered the extra fiscal cushion it had in boneheaded ways.

From the Edinburgh tram scandal of 2014 to the latest ferry scandal, a devastating pattern has emerged. The SNP, as a government, systematically prioritizes the perceived party electoral marketing value of projects and policies over their economic and social value to Scotland as a whole and systematically neglects the operational and implementation challenges of the projects it backs, leading to an eye-watering waste of public money. And to top it all off, when all is said and done, no individual minister, or indeed the party as a whole, is ever held accountable for any of it—because the over-riding push for independence keeps the voters together and allows scandals to be nearly ignored.

After 13 years in government, neither Sturgeon nor the SNP can come before the Scottish electorate on their record. Aside from the independence issue, their record in government is, under the most generous description, one of generally positive messaging and intentions and mediocre to dismal implementation.

Those politics are driving the constant beating of the drums of independence as much as Brexit is: If the SNP does not keep dangling the promise of a new Scotland in front of the faithful, it has nothing else to run on. It may well be true that the prospect of Scottish independence has never been as close or as urgent as it is this year for Scotland as a whole. But it is equally true that if the prospect of independence disappears, the SNP’s record in government will come into sharp relief, and that will spell very real trouble for the party.

Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington. Twitter: @azeemibrahim

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