Voters Are Picking Ideology Over Competence on Both Sides of the Atlantic

From Edinburgh to Washington, scandals don’t cost politicians.

By Azeem Ibrahim, a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC.
Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in the debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh on Sept. 17. Russell Cheyne/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The Scottish National Party’s record in government in Scotland is a litany of failures. Yet the SNP continues to ride high on the back of nationalist sentiment, and it seems virtually unassailable.

With elections to the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood—a powerful body that now handles virtually all Scottish affairs save the military and foreign policy, thanks to devolution from the U.K. government—upcoming early next year, the SNP will vigorously strive to keep all emphasis off its repeated scandals and poor record in government, and focus exclusively on separating Scotland from the United Kingdom. That’s an appealing tactic for many Scots, given the state of the rest of the U.K.—but it’s one that, as events elsewhere show, is ultimately counterproductive. And it’s a sign of the focus on ideology, instead of competence, that is wrecking Western politics as a whole.

Until recently, Scotland boasted of a “zero COVID-19” strategy. Things didn’t work out that way, despite the natural advantages of a far less dense and centralized population than England. The most recent scandal in Scotland is the care homes debacle, in which the SNP directed hospitals in the Scottish National Health Service to move elderly patients from their beds and into nursing homes, supposedly to make room for incoming coronavirus patients. Some of those moved into nursing homes as a result already had the coronavirus, propagating the virus among the most vulnerable. Moreover, when patients in nursing homes tested positive, the homes were directed not to move those patients to hospitals.

Prior to that scandal, there was the exams debacle, where the SNP government in Scotland decided to grade pupils for their standardized tests on an algorithm that relied on the history and prestige of the school they attended, rather than on their own hard work. England had its own version of both these scandals. But the SNP, despite its power and promises of competence, repeated them in Scotland, too.

Before that, there was the fumbling of the nationalization of a near-defunct ferry company, as well as the gross meanderings of cabinet member Derek Mackay and the shocking errors of judgement from him and his colleagues. All of this is just in the last year.

Now another potentially huge scandal is 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, were unduly involved in the investigation and prosecution of former party leader Alex Salmond for sex offenses. Earlier this year Salmond was acquitted of all charges. Since then, his supporters have consistently claimed that some kind of politically motivated conspiracy was afoot. While that seemed entirely too convenient early on, now, even after the feeble Scottish Parliament investigation, suspicions that something very wrong has been afoot have only increased. As things stand, even Sturgeon seems under suspicion.

Most other parties in a democracy would be battered by this record of failure, and yet the SNP continues to enjoy popularity margins that defy political gravity, especially in a country with at least a partial proportional representation electoral system.

Politics in the 1990s and 2000s was widely, and sometimes justifiably, lampooned for the lack of actual differences between parties, not only in Britain but also across most of the West. The ideologies were barely noticeable varieties on the same shade of gray. The principal criterion for political success was “competence.”

Sure enough, all too often that perception of competence was a product of spin and of the choices made by the influential proprietors of media outlets. That said, however, rank and obvious incompetence was usually punished swiftly and severely. If a minister did something particularly stupid, they were gone. If their party leadership stood by them, the whole party would be punished instead.

That could produce unfair verdicts—and the dominance of a narrow and ultimately insufficient view of the world. But nowadays, the public seems to have overcorrected to the point where considerations of competence seem to play virtually no part in the democratic conversation any longer.

If a majority of the people of Scotland now seem to favor at least a new referendum on independence, and the SNP seems like the most likely way to get there, then they will continue to support the SNP. That impunity is dangerous—especially if it carries over into the future of an independent Scotland. The record of liberation parties in government is mediocre, especially if change never becomes a possibility in the early years.

The ultimate consequences of putting party loyalty in the name of just one defining issue are on display in the United States. Despite President Donald Trump’s atrocious record of inhumanity, larceny, and killer incompetence, over 40 percent of the U.S. public still back him for reasons of ideology and identity. That’s a stark contrast with former President George W. Bush, whose popularity numbers plummeted well below Trump’s at the end of his time in office—not because he was worse, but because the public was still able to judge on competence, not identity.

Nicola Sturgeon is not Donald Trump. But in her long time in office, she has committed plenty of errors of judgement. Her biggest, however, must be the way in which she stands by some of her most dangerously incompetent ministers—and apparently all in the name of protecting the SNP brand. The SNP has continuously put party before the country and citizens it serves.

In the olden days, the party overall would have been punished for this, and the party brand would have suffered. But not today. Today, Sturgeon can brush off every one of these scandals almost on autopilot: We recognize that errors have been made. We will investigate. We will get back to you with our findings at some point. They never do, and the electorate never follows up. Nor do the voters ever punish them at the ballot box.

If its electorate does not hold the SNP accountable for any of its mismanagement in all the other aspects of governance, the party will not be losing any sleep over anything but independence—especially when a split seems so close at hand.

None of this is necessary. There are ways to demand basic competence in all areas of governance from politicians in Scotland, even from those voters agree with ideologically on crucial issues. A chastened SNP could deliver a better country, inside or outside the United Kingdom. But for that to happen, it needs to be admonished at the ballot box, not to throw around the same old excuses.

Azeem Ibrahim is a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.
 Twitter: @azeemibrahim