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by Mandy Rhodes
27 August 2023
When once dominant parties are in decline, their pain becomes tangible

When once dominant parties are in decline, their pain becomes tangible

You know it’s been a strange year in politics when one of the country’s prime ministers was likened to a lettuce, when an uninsured but luxury motorhome has become the focus of a major police investigation into the party of government, and when a serious bid to become Scotland’s first minister includes a proposal to erect a giant independence thermometer somewhere in central Scotland to gauge public support for separation.

If your first reaction to the latter is to tell the SNP where to stick it, you wouldn’t be alone. A succession of Tory prime ministers has consistently done that work for you. And while the refusal by the UK Government to allow for a legally binding second independence referendum may have, predictably, sparked accusations of democracy denial from the SNP, and arguably forced first Nicola Sturgeon and now Humza Yousaf to make a constitutional misstep by claiming that the next election will be fought as a de facto referendum, polling is now beginning to reflect a less favourable outcome for the party that has dominated Scottish politics for the last 16 years.

All political parties tend to have a sell-by date. But who, this time last year, could have predicted just how far the SNP’s fortunes could fall? Who could have foreseen the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon, never mind her arrest? Who would have predicted the level of internal acrimony and rebellion? And who would ever have believed that the party of independence could first suspend and then expel one of its longest serving MPs simply because he believes it is no longer fully focused on that central cause?

Politics is in a strange place right now. Perhaps that’s simply indicative of a coming election. Certainly, the public has tired of politicians, from all parties, who have been caught up in corruption and sleaze. But when even the mundane creates conflict, it is clear that the two parties of government have been in power for too long. Things feel stale and even the most loyal of supporters would surely agree there is a need for some renewal, some spark to be reignited, and for some fresh air to blow away the acrid stench of entitlement.

There’s such a scratchiness to current political discourse where even the colour of a passport can become a focus of division. And with such huge problems facing the world, which is gripped by a cost-of-living crisis, an energy crisis, a climate crisis, and a war in Europe, domestically, politicians are simply turning inward and going on the defensive or worse, sitting on their hands and retreating into silence.

Faced with existential problems, internal wrangling, and domestic decay, their reasoning faculties are simply shutting down and being replaced by them fomenting a grievance culture dominated by a sense of ‘if you’re not for us, you’re against us’ which blocks any sense of rationalism and fresh thinking.

I have been here before. And when once dominant parties are on the decline, their pain becomes tangible, they hit out at their critics, particularly in the media, and they take too long to turn the spotlight on themselves.

It’s not healthy, it creates a stasis, is painful to observe, and with a general election in sight and by-elections being fought here, there, and everywhere, politicians are taking flight, lashing out as they go. 

Make what you will of the likes of Mhairi Black blaming the toxic environment at Westminster as one of the reasons she is quitting. But the parliament itself isn’t toxic, it’s what goes on inside that is.

Yet when politicians talk about the toxicity in politics, they never hold a mirror to themselves: how their behaviour impacts on the rest of us; how turning a cloth ear to opinions that differ from their own can cause irreparable harms; how adopting a divisive line of attack legitimises the abuse that flows from their supporters. And while the damage was already done, it was refreshing to hear Nicola Sturgeon in her resignation speech, for once, accept that even she had become an obstacle to reasoned debate.

And undoubtedly, it is the febrile nature of the arguments that have swirled around the gender recognition reforms, and Sturgeon’s pivotal role in that, that have played a major part in amplifying much of the toxicity and divisions that politicians, commentators, and the public, alike, can now feel.

And while I welcome the UK Labour Party’s change of position on gender reforms, it takes courage for a political party to listen, learn and to have the humility to change its mind. It’s just a pity that it has taken years of women being vilified, violated, and seeing their own rights reversed before Keir Starmer has seen sense.

And Anas Sarwar is also now belatedly moving position on the very bill that he controversially whipped his party into voting for. But with the first legal test of the GRR Bill to come next month in the Court of Session, it will be fascinating to see how that might reflect on our legislators’ ability not just to scrutinise but also to make good and sound law.

I was recently asked whether I felt vindicated now that it felt like the tide was beginning to turn but honestly, I just feel exhausted by the sheer idiocy of it all. The unnecessary strife that has been generated by politicians’ inability to engage in reasonable debate when it has been easier for them to retreat into hurling abuse or worse, simply ignore matters. And if I had the energy, this would now be my cri de coeur: a plea for a return to a time when respect, intellect and good grace were essential components of our politics. 

But the hardest thing for all of us who have endured the smears, threats, broken relationships, and the endless attempts to shut us down for asking legitimate questions about gender ideology and raising concerns about the potential for conflicting rights is how do we re-engage with those who have quietly, and some not so quietly, distanced themselves from us because their absence of critical thinking, in pursuit of their Holy Grail to be on the so-called ‘right side of history’, was so fundamental that they didn’t even read or listen to what was actually being written or said. 

They have reframed who I am, misinterpreted what I have done, and, in the process, have broken a part of me. And yet it remains incumbent on me, and the likes of colleagues in the media who have put their heads above the parapet, to be the ones to reach out, to build bridges and strive to get back to a healthier place where we can all disagree, but at least do it agreeably.

This article appears in Holyrood's Annual Review 2022/23

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