Ash Regan MSP: How did Scotland as a nation arrive at this point of disillusionment?

IF you want to assess a nation’s political mood, the energy levels in the towns, villages, and city centres are a good indicator. The people there are usually keen to give their passionate views to media vox pops and discuss potential election outcomes.

Such was the political energy and engagement in 2014 when the media stopped someone on their way for a pint of milk to ask a yes/no question it was not unusual for the respondent to confidently weave in currency options for an independent Scotland as they had thought about it and discussed the topic in one of the many gatherings that took places all across Scotland as we pondered our future path.

So what of Scotland’s political mood in the urgent run-up to the 2024 General Election?

Unfortunately, as the Scottish Parliament drew into recess, the lurgy caught up with me after weeks of campaign visits and my work schedule. So, I cooried up on the couch to catch up on TV and radio interviews with Scots voters outside the managed political messaging of media debates.

As I observed these interviews, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the sentiments I encountered across Scotland during the General Election campaign. The resonance was unmistakable. Through my background as an independence activist since 2012 and a parliamentarian since 2016, I can confidently say that I have never seen such a scunnered electorate.

In contrast, on my visits to community groups, I found that folks’ eyes brightened when the discussion turned to local initiatives, and the conversation flowed with genuine passion.

People in Scotland have not stopped caring about politics – they are becoming disillusioned with their ability to change outcomes on a national level regardless of who they vote for.

This disillusionment with the political process is a perilous situation for democracy. It provides those in power with more leeway to disregard public opinion on crucial issues over a parliamentary term.

How did we, as a nation, arrive at this point of disillusionment with our political system?

As an independence supporter, I find it incredible that Scotland is in this deflated mood 10 years after the independence referendum when the SNP held most Scottish seats in both parliaments for nine of those years.

Post-2014, independence was normalised as a concept in the public psyche, even for those unconvinced. However, instead of listening to those representing Scotland’s communities and their priorities and having robust, energising debates at conferences, party members became mere subscribers left passively watching an increasingly centrally controlled content channel.

Post-election commentary rightly places the fault at the door of the political bubble for failing to inspire, resulting in the lowest General Election turnout since the Second World War.

Still, the mainstream media could do with some self-reflection on serving up the same old formulaic big-party stale offerings when they could have platformed an array of new ideas to ignite public engagement. Labour’s clinical execution of their long-term plan to return to power capitalised on the low turnout expectation, using a hyper-local campaign focus on areas of their identified support.

Labour in Scotland learning their Get Out Your Vote strategy from the SNP’s campaigns from 2007 onwards is ironic and should not be lost on the SNP as it is a lesson in the consequences of complacency. The by-election after the recall petition for long-serving SNP campaigner and now ex-MP Margaret Ferrier is likely to have formed the test bed for Labour’s Scotland strategy, but will the SNP reflect?

There are lessons for Labour, too, on turning winning an election into being a functioning government after their “change” campaign had little detail. Failure to show competence in government will unravel even the most potent campaign slogan when you’re on probation with a largely uninspired public.

Power also comes with responsibility, and many circles will require careful squaring, including evidence-based policy; women’s rights; safeguarding children, and full compliance in health, education, and legislation with Dr Hilary Cass’s recommendations for the care of children and young people seeking help with gender identity against promises to still-powerful ideologically-driven lobby groups.

We have yet to have a full parliamentary debate on Cass compliance in Scotland due to the release of the Scottish Government’s Cass Review: Implications For Scotland findings report being published during recess, the day after the election.

The SNP’s post-election epiphany for “listening and learning” would be wise to start there, consigning the era of “no debate” to the past in Holyrood and moving forward constructively for the best outcomes for all of Scotland as the 2026 election beckons.

So where now for independence? Alba used this General Election campaign to normalise the solution to the constitutional stalemate: putting independence on the ballot paper to allow Scotland’s democratic will to be expressed at every national election event.

Alba had candidates from across a spectrum of experience, from track-record MPs Neale Hanvey and Kenny McAskill to community campaigners and business experts, standing on manifestos that made commitments to communities at hustings for real change.

Alba’s Party Election Broadcast was fresh and creative and got great feedback from those who saw it – but without the media providing a level platform for all parties, how can fresh ideas ever cut through? Doesn’t this lack shortchange voters?

In contrast, Reform’s media darling leader was absent in Scotland, with few leaflets or hustings conducted by what appeared to be paper candidates. Yet the votes poured in, affecting the Conservatives’ vote share and helping the SNP secure some of their nine seats.

The 2026 Holyrood election is 22 months away – just short of the 23 months between the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement in October 2012 and the Independence Referendum in September 2014.

Labour would be unwise to think a Westminster election victory puts independence on a high shelf. They should remember that there were six SNP MPs and 41 Labour MPs on September 18, 2014. Recent history has shown that seismic political changes can happen quickly when the wind of public opinion moves.

Labour now have much to deliver on for the third of the UK that voted for them, and the other two-thirds that did not.

Meanwhile, independence must now be on the ballot paper in Scotland, and each party will be free to do the hard work to convince.

For independence supporters, we must work hard to inspire our communities by creating a tangible, sustainable case to persuade the people of Scotland that their best future is one where their voice and vote always matter and where there is something to vote for again.


[This article was first published in The National on 08.07.2024]

Keep it
Text size