When the last general election took place on June 8th of 2017, it was the seventh time that 22-year olds in Scotland had cast their vote in the space of three years.
Between 2014 and 2017 they participated in two referendums (Scottish Independence Vote in 2014 and the EU referendum in 2016), two general elections (British and Scottish Parliament in 2015 and 2016 respectively), the European election in 2014, and just a few weeks before June 8th, Scottish local elections. This is one of the most eventful periods in recent British political history. The landscape is shifting relentlessly and dramatically.
We are visiting Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, only 48 hours after Catalonia's separatist government’s decision to stage an unapproved referendum on leaving Spain. One would expect that a dramatic turn of events in another corner of Europe with a historic separatist movement would have triggered a vibrant debate in the SNP-dominated Scottish Parliament. However, the word Catalonia is not mentioned at all during First Minister’s Questions on October 5th.
“British and Scottish nationalism are more mutually respectful compared with the situation in Catalonia and Spain partly due to history - Scotland has never been oppressed and Scotland has never had anything like the experience of the Franco era. Catalan language and culture were oppressed. At worst, Scottish identity and culture has been ignored”, explains James Mitchell, professor of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh. He is discussing the differences between Scottish and Catalan nationalism with Danny Kim, a Political Science major from Washington University in St. Louis.
Danny is one of 25 Hansard Scholars visiting the UK to study British Politics in the Brexit era, as part of the Hansard Society’s Scholars Programme, which is already in its 30th year. With a strong interest in politics and a fresh perspective on Britain’s political scene, the Hansard Scholars’ thought provoking questions shed new light on Scotland’s political scene.
From the Gallery of Holyrood’s Debating Chamber, the Scholars attend a heated parliamentary debate on a wide range of day-to-day issues: from the impact of the government’s welfare reform on Scotland, to job losses due to a furniture factory closure, and access to mental health services. A parliamentary debate of this kind serves the purpose that Kezia Dugdale, former Leader of the Labour party, envisions for the Scottish Parliament. Her argument is that instead of constantly discussing independence, Scotland’s political class should be occupied with tackling the country’s major issues.
When Lucy Lu, a Politics Major from Marist College, asks about the differences between traditional and civic nationalism, Dugdale says that she wants the best constitutional settlement to address the issues of poverty and inequality.
However, shifting the public debate onto these difficult and complicated issues presents a challenge to Scottish Labour. “The problem with our party is that we are not a nationalist party and we’re not very comfortable unionists neither. It is difficult to get into the complicated nature of problems in this environment of constant electoral competition”, says Dugdale.
The former leader of the Party (she resigned just a few weeks before the Hansard Scholars’ visit) faced four general elections and one referendum. Liliana Pond, from Purdue University, asks how this has affected her work. “The cost of being constantly in election mood is that we produce short-term policies. We have not been able to talk about technology’s impact on jobs (it is estimated that nearly half of Scottish jobs could be carried out by machines in just over 10 years' time) or Scotland’s ageing population (the number of pensioners will soar by almost 28 per cent in just 25 years).
Twenty years ago Scottish politicians weren’t able to address these issues on a local level. Since 1999, the way the United Kingdom is run has been transformed by devolution. Joshua Peterson, International Studies major at Washington College, refers to the example of Huw Irranca Davies, a successful Westminster politician who has recently moved to the Welsh Assembly. Irranca Davies met the scholars during their Cardiff study visit in mid-September. He described his journey from the central scene of Britain to Wales as a fascinating experience. Since then many politicians have followed his path.
Kezia Dugdale agrees: “The nature of the subjects being devolved (environment, health education, justice, and increasingly, tax issues) encourages politicians to choose Holyrood instead of Westminster for their political aspirations”.
In this new landscape, according to Dugdale, Scottish Labour should send a powerful message of Scottish identity and politically-distinctive policies.
Despite devolution, the relationship between UK parties and their sub-national sections is still a challenge in Holyrood. Henry Pratt, from Marist College, raises this last critical point during our meeting with Murdo Fraser, the former Deputy leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. “I tried to win the argument when I ran for leadership in 2011. My point was, and still is, that Scottish Conservatives should win public support by taking a distinct stance from the UK’s political debate”. Fraser was unsuccessful in his attempt to be elected party leader but he seems to be winning the argument in 2017. Scotland is today more independent than ever before in its recent history, and so are its political parties.
Info: Hansard Society Scholars visited Scotland between 3rd and 6th of October as part of the Autumn 2017 Programme’s study visits to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and the National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff.
We would like to thank the Law Society of Scotland for hosting our talks.
Thimios TzallasProgramme Manager
Thimios joined the Hansard Society in 2013 as a member of the research team and took over management of the Scholars Programme in August 2014. He has worked in the UK, Greek and European Parliaments and has considerable experience as a publisher of a historical local newspaper in Greece. He graduated with a BA in History and Politics from Panteion University in Greece and an MA in Politics from Westminster University.