Susan Aitken is right. All cities do have rats. Margaret Thatcher’s economic reforms did cause immense and enduring damage to the west of Scotland’s economy. Glasgow’s tatty streets are indeed in need of a “spruce up”.
It’s worth noting that the “spruce up” comment came during an interview in which a journalist repeatedly pressed Aitken, the leader of SNP-run Glasgow City Council, to admit her demesne was in fact “filthy”. Her phraseology was a reasonable attempt to wriggle out of what was becoming a Paxman/Howard situation, and my recent travels confirm that you’d hardly eat your dinner off the pavements of Edinburgh or London either. As for Weegie rodents, it doesn’t help that a video has been circling on social media showing one popping out of a bin and scaring the life out of a bulky refuse collector.
But Aitken can hardly be surprised by the scrutiny and the attention. In a few days, 30,000 members of the planet’s political elite will arrive in her city for Cop26: ten days of Davos-style chin-stroking by intellectual sophisticates, tense negotiations by political leaders and their acolytes, and, no doubt, fully expensed fine-dining and prodigious boozing. The delegates will, to use a local expression, kick the arse off it.
And so Glasgow, which all sensible people know to be Scotland’s indispensable city, is expected to be on top form. It is clearly not. An economy that is heavily dependent on retail is more vulnerable than most to the ravages of lockdown and the tyranny of online existence. Covid continues to shut down public spaces in this most exuberantly convivial of cultures. Years of restrictions on local government budgets have forced cuts to services and a necessary lowering of civic ambitions. Infrastructure is peeling and failing.
Industrial relations in the city are fractious, with a planned strike by rail workers across the period of Cop26 only called off at the last minute when a pay deal was reached – thus avoiding the prospect of those delegates who have foolishly chosen to stay in Edinburgh having to line the pockets of taxi drivers or else hire bicycles for the 50-mile trip west along the busy M8. Refuse workers are still planning to strike throughout the event. Whether all this industrial action is canny use of leverage by trade union leaders or nastily unpatriotic opportunism is open to debate.
Labour, as is to be expected, is making hay amid the chaos and is going in full-bore on Aitken. The party, which still views Glasgow as its birthright despite years of SNP dominance and popular support for independence, is desperate to take back the city in next year’s local elections. Such an achievement would send shockwaves through Scottish politics and suggest Labour’s painfully delayed comeback has begun at last. Glasgow is similarly at the heart of the nationalists’ claims to have usurped Labour as the natural party of government. Nicola Sturgeon’s constituency is in the city. Senior Nats wonder privately if the union unrest is inspired by an urge to make Labour’s aspiration a reality.
But the situation in Glasgow also represents something that is both more intangible and utterly central to modern Scottish consideration: who is to blame?
The groans that have greeted Aitken’s attempts to deflect criticism are in part inspired by a weariness with the SNP’s tactical playbook, which – page one, clause one – determines that a nationalist must never accept blame when there is a unionist that can be fingered.
If, in a more reasonable climate, it could be accepted that the council leader has a fair defence against at least some of the accusations being thrown at her, the rhetorical slipperiness of the SNP ensures she is entirely denied the benefit of the doubt. It is not unreasonable to say, for example, that after 14 years of devolved SNP government, Labour should not be held responsible for Scotland’s current troubles, and nor, 31 years after she left office, should Margaret Thatcher.
The need to ascribe all bad things to the intentions and actions of others is one of the definitive facets of SNP Scotland. It leads to some quite extraordinary contortions on social media by Sturgeon’s cheerleaders, and has the unfortunate side-effect that even now, more than 20 years into the devolution era, the nation will not grow up and accept the burden of its own choices. This is cynical, unhealthy and diminishing.
The SNP might talk about years of Westminster-imposed austerity, but the truth is nothing would ever be enough. Rishi Sunak’s Budget this week was practically Brownite, and included a large increase in public spending that will boost the Holyrood budget significantly – but it is not enough. Furlough is being removed too soon. The success of the vaccination programme is pocketed with nary an acknowledgement.
The Scottish government deliberately passes legislation that it knows will fall under a court challenge by the UK government, but this is somehow the fault of the union rather than the inevitable outcome of its own hi-jinks. It is Westminster that is denying Scots a second independence referendum, though there is in fact not much appetite for one among ordinary voters.
There is a need for opposition, of course, and this is important. There are perfectly sound criticisms to be made of how Westminster treats Scotland, of the “devolve and forget” approach taken by Whitehall, of the deliberate exclusion of Sturgeon from important discussions about Brexit, Cop26 and immigration. There is a profound need to look again at the devolved settlement. There are aspects of Boris Johnson’s administration that are truly horrible.
Yet on the SNP’s watch, Scotland’s education system has deteriorated and its NHS has largely failed to address the many challenges of the new era. The business community feels ignored and rejected. University bosses – in charge of what is arguably Scotland’s most valuable global brand – are puzzled by the approach taken towards them by the Nats. Public services as a whole are unreformed because to tackle them would create friction in the coalitions of support Sturgeon needs for IndyRef2, which must come first. Holyrood now has control of the income tax system, yet has made only the most minor of tweaks – and this largely to illustrate difference with England – while Westminster is lambasted for not providing enough funds or making unpopular choices on welfare. Local government and its leaders, such as Aitken, are brutally curtailed by a fiscal regime that is tightly controlled by Sturgeon and her ministers.
The problem is that if everything is said to be someone else’s fault then it becomes ever harder to tell truth from lies, the reasonable allocation of blame from political sharp practice, the facts from the fury. To many of us, today’s Scotland feels monolithic, slow-moving, somewhat directionless, somewhat under-governed, and caught in the claw of what is, in the end, a one-policy movement.
But the rhetoric, of course, refutes all this. The rhetoric has it that if there are problems, then they cannot – must not – be laid at the SNP’s door. All the bad stuff is the fault of the bad people who are out to do Scotland down. It is exhausting, it is politics at its worst, and it is, finally and depressingly, wrong.