Arc of Prosperity

Scottish Independence within the EU – with a Scandinavian Slant


Devolution has become a breeding ground for political mediocrity

Ten days ago, I noticed several pro-independence voices on Twitter seemed to be getting cold feet because of the declining quality of Scottish politicians, media and civic institutions:

Wings over Scotland recently then wrote a blog post elaborating on his thoughts:

The idea that we could vote for independence and sort it out with all these deranged ideologues still in place is a leap of faith far too great to be credible. They have to go first, then we can talk, and my inbox these days is jam-packed with a queue of lifelong indy campaigners saying much the same thing.

So what has happened to the quality of Scottish politicians? The decline is very noticeable because of Scotland’s history of producing politicians whose competence and charisma are widely acknowledged, figures like Alec Douglas-Home, Alex Salmond, Charles Kennedy, David Steel, Donald Dewar, Gordon Brown, John Smith, Keir Hardie, Malcolm Rifkind, Margo MacDonald, Robin Cook, Tam Dalyell and Winnie Ewing. Regardless of whether you agree with their stances, these politicians were virtuosos in political craftsmanship and have significantly shaped both Scotland and Britain.

Because of the former quality, it’s clear to any observer that since Scottish Parliament was set up, there’s been a noticeable decline, both in Holyrood and Westminster.

I fear devolution was a trap all along. On the one hand, the Scottish Parliament has a significant budget, which gives MSPs a semblance of influence – they can, for instance, fund projects led by their allies. On the other hand, however, the Parliament lacks authority over pivotal areas like the economy, job creation and foreign policy. This paradox discourages genuinely competent politicians from participating, making the devolved system more of a honeytrap than an effective governing institution.

The problem pervades both parliaments and all parties:

  • Unionist MPs: They struggle to climb the Westminster ladder because of devolution and the convention that Scottish MPs shouldn’t vote on matters that are devolved. Their best option often lies in seeking an English seat, which means opting out of Scottish politics.
  • Unionist MSPs: They might hope to join the Scottish Government, but with the SNP dominance at Holyrood, it will not have seemed like a very likely prospect for the past 20 years. A switch to Westminster would mean starting all over again – having been a successful MSP doesn’t count for much in London.
  • Pro-independence MPs: Essentially in a career dead-end, they have virtually zero prospects of joining the UK government. They cannot even realistically move north to Holyrood – Joanna Cherry tried to do this, but in vain.
  • Pro-independence MSPs: While this group has the potential for talent, many leave politics due to Holyrood’s limited number of high-profile roles. Nicola Sturgeon’s tendency to promote obedient figures over the independently minded exacerbated the issue.

There is thus a good reason for the decline in quality, and this highlights a tragic irony: the very institution meant to serve as a stepping stone towards full sovereignty has now become the stumbling block.

So what can be done about this? Is there any way out of the mud?

  • Independence: Obviously, this would be the optimal solution. Once Scotland becomes independent, Holyrood will start attracting a new wave of competent individuals eager to shape a new nation. However, it doesn’t seem particularly likely at the moment.
  • Status Quo: This doesn’t solve anything. It’s a petri dish for producing mediocre political leadership, actively deterring individuals capable of meaningful change.
  • Devo Max: Unless it brings almost all powers to Scotland, the systemic issues won’t dissipate.
  • Status Quo Pre-1999: Reverting to this system might eventually lead to better politicians, but there was a reason why devolution was conceived – running Scotland from Westminster was not a good solution, and it’s unlikely anybody would put up with it today.
  • Scotland as a UK Region (akin to Yorkshire): I don’t think anybody has seriously proposed this, and it would probably ignite a public backlash fierce enough to set the heather alight.

The decline in Scottish political quality isn’t a glitch; it’s an integral part of the present system. For those sceptical of the current crop of politicians, it is devolution that should be blamed. Scotland is certainly capable of producing great politicians, media, and civic institutions once more, but not within the confines of the status quo. The shortfall in quality isn’t an argument against severing ties with Westminster; rather, it serves as a resounding wake-up call: Independence is now more imperative than ever for the reinvigoration of Scotland’s political life.

The loss of faith in Scotland by so many former independence stalwarts makes me fear the Unionist objective has been achieved, though: Scotland is sidelined, boxed in and subdued.

One thought on “Devolution has become a breeding ground for political mediocrity

  • This whole hand-wringing business is a good example of correlation vs. causation. Your second paragraph gives the lie to the argument that devolution has dumbed down Scottish politics; because you note that the same dumbing down has occurred in Westminster.
    Yes, the dumbing down has occurred *since* devolution, but has it occurred *due to* devolution? That’s harder to answer, and it’s certainly not supported by saying it’s occurring elsewhere. Personally, I believe that social media has a lot to answer for, in concert with classical media, which push a worldview where hard-right neoliberal ideology is normal.
    Of the five options given above, only Independence gives us a sliver of a chance of doing better.
    The alternative is to accept that we’re not “genetically programmed” to make our own decisions and to bask in infantilism for the rest of our days.


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