For centuries, the UK’s traditional model of governance has been heralded for its collaborative democratic approach. It has supposedly held strong; Johnson’s descriptions of a collective focus and ‘sheer might’ attempt to uphold this perception. But is this image of patriotism and togetherness a reality or simply an aged fantasy?
The coronavirus pandemic has posed a unique and unprecedented challenge to governments internationally and has irrefutably called into question their competence. From organising PPE to arranging furlough, imposing lockdowns to rolling out vaccines, there has been no room for mistakes. Or so you would hope. In Scotland, this has shone a new light on the devolved government, its capabilities and its successes. It has broadly proven itself to be effective as well as caring, focussed and genuine in the face of a crisis. There is a growing faith in Scottish leadership and all the while Westminster are continually getting things wrong. With their role in Scotland’s governance seeming all the more detached and unsuccessful, it poses the question of further devolvement.
As Scottish citizens, we experience a split in leadership between Westminster and Holyrood. Notably, the Scottish government has received far more favourable assessments than Westminster who were widely mocked more than listened to. Using the devolved powers they have, the Scottish government has been able to make its own decisions at key moments – but this hasn’t been easy. They’ve often hit blockades on what they can and can’t do, feeling additional pressure to follow Johnson’s actions in the spirit of a United Kingdom.
Two separate governments with differing policies and objectives became the root of confusion for many; clear and direct communication rose as a priority for our politicians. Johnson was often perceived as an ineffective communicator, unclear and rambling in his messaging. He failed to get on a level with the population and his decision-making was, at best, questionable. Action was frequently left too late as problems were ignored; there were numerous U-turns in announcements and guidance. Political moves in Westminster became not only a question of strategy and competence but one of life and death. Dominic Cummings admitted that ‘senior ministers, officials, advisers like me, fell disastrously short of the standards the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis like this.’ When guidance was announced it was often in rushed and ad-hoc ways like with England’s much criticised ‘Freedom Day’. The government regularly seemed more like they were cracking under pressure rather than directing a safe and secure route of the pandemic.
Conversely, Sturgeon’s leadership was praised throughout the outbreak. She provided transparent and clear communication and was reassuring and relatable at significant moments. She notably didn’t take one holiday in 2020 and held daily briefings outlining the situation. Decisions felt rationalised and any change was introduced at a steady pace with Sturgeon’s clear objectives of ‘care and caution’ at the forefront. She secured the trust and respect of the population and instilled in them a growing sense of nationalism. With an increasing yearn for control in Scotland, it’s time we had more powers beyond the emergency ones.
A key quality that leaders were tested on in the past year was accountability and trust. With widespread restrictions on people’s liberties, several politicians were found to have breached regulations. In Scotland this was notably Margaret Ferrier and Dr Calderwood, both of whom apologised and stepped down. There has been a culture of accountability in the Scottish government where mistakes are often, though not always, admitted and learnt from.
Dissimilarly, the UK government’s list of breaches and flaunting of the rules is much longer. These instances were drawn out to almost comic lengths with politicians messily refusing to apologise or step down in desperate clambers to keep their jobs. They were not being held accountable in governance and this was frustrating. A culture of exceptionalism was evident from the start within the cabinet and this widespread hypocrisy and disregard for the rules led to a general discontentment with the UK government. A Scottish government survey found 61% of people trusted the Scottish Government to work in Scotland’s best interests, compared with 15% for the UK government. Unsurprisingly, higher levels of transparency and accountability in government garners trust and compliance in a population.
Truthfully, the divide between Westminster and Holyrood has been growing for a while. The distant and decentralised decision-making in England often feels detached from Scotland and its priorities. After Brexit, something that Scotland didn’t get a majority vote for, there have been growing tensions between the two political bases. Similarly, Sturgeon’s continued call for a second referendum and Johnson’s pleas for a united and strong stand between nations is exposing an ever-growing rift in leadership. It's undeniable that the pandemic has deepened the fault lines between Westminster and Holyrood, and it's natural for Scotland to want more power over its future. The question is, however, will they be listened to?
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