Since 2014, indeed since 2011 when it became apparent that the SNP had enough seats in the Scottish Parliament to call an independence referendum, one question has dominated Scottish politics: the constitution. That question, intended to be settled on the 18th of September 2014, has continued to dominate Scottish politics for half a decade and it is a question that shows no sign of abating soon.
Scottish politics has split into two camps, unionist and nationalist, each united by their animosity towards the other, and this polarisation has had devastating effects on our politics as a whole. No debate, no discussion, no policy proposal is complete without a mention of the constitution, and this constitutional focus has led the real issues which effect the ordinary people of Scotland to be ignored. The result? A failing education system, an NHS in crisis, disastrous cuts to essential public services. We say we are all agreed we want Scotland to be a better, more prosperous place, but our actions simply don’t back that up.
For all the SNP’s protests, the Scottish Parliament does have powers to make a difference, powers that they are refusing to utilise. But the SNP cannot be held solely to blame for the dire situation in which Scottish politics finds itself. For all their protestations about the SNP being concerned only with independence, the Conservatives and Labour have themselves enabled the question of the constitution to define Scottish politics in one way or another.
The constitutional question is important, clearly, but it is far from the be all and end all. The unyielding focus on constitutional politics has led to every vote in Scotland since 2014 being a rerun of the independence referendum. The people of Scotland have largely stopped paying attention to the policies of the party they are voting for, only what their stance is on independence. That is no way to build a modern functioning democracy. This must change.
The importance of this is demonstrated nowhere more clearly than in the upcoming local council elections. Years of austerity have pushed local authority budgets to breaking point, and essential local services are increasingly under threat. The most important consideration when voting on 4th May must surely be which candidate, which party, will offer the best protection to these services which local people rely on. But there is a very real risk that that this vote will instead turn into yet another rerun of the independence referendum, with Scotland split between the nationalist SNP and the unionist Conservatives while those trying to offer real action to improve the lives of local people are squeezed out.
There is a time and a place for the constitutional question to be debated and Scottish Labour would do well to keep in mind that there is a strong case to be made that the situation the UK finds itself in has indeed changed dramatically from 2014. But local council elections are absolutely the wrong place for that argument to be discussed. Local councillors have no powers over the constitution but they do have powers over vital services local people rely on every day, services the SNP and the Conservatives have little interest in running effectively. If people vote on the basis of the constitutional question, the results could be disastrous. But if instead people decide to vote based on the issues which really matter, it could be the start of a real positive change to Scottish politics.
It’s time we as a country stop putting the constitution at the heart of every political debate. For too long, our politics has been held in stasis by that question, and the real issues have been left at the wayside. The constitutional question is not going away any time soon – that by now should be clear – but at the same time we cannot allow it to override every debate, discussion and policy proposal.
It’s time to redefine the debate, and get back to discussing the real, relevant issues. There is a time and a place to discuss the constitution. But that is not where we could be making real change instead.