Election Special: The Caledonian Sleeper

Isn’t the Caledonian Sleeper a fine analogy for the Scots electorate? This thought formed itself on the eve of polling as I boarded at Euston, curled myself up on the soft seats and drifted off to the throb of the engines. All the drowsy bodies in cramped and overheated carriages cruising towards a destination they know so well, with complimentary earplugs and blindfolds to limit interruptions by unwelcome sights or noises – they are taking the most romantic and uncomfortable way to return to the homely familiarities of Scotland.

The Scottish citizenry was only stirred awake by the noise of the referendum. An explanation for this was recently made by Richard Tuck in The Sleeping Sovereign, a book exploring the relation between democratic sovereignty and government. Constitutional referendums bring the sovereign people to life so that they may reset or change the terms of government, but that such referendums and similar occasions are the only cases of direct democracy in modern states – the rest of the time the citizenry is fast asleep. Voting in elections, when people choose which parties will govern, is a drowsy gesture rather than an exercise of sovereign power. On this account, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was attributing too much liberty to English people when he said that they were only free during the election of members of parliament every five years. The freedom of the people is a much rarer and more dangerous privilege than that. Roughly awakened by the referendum and given power for a day, the people have returned to their stupor. As we describe in Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland (our newly published book which you can order here): ‘The clear dividing line between politics and people, briefly smudged by the referendum, has been boldly re-drawn. Across the country, in the streets and pubs and public halls where the people had talked in utopian ways of constructing the future, the political lights switched out once more.’

Now the SNP are both guards and driver, not to be removed. They are crafty at passing and manipulating policies which keep the carriages sedate. Their mastery of the ‘art of politics’ is reassuring or infuriating, depending whether civic peace with modest advances is what you’re after. The Lallands Peat Worrier insists that ‘politics and government is about… what you achieve, and only passingly about who achieves it’ – and whilst none of us can effectively weigh up the policies of all the parties, ‘there is a great deal to be said for voting for folk whose judgement you trust’, especially Nicola Sturgeon. With a critique that cuts against Lallands’s deferential hat-doffing, Darren McGarvey (alias Loki) used an article on Sceptical Scot to attack politicians’ disingenuous and hypocritical methods, scorning those ‘clever people’ who talk about the ‘art of politics’. Sturgeon’s photograph with a copy of The Sun that endorsed her, just days after that paper’s lies regarding Hillsborough were undeniably exposed in a court of law, ‘tells us that she has to engage in the same, often underhand, political tactics as every other mainstream politician.’

The argument whether the ‘art of politics’ is to be lauded or loathed is old hat. In Gorgias, Plato’s dialogue on rhetoric, the sceptical Socrates cannot bring himself to call the practices of politicians an ‘art’ at all. He calls it a knack: an ability to produce things which people can be duped or flattered into buying, but which do them little good. Cosmetics and pastry-making are knacks. Politicians flatter folk into admiring their policies and skills of government. But doing good by the people and winning their votes have never been one and the same. To sell their wares, politicians must make them appealing – they need to mix the chemicals, twist the pastry, and form the policies to make them into a pleasing solution. The unsettling truth is that those politicians whose judgement is trusted are crowd-pleasers. Free degrees, a little more childcare, and a state-provided starter-pack for newborns are the tacky toilets, lumpy seats and complimentary sleep-pack of the Parliament. It all seems to be a fair standard of travel for those unused to anything else.

The SNP’s core election message urges voters to blindly cast #bothvotesSNP. Their mawkish insistence that this is the ‘most important election’ since the creation of the Scottish Parliament is a facile placeholder for a vacuum of commitments, and most of the public will feel few material changes after this election. The Scottish electorate is something like a sleepwalker. The official advice for dealing with a somnambulator is to take them by the arm and guide them back to bed. Waking a sleepwalker can leave them startled, confused or agitated. In Scotland’s case, this is just what we need.

Cailean Gallagher (@CaileanG)

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