“A week is a long time in politics”, so goes the cliché, but it is worth remembering that in January of 2013 the entire country was in the grip of a panic about the presence of horsemeat in frozen lasagnes. Images of meat, horse or otherwise, were plastered across both broadcast and print as expert after expert gave furious comment and the whole matter seemed like the biggest, most contentious, issue to have ever visited these islands.
One can only imagine how the prospect of going into 2018, following 2017, would look to the inhabitants of 2013, as they nervously shifted their sheets of pasta. It might make them reconsider, or at least have a sense of perspective, because the years following that would prove to be full of much bigger issues.
Because, owing to the myriad different divisive topics that permeated 2017, the only unifying issue might be just how controversial it was – and Scotland was not in any way exempt.
In macro terms, 2017 was very much the year in which Scottish politics was removed from its silo. In the context of a UK general election and the ongoing Brexit process the UK-wide and international connection to what goes on in Scotland mattered more than ever. Everything that happened in Holyrood or in the Council Chambers across Scotland was either explicitly or implicitly connected to events such as the Lancaster House speech or the triggering of Article 50. Even the way we think about our safety was in the context of the heinous terrorist attacks at Westminster Bridge and Manchester and by the false panic caused in the London Underground.
However, even if we do look at Scotland in as much isolation as is possible in the era of instant digital communications, the year has been a tough one for our politics and our politicians.
The SNP, while still being the dominant force in Scottish politics, were dealt a significant blow in the general election and have been put under significant pressure, particularly on education and health throughout the year. The days of First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, selling out arenas to throngs of enraptured party members, more akin as it was to a rock concert than a manifesto launch, appear to be over and the Nationalists spent 2017 presenting themselves as the sober party of government against the chaotic backdrop of UK-wide politics. Absent from this presentation, of course, was the issue of independence, which only really resurfaced at the last First Minister’s Questions – and then only as an attack on Scottish Labour’s Richard Leonard. Nicola Sturgeon’s party, by all accounts, didn’t seem to have a bad year but there are stormier seas ahead. With a controversial Budget to be implemented, a “it’s all because of Brexit” excuse quickly running out of utility, and a section of her own party that will only wait so long before the constitutional issue is brought up again, whether or not the FM can keep all her plates spinning remains to be seen.
The Scottish Conservatives, under the leadership of rumoured future Westminster candidate, Ruth Davidson, appear to have enjoyed settling into the role of official opposition at Holyrood. Her largely new team of MSPs look to have gelled around opposition to a second referendum on independence and “holding the SNP to account”. Given their new position, and buoyed by an admirable showing at the 2017 UK general election, the Tories rightly, as Ms Davidson puts it, “have their tails up”. However, it’s not been all positive for the Scottish Tories. The issue of Brexit has frequently undermined them when making arguments at Holyrood and their position on income tax has done little to endear them to potential new supporters of late. Plus, the Tories will surely want to be careful to avoid any more controversies, such as the councillors caught in the racist and anti-Catholic scandals of 2017, that will damage the work done to change the ‘nasty party’ label. There’s a good chance the Tories can build and grow in 2018, but the road ahead for them is by no means clear of open manholes, some created by themselves, ready for them to fall into.
It would be difficult to argue that among the main parties, the Scottish Labour Party has suffered most from the slings and arrows of the year 2017. In contrast to the, now, relative stability and unity of the UK Labour Party the Scottish party brought itself through a protracted leadership contest, with some unsavoury elements, between Anas Sarwar and the eventual leader, Richard Leonard. The stress on a party that inevitably accompanies a leadership contest was compounded by the actions of former leader Kezia Dugdale, whose sojourn in the jungle and subsequent reprimand did little to generate positive headlines for Labour north of the border. Even a better than expected showing at the 2017 UK general election did little to brighten the picture for the party, nerves about the year ahead would be understandable. However, if Mr Leonard can pull his team together and maintain stability long enough for his newly announced shadow spokespeople to settle into their, in some cases unexpected, new roles then there is room to shore up his party’s position in Scotland – whether or not he ends up as the next ex-Scottish Labour leader may well depend upon it.
The year 2017 was characterised, much like the year before it, by tension, conflict, and controversy. With little end to the high-octane politics in sight, for Scotland, the UK more generally, and the world, it would make sense for all involved in our politics and public life to hold tight and either look forward to or reminisce about, depending on their individual mentality, a more stable time, perhaps like when we were all freaking out about a little bit of pony in our microwave pasta?