WHEREVER you look, mainstream politics, politicians and institutions are failing us. A widespread miniaturisation of politics – whether it’s Sunak and Starmer across the UK or Yousaf and Sarwar in Scotland – is there for all to see.

In Westminster and Holyrood, insiders are telling each other (and anyone whose ear they can bend) that things are going well, that the message is back on track, that stability and safeness are key drivers, that things are slowly working out – and will eventually cut through with voters.

This mini-me politics reduces nearly everything – including possibilities for policy, legislation and effective change, and even us as voters and citizens. Nothing is about fundamental system change. Instead, everything is small-scale, incremental, and about reassurance.

All the big, totemic issues – the future of the economy and work, public services and how they are funded, AI, the climate crisis, and the hollowing out of democracy, government, and politics – are given the occasional nod, but not dealt with in any substantial way.

In their place there reigns a politics of position and pretence. Sunak aims through desperation to label Labour “anti-car” while playing politics with North Sea oil licences, Ulezs and clean air, while Starmer retreats on Labour’s Green New Deal.

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Sunak makes his key priority the constant repeating of his “five pledges” mantra. Starmer responds with his five “national missions”. All the while Humza Yousaf focuses for now on defining himself by reversing some of Nicola Sturgeon’s most controversial policies, U-turning on the Bottle Deposit Scheme and Marine Protected Areas.

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The reason for this shrinkage of political ambition is obvious. Sunak inherited years of Tory instability and car-crash governments. Starmer is trying to reassure voters that they are safe with Labour after the Corbyn years and to not leave a weak flank open to right-wing media attack. Yousaf is attempting to deal with the long period of SNP dominance coming to an inevitable end (during which time things had become effortless and easy) and to address a party that is clearly demoralised, out of ideas and has lost momentum.

Is this really what we should accept and put up with? That each political tribe pretends their emperor is not naked, and that their perspective understands the needs and worries of voters?

Around us is a politics of cowardice and short-termism, where voters are expected to decide how less or more competent each uninspiring leader is compared to the alternatives. This is a politics shorn of ideas, ideology, and idealism that is not prepared to address the fallout from the excesses of neoliberalism and zombie capitalism.

Sunak’s Tories are a bust brand – viewed as incompetent, uncaring, lacking in conviction and with no understanding of voters. They have no real offer on the economy, public services, or the cost of living. Instead they propose Sunak as a trustworthy Mr Reliable, alongside invoking the threat of various bogey men like illegal immigration, Labour being soft on crime, “the war on woke” and the “culture wars” – the latter of which will be a huge wedge issue at the next election.

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Starmer’s retail offer is shocking in its minimalism, boxed in by Tory incompetence, Labour’s feartness and worry about right-wing media. In “hugging so close” the Tories on the economy, public spending, welfare, illegal immigration and Brexit, Labour have ensured that the next election is about candidates’ characters – and the “culture war” agenda that the right want to bring centre-stage.

The National: nicola sturgeon conference pa.jpg

Humza Yousaf’s administration – after 16 years of the SNP in office, the cumulative effect of incumbency and the overhang of party scandal and controversy – faces major obstacles in breaking away from the shadow of its predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon. He has so far limited his political aspirations to undertaking several U-turns and steadying the ship of state that is the SNP – none of which is likely to capture the political imagination.

Similarly, Anas Sarwar and Scottish Labour have little of any originality to contribute about anything. They have two lines of messaging: “Vote Labour as the simplest, quickest way to get rid of the Tories” and “Scotland deserves better than its current two failing governments”. The first, however, does have significant cut through, and speaks to the anti-Tory majority who want a change at Westminster and swing voters.

Sarwar thinks that saying as little as possible allows him to ride the rising tide of Labour across the UK, and doing nothing will not jeopardise this. Pivotal in this is not scaring Labour-SNP swing voters – the people who switched from the former to the latter in 2015 and who are now in significant numbers moving back to Labour.

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THERE is a race to the bottom of desperation in all this and, with few positives, a concentration on the negatives of opponents. Sunak’s Tories know they cannot turn around the economy, living standards and public services by late 2024, but they can reheat that old Tory message: “Don’t let Labour ruin it”. Therefore they are daring to pose the idea that life – and the economy – could be even worse under a Labour Government.

The SNP’s message strikes rather similar tones, stating that the Scottish Government’s record might now be full of obvious holes but look at it compared to the wreckage of Westminster.

This mantra used to have a lot going for it under the chaos of Johnson and Truss, when the SNP were presenting themselves as competent and responsible under Sturgeon, but it no longer carries the weight it used to after 16 years, multiple crises and scandals and other failures and shortcomings. Sadly, like Sunak’s attack lines on a future Labour Government, it reeks of desperation, deflection and classic whataboutery.

All the above reflect the limits of a politics of competence and managerialism and setting out your stall based on delivering and results. Such an approach, which defined the SNP in office under Salmond and Sturgeon, always eventually runs out of road.

In time it becomes exposed for what it is – a politics which travels light on values, is vague on what it positively stands for, that tries to blunt or postpone hard choices and trade-offs, and gives at least the perception that it is about managerialism above all else. None of this is ever enough in the age we live in.

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Underlying all of this is the response of mainstream politicians that, in an age of disruption and dislocation, they are clinging to tightly scripted, minimalist focus group-led research and messages. Gone is the idea of anything far-reaching and impactful.

Politics and political parties used to dare to think of reshaping the future. Labour’s 1945 manifesto was called Let Us Face the Future and shaped what became known as “the post-war consensus” of full employment and a managed economy. Labour in the 1950s and 1960s in Scotland and the UK were associated with transforming the lives of millions of people and widening opportunities.

The SNP in the 1970s – which burst onto the Scottish and UK political scene – presented a future which was bold, bright and hopeful, fuelled by the potential future monies of Scotland’s oil. As recently as 2011 the SNP won their only majority in the history of the Scottish Parliament on a manifesto which spoke powerfully and optimistically about creating a positive Scottish future.

That type of politics, ambition and hope seems to have left us across Scotland and the UK. Mainstream politics now clings to thinking small – and does so at the peril of all of us. If we continue to see the mainstream defined by its current miniaturisation and shrinkage of what can be discussed, then the argument for change and questioning the limits of the status quo will be seized by others.

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This process is underway across the developed world with the rise of a populist, opportunist right pretending to cloak itself in the colours of being anti-establishment. Such a change can already be seen in the parts of the UK Tory Party, and it can happen here, in Scotland and across the UK, unless we recognise the pitfalls of such small political ambitions and demand more of our leaders, of what they present and represent – for our sake and that of the planet.