Sadly, today it’s not just Scotland’s political system that is balanced on a fragile knife edge

After what has been less than a year in power, the future of Scotland’s transformative First Minister Humza Yousaf is suddenly balanced on a knife edge. The power-sharing deal with the Scottish Greens that looked so attractive just a few months ago was already being redefined as something of a compromise, but it was never going to survive a rift as fundamental to the Greens as a climbdown on climate targets.

The Bute House agreement that was so necessary to keep his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon in power was an item of political furniture that her successor had previously described as “worth its weight in gold”, but there had been rumblings over recent months that the compromises were beginning to outweigh the benefits. Things actually hit crisis point last week with the publication of the controversial Cass Review of gender identity services for young people – not the first time that differences over issues of gender and sexual identity have caused political chaos and confusion north of the border.

This spat was followed by open fury from the Greens when Scottish ministers announced that they were scrapping Scotland’s target to cut carbon emissions by 75% by 2030 – a decision that Scottish ministers said had been heavily influenced by the UK Climate Change Committee, which announced last month that the 2030 target was “no longer credible” because of inadequate action on home heating, transport, farming and nature restoration by Scottish ministers.

Climate campaigners complained this reversal was “the worst environmental decision in the history of the Scottish parliament”, but for the Greens it was simply a step so fundamentally in contradiction to their own core remit, that the fragile power-sharing coalition was effectively doomed.

A kind observer might say that Yousaf saw what was coming, and has sought to steal the political initiative by cancelling the pact with the Greens before they humiliated him by cancelling it for themselves. Needs might have been, but the move nevertheless leaves Scotland being run by a minority government led by an unelected leader, who faces a perilous vote of no confidence next week, and whose party is very likely at best to lose dozens of seats to Labour in the General Election.

The decision of a political party to water down, or ditch completely policies on which it was elected in order to keep its grasp on power is nothing new in British politics, but it has become more prevalent in recent years, and for many indicates both a political leadership that thinks little of pledges made at the ballot box, but also a dangerous shift towards leadership by personality rather than principles.

Over in Wales, another unelected leader has also encountered the need to reverse a cherished policy of his predecessor. No-one seems to know from where Mark Drakeford drew the conviction that Wales needed a national 20mph speed limit, introduced in the apparent interests of reducing road deaths. In 2022 there were 1,016 road fatalities reported by police forces in Wales, which was actually a significant decrease of 15% compared to 2019 (2020 was covid lockdown) and there seems to have been little evidence available that reducing the national speed limit from 30mph to 20mph would reduce these figures any further. Despite this, and with little or no public consultation and a lot of brewing public discontent, the Wales First Minister determinedly pushed through the new speed limits. What followed was little short of chaos and civil disruption on the roads, and a petition to scrap the scheme which as of this week has attracted more than 470,000 signatures, and that from a national population of 3.1 million.

It could have been simple for First Minister Vaughan Gething to play the ‘new broom’ card and simply dismiss the 20mph debacle as the pipedream of his predecessor, but politics in Wales is a close family, and it probably wouldn’t have been a good start for a new First Minister to build his reputation on the errors of judgement of his predecessor. More fundamentally, it’s no easy admission for political parties generally to admit to errors in a culture that is increasingly being driven by a strategy of “get caught, learn lessons, but very definitely carry on.”

These days it takes a very profound political misjudgement to garner a resignation – of the order of David Cameron’s catastrophic misjudgement on the Brexit referendum, Liz Truss trashing the British economy, or Leo Varadkar’s disastrous attempt to disfigure the references to women and families in the Irish Constitution. Even the traditional political taboo of sexual impropriety no longer triggers an automated exit from public life.

In a world where nothing seems certain just now, it’s perhaps understandable that the political sphere has become preoccupied with promulgating certainty and continuity, even at the cost of first principles.

Given all of this, it seems surprising to me that some Catholic organisations are predicting that participation by Catholics in the forthcoming UK General Election is likely to be particularly high. Some are even suggesting a 90% turnout of Catholics this time round, against a past average turnout of just 67%. Frankly such predictions seem hugely optimistic in the face of political choices that hold little or no relevance or attraction to Catholics.

Traditionally the advice to any voting Catholic is to assess and interrogate each candidate, and then make your voting choice more along the lines of whichever candidate is going to cause the least damage, rather than contributing the greatest good. With each general election the choices and options for Catholics in here in the UK have been narrowing systematically, so it seems highly unlikely to me that in 2024 Catholics are anything like anxious to become part of the current election process.

One only has to start with such absolute fundamental Catholic tenets as the right to life from the moment of conception, through to the sanctity of marriage, our position on sexual ethics and the total rejection of war to realise that there probably isn’t a candidate in the country who ticks all the boxes for a Catholic voter. Beyond that, quite how one balances one moral negative against another and places their vote based on some ‘lesser of two evils ‘strategy is beyond me.

I’m the first to say that the ability to participate in voting for our political representatives is a cherished pillar of our democracy that people have died for, and that we need to preserve it at all costs, but that’s simply not the same as having to vote for a choice of bad candidates, which is actually a denial of democracy. A far more honest Catholic response to a selection of such candidates would be to simply write ‘none of the above’ on our ballot papers, and it’s something that Catholics really may have to consider as British society becomes ever more secular and antagonistic to the Catholic perspective.

At a high-level conference on the nature of modern democracy organised by the Portuguese Embassy to the Holy See this week to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the nation’s democracy, The Portuguese political expert and Professor Manuel Braga da Cruz noted that these days many Catholics feel like ‘orphans’ at voting time, and easily change their vote according to what issues feel most important to them at that moment, because voters are experiencing a lack of trust with their politicians. He also said that Catholics are failing to organise themselves politically due to “their feeling discouraged from engaging in politics, due to corruption and dishonesty.”

The Portuguese expert expressed his concern for “instrumentalised” and “exploited” citizens, and instead called for systems where citizens are free to keep a check on their politicians and rulers, and where they can “contribute to the common good and to peace.”

Whilst this may be possible to achieve in countries such as Portugal due to its significant Catholic population, it’s hard to see how Catholic (and indeed any faith-based) concerns and principles can ever be reflected effectively in British politics, when the nation itself is set on such a secularist course.

Much as we’ve seen in England recently, and this week in Scotland, the depressing truth is that we are becoming consigned to a political system that is being reduced to a monochrome conflict between liberals and zealots, with neither group caring too much about the spiritual and physical dignity of the human person, or the pursuit of the common good. In such a political and societal environment, it will become increasingly hard for people of faith to participate, and increasingly untenable to plead that we should continue to place our votes, if the options being presented are so antagonistic to our basic values and principles.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic write and political theologian