The parliamentary recess gives the SNP government an opportunity to review its strategy following the setback of the UK general election, in which the party lost 21 seats at Westminster. That disappointment, together with uncertainties surrounding the Brexit negotiations, has provided a reason for postponing any decision about a second independence referendum. Presumably the hope is that Theresa May's EU team will make such a mess of the process that there will be a renewal of support for independence.
Meanwhile, it is reported that Ms Sturgeon is planning a 'relaunch' of the party in the autumn, with 'creative, imaginative, bold and radical' new policies. These words should trigger alarm bells. They signal a continuing belief in the merits of spin, a preference for spectacle over substance. What Scotland needs is not another round of boastful promises, but focused, practical steps to address the areas that need attention – the NHS, local government, education and the economy.
Police Scotland offers a cautionary example of what not to do. The creation of a single national force was heralded as an innovative measure which would ensure an improved, more efficient service. The first chief constable, Stephen House, resigned following embarrassing operational failures. His successor, Phil Gormley, is currently under investigation and could be subject to a charge of gross professional misconduct. Mr Gormley's deputy, Iain Livingstone, seen as a likely candidate to succeed him, recently announced his retirement. These developments come soon after the forced resignation of Andrew Flanagan, chairman of the Scottish Police Authority. From the outside, it looks as if Police Scotland is about as dysfunctional as Donald Trump's presidential team.
After 10 years in office, time is running out for the SNP government. The old tactics of inflated rhetoric and airbrushed failures cannot work indefinitely. A decidedly patchy record of achievement will be subject to increasingly intense scrutiny.
Politicians who achieve ministerial office tend to become preoccupied with their reputation and their 'legacy'. They want to be well-regarded and to feel that they will be remembered for major successes. Their efforts to establish and maintain their reputation take various forms: keynote speeches; upbeat press releases; policy initiatives announced at carefully choreographed launch events; media appearances; positive briefings to sympathetic journalists; negative briefings about opponents (and sometimes about colleagues).
Ensuring a lasting legacy is more difficult. Political memoirs are rarely convincing and often seen as an attempt to settle old scores and rewrite history. Claiming that one's contribution has been significant is made difficult by the fact that most government ministers are in office for a relatively short period. By the time new policies are developed and implemented, the minister who initiated them is likely to have moved on and someone else will receive the credit or take the blame.
To illustrate the point, consider the case of Scottish education. Since devolution there have been no fewer than nine ministers/cabinet secretaries in charge of schools. Only two occupied the post for any length of time (Peter Peacock and Michael Russell). One (Sam Galbraith) had to resign in the wake of the examinations crisis of 2000, and another (Angela Constance) was widely perceived as struggling with her remit. Now we have John Swinney in charge, seemingly determined to make his mark. Already he has introduced a raft of reforms, some in the face of considerable opposition from the educational establishment. Presumably he hopes to be remembered as the man who began to turn Scottish education round, restoring its reputation for high standards.
He would do well to remember the record of Michael Forsyth who, during the Thatcher years, served for a time as Scottish education minister. He came with the reforming zeal of a right-wing ideologue and was not afraid to ruffle the well-preened feathers of senior professionals and civil servants. But before long he was moved on to other responsibilities and the old guard in the policy community began to reassert themselves. Soon Forsyth's term of office came to be remembered as a tiresome interruption to normal methods of doing business. It will be interesting to see if Mr Swinney's 'legacy' turns out to be any better.
Increasingly, the various faces of the establishment (political, legal, economic) are viewed with deep suspicion. Public enquiries are subject to criticism for their terms of reference, their membership and their methods of gathering evidence. Regulatory bodies are castigated for seeming to show more concern for the agencies they are supposed to hold accountable than for those who raise questions or lodge complaints. These attitudes help to explain both the climate of scepticism that now prevails and the rise of populism outside the political mainstream.
Lord Bew, chairman of the committee on standards in public life, has warned that democracy may be at a 'tipping point' where the lack of respect for various forms of authority manifests itself in dangerous ways. He points to the verbal and sometimes physical threats to which many MPs, especially women, are subject – a trend made easier by the anonymity afforded by social media. He also warns that, in future, it may be hard to attract people of quality to serve in public life. Only last year, Jo Cox, a widely respected Labour MP, was murdered by someone who held far-right views. It would be entirely understandable if such events acted as a deterrent to some of those who might otherwise be interested in pursuing a political career.
But it would be wrong to apportion all the blame to extremists and those who take a delight in hurling abuse at public figures. Despite gestures towards reform, key institutions continue to lack the credibility that is necessary for a healthy society to function well. We live in a deeply divided country where many people have a justifiable sense of grievance. They see politicians using the rhetoric of equality and justice but continuing to prioritise their own interests.
They regard the House of Lords, not as an important part of parliamentary democracy, but as a remote debating chamber for the privileged, some of whom are unworthy of their elevation. Financial institutions are regularly shown to be greedy and exploitative, even after they have been fined for previous offences. Lawyers are regarded as the principal beneficiaries of the legal system and victims of crime often feel let down by the police and prosecuting authorities. The anger of the survivors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy is merely the latest illustration of profound disenchantment with official agencies.
Is there any evidence that the scale of the problem is appreciated by those in power? In Scotland, we have recently had the report of the commission on parliamentary reform. It is a timid document, which makes a number of limited recommendations designed to improve the legislative process and the committee system. On the wider questions of public cynicism and the decline of trust in 'democratic' processes, it has little to say. Continuing failure to address the roots of the current malaise, which are essentially ethical in character, runs the risk of encouraging social unrest.