Continuity in Crisis: Lessons From #GE2017

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Commentary by Christopher Silver

It is risky to attempt to predict where the Great British Crisis will lead us all next.

Christopher Silver

No one can be more aware of this than the author of the most farcical political gamble in modern British history, who now sits in Number 10, palpably haunted by certainties that crumbled in a matter of weeks.

The Prime Minister’s bearing at the lectern, the cadence of every sentence that she utters, cannot escape this fact. Hers is the look of the actor, naked on the stage as the suspension of disbelief falls to pieces. The lines are just sounds, the costume absurd: all that is left is a weary knowledge that the show must go on.

Staking everything on a thirst for continuity, Theresa May is now locked-in to delivering a crass performance of it. Behind the facade sits the routine failure of politicians to understand that continuity, by definition, can never be the route out of political crisis.

But perhaps the one bit of consistency in all of this is the fact that Scotland, true to form, opted to do its own thing.

Settled will? 
In 1997, if the Scottish political class had been able to foresee that a party standing on a platform for a second independence referendum would land the largest share of votes north of the Border at a Westminster election, they would surely have perceived an enormous, sustained, failure of unionism.

But the moment that was said to establish a “settled will” in modern Scottish politics actually gave birth to a far more febrile era: packed with seismic change and unlooked for outcomes.

Last year the Brexit result landed in a Scotland that had been experiencing great rushes of political exhilaration and disappointment for the best part of a decade. But it did not shift the independence issue in any meaningful way, despite the fact that hard political logic and precedent said that it ought to.

Somewhat perversely, Brexit did not offer that tempting fork in the road. Instead, it created an obstacle that has crowded out all other political concerns, including the constitution. People want it resolved and independence does not, as yet, offer a clear route to escape the calamity of June 2016.

Process is key here. Looked at dispassionately – if unionism’s great challenge is to chart a compelling narrative that can match the SNP’s electoral success in Scotland, nationalism’s struggle is the task of converting SNP electability into support for independence and a referendum in order to secure it.

There is still a consensus that Scotland went to the polls in September 2014 using a process that was as open, honest and empowering as any country could hope for.

But in the immediate aftermath, each of the three key players in Scottish politics became defined by the event. The SNP became enlarged and emboldened, the Scottish Conservatives made a longer-term plan and Scottish Labour collapsed. So while the SNP benefited in the immediate aftermath, the Tories settled in for a longer game, and are now reaping the rewards.

The 56 led many to believe that sheer electoral power made a second referendum inevitable. But one political party can never represent a whole nation, because a nation can never be singular. Like all nations, Scotland is a jumble of contradictions and competing interests.

Embracing Conflict

Politics itself also requires conflict in order to move forward. The SNP, so used to being on the defensive against a hostile Scottish media, has suffered from uniform loyalty for too long. If there’s one lesson it can learn from Corbynism, it’s that contentious factions within a single political party can create a great shift in direction.

The SNP’s great strategic error has been to accept the pleasing notion that its own success at the ballot box means that if only the right circumstances arose, the 2014 referendum could be re-fought and prevail. David Cameron made a not dissimilar calculation when he looked at the narrow victory for No in 2014 and assumed the rulebook could be applied to Remain in 2016.

But there can be no place for received political wisdom in the depths of the crisis we are now living through. Both Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon must now confront this reality. In terms of messaging both leaders essentially re-ran their party’s campaigns in 2015, adding only a couple of minor but problematic details: in May’s case a notorious fudge on social care, in Sturgeon’s, an insistence on a second referendum (with no third way on offer).

This is why the Labour Party’s populist surge is the most compelling story of last week’s result. In doing all the things that were supposed to be impossible in UK politics, new and unlooked for developments occurred. The tabloid demons failed, the young turned out, an authentic leader grew in stature through exposure.

A new imbalance

New dilemmas for the SNP

If there is a lesson here it is that triangulation no longer works. For the SNP, committed to representing the entirety of the nation, this is a matter of particular concern. Caught up in the delicate balancing act of trying to straddle and placate all regions and all classes, it is inherently vulnerable.

That balancing act also relied on independence seeming imminent and insurgent. Today, a longer game on more solid foundations is now required. In seeking to placate all of those interests, a willingness to proactively create the circumstances for independence and the terms for compelling victory has been lacking.

Why? Because if a single party can represent the entire country, then claims to nationhood must suffer. Because Scotland is not one large constituency: it is a plural, complex society and no single entity can make it stronger, because what strength it has exists precisely in its diversity.

Only a broad coalition, pushing against the status-quo can change it.

Of the 500,000 votes the SNP lost last week, a large chunk can be attributed to a decline in turnout, from 71% to 66%. So if the national party is to remain so, it must understand why it became an insurgent force in first place, and set out a transformative prospectus. The first step in that process is to acknowledge that there will never be a moment in Scottish public life when we all politely agree to a proposition as inherently radical as the creation of a new state.

A third phase for devolution?

Meanwhile devolution offers a warm shelter for Tory revival in Scotland because it mitigates the worst impacts of Tory policy. As matters of devolved and reserved power become ever more confused in the public imagination, Tory success is not simply about Unionist tactical voting, it is premised on inverting the original terms of devolution. Rather than allowing a centre-left Scottish Government to do things differently, this new phase of devolution offers a route for Scots to vote Tory without the attendant cultural baggage and moral guilt.

This is a great scandal. But it shows that a moderate, centrist approach is always vulnerable to imitators. Ruth Davidson’s post-election field promotion to Acting First Minister is evidence of this. Her calculation is simple, but effective. Whipping her own MPs and holding “talks” with Theresa May, there is now a fierce contender for the prize of the steadiest hand in Scotland’s corner.

Brexit proves that no external factor alone, however dramatic, will cause middle Scotland to comfortably slip its moorings from the UK state. Waiting for things to inevitably get worse is not a strategy and even if it was that simple: as the general election campaign demonstrated, full political responsibility for the state of Scotland now rests, rightly or wrongly, with the SNP in Holyrood.

R.B Cunninghame Graham, one of the SNP’s founders, and the first socialist to sit in the House of Commons, once famously remarked: “The enemies of Scottish Nationalism are not the English, for they were ever a great and generous folk, quick to respond when justice calls. Our real enemies are among us, born without imagination.”

Imagination, and a willingness to step beyond cast-iron political “realities,” is not simply the means to resolve a political crisis, it is also the only way to build a new country. For those of us who still support independence, Scotland’s political life must be redefined: we must embrace the uncertainty that is re-shaping politics everywhere.

The Great British Crisis is far from over. But for the independence movement, who so recently thought themselves the builders, the clock is ticking.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. The real enemies of Scotland are as Cunninghame Graham noted Scots without imagination. That is a major problem which recourse to the ballot box may well not resolve. There are questions about the SNP and the commitment of some within its ranks to the cause of independence. There has been evidence of sidelining of what ought to be the major element in the National party’s agenda. Every election the SNP fights is about independence, the snap election was no different. Some seem phased or even ’embarrassed’ by the thing rather like clerics reluctant to talk about God. The Unionists wanted to discuss it, the SNP seemingly didn’t. Why?
    The party gained 56 Westminster mps but seemed unsure what to do with them although most did appear very at ease with the place. Now there are 35, who are now overshadowed by the red/blue Unionist gains and a woman with ambition.
    There is failure here and those responsible must ‘carry the can’ for it.
    If the SNP as currently constituted finds independence a burden then the wider movement needs to move on out of its political umbrella.
    This a setback we should not be experiencing. Those with imagination should not go quietly.

    • Like Alistair Campbell once said of New Labour, “We don’t do God”, so Alex and Nicola et al more or less have said of the SNP, “We don’t do independence”. That is their downfall in my view.

  2. The EU referendum vote was nearly a year ago. Westminister delayed invoking article 50 and initiating the 2 year process because they wanted to condition the UK population to a ‘painless’ Brexit and in the vain hope that some political event might occur to justify Brexit.
    One of the main motivations for the snap election was to ‘stop the SNP’ and you can see the narrative being prepared for by the media well in advance. I suspect that this was prompted by Davidson and the side effect
    of the lost Tory majority will not have endeared her to the Tory leadership.
    To win votes in Scotland the Scottish tories have had promise the return of all fishing and agricultural powers currently in Brussels will be returned to Holyrood. They have made illusion to staying in the single market and free movement. These commitments are truly a hostage to fortune.
    Concerning Brexit Westminister realistically has only 2 options, either walking away with no deal or giving up the whole Brexit process and getting the UK population either through a 2nd EU referendum or other means to seek continued full EU menbership. And after 40 years of demonising the EU that is going to be a hard sell for the Tory party.

  3. Indeed. Without the incessant pursuit of independence, the SNP risks simply becoming a parochial copy of the Labour Party. Putting so much emphasis in Westminster moved the party’s centre of gravity too far south. If the SNP is to be the party of Scottish independence, then in Scotland it should act. On this basis, a correction in the number of MPs is possibly to be welcomed.

  4. “an insistence on a second referendum (with no third way on offer).”

    That seems a tad unfair. Hadn’t a third way been proposed in ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’ document, repeatedly pressed by Sturgeon, and repeatedly rejected by May?

    • A “third way” and strongly advocated by some, given UK refusal for a mandated 2nd referendum, would be for the SNP to use its democratic majorities at Westminster (Scottish MP’s) and at Holyrood (with Greens) to give notice to Westminster that they intend to end the union of parliaments as far as Scotland is concerned. Matters could then be taken to the UN, who may or may not propose a referendum be held to ratify independence, and the latter could perhaps be ‘managed’ in Scotland with the UN, instead of relying on the goodwill of 600 MP’s from other countries.

  5. Set out a transformative prospectus – the wisest and most important 5 words in the above article. We are in for a longer haul than hoped for and public housing, support for business, the health service, education, a more bold approach to wealth redistribution through taxation, whether helped or not by the Westminster majority favouring an end to austerity, – these can all help restore the fortunes of the SNP.

    Currently Nicola Sturgeon is concentrating first on Brexit and our future relationship with Europe is of course massively important, but she can also take advantage of May’s chaotic shambles – there is currently no governing being done down there at all – to quickly reestablish authority by seizing the initiative on the range of issues.

    • To “take advantage of May’s chaotic shambles”, and given her refusal for a SNP-mandated 2nd referendum, and ignoring the pro-EU vote in Scotland, now would appear an opportune time for the SNP to use its democratic Scottish majorities at both Westminster and Holyrood, and local government too, to give notice to end the union of parliaments as far as Scotland is concerned. The UN would have to accept the fact that a majority of elected members at all three levels of government in Scotland favour independence.

  6. Ok, here is my tuppenceworth. Post the 2014 Ref and backed by its tsunami vote, the SNP took centre stage in the struggle for independence. The force was with it. The rest of the YES movement either took a back seat or went into abeyance completely. BIG MISTAKE!!! In the intervening years and due to the relative disappearance of YES, the political opposition, media, commentariat have worked to identify the push towards independence solely with the SNP. Their job , thereby, became so much easier;demonise the SNP and you also demonise independence-if the SNP is a busted flush, then so is independence.They didn`t have to bother turning their attention on to all the other diverse groups within the YES movement. it is now essential that every part of YES stands up and demands that it be included in the discussion. We must attack the unionist argument from as many directions as possible and stretch their forces as widely as we can. eg we are told that votes going to Labour means voters don`t want independence. So why didn`t Labour For Independence refute this loud and clear? Or, if they did, which tv programmes, newspapers etc responded?

    We have to be much more savvy as we move into this period of the struggle. All our forces must be maximised.

  7. That photo of Mr and Mrs May outside number 10 reminds me very much of “Wallace and Gromit” 😉

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