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