It is time to pick your side
It has been party conference season again. If you hadn’t noticed, you didn’t miss much. But a couple of features caught my attention. At the Conservative Party conference, Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, was confined to a fringe event to give his ‘keynote speech’. No conference hall place for Scotland in the supposed party of the Union.
Labour didn’t do much better; at least Anas Sarwar had his moment on the platform, but his boss’s only reference to Scotland, apart from the usual ‘better together’ line, was to focus on blood donors (!!) in an independent Scotland. No reference to our rate of drug deaths, the highest in the world, and how the UK government prevents us from tackling the issue the way we want to. No reference to nuclear weapons in our waters, or how the Tories’ Brexit deal is damaging our economy in ways peculiar to Scotland.
So where does this leave the state of opposition politics in Scotland? The SNP needs a credible opposition; every democratic country needs an opposition.
I remember when I was becoming interested in politics in my early teens that I asked my dad what would become of the SNP when we finally achieved independence. His answer was clear and simple: “the party would disband because our goal would have been achieved”.
However, as we get closer to the inevitable parting of the ways, it’s hard to imagine a political machine that has dominated Scotland’s life for so long, simply handing over the keys to those other parties; those who choose to blithely disregard the changing mood of our nation in our indefatigable march towards our as yet elusive, second referendum.
History, as ever, gives us some pointers as to what can happen. The de-facto one party states of Zimbabwe and South Africa now grapple with crisis after crisis without any credible alternative at the ballot box, other than continuing to vote for the party who claimed their mantle of freedom decades earlier, and hope for the best.
Look closer to home and witness Ireland. In the Republic, the two dominant parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, defined only by the stance they each took on their independence settlement a hundred years ago, have played Tweedledum and Tweedledee ever since.
We are not Ireland of course, and any attempts I ever make to draw such parallels usually result in responses varying anywhere between bemusement and outrage. The unspoken understanding on both sides of the independence debate in Scotland holds firm: Don’t mention Ireland!
Nevertheless, I persist. The nationalist movements in both countries are united on one level. Our goals are, and have been, the same: to separate constitutionally from the same overwhelmingly dominant power: England. Surely there are lessons to learn?
Unequal unions are not sustainable in any walk of life. On the international stage just look at the former Soviet Union, dominated as it was by one overpowering nation, Russia. Or Spain. Where Catalonia doggedly continues its struggle to break free from its much larger neighbour Castille.
Or China where the Tibetans and the Uighurs, outnumbered 80 to 1 by the Han Chinese, are brutally supressed by Beijing. Smaller nations on the fringes don’t stand a chance in multinational conglomerates dominated by one much larger nation.
I blame William the Conqueror, because if it hadn’t been for the Norman Conquest, things might have turned out very differently. Before 1066 England comprised at least three kingdoms: Wessex, Mercia, and Northumbria, stretching north from the Humber River up to the Cheviots, (although by the time of the invasion they had started to co-operate a bit to fight off the common enemies of the Vikings and the Danes).
Rory Stewart, a current, though very independent Tory MP, recently made the case that a thousand years ago Northumbria and the lowlands of Scotland might have forged a unity, bordered to their north by the Highlands and to their south by the Mercians. Then perhaps this island, from John o’ Groats to Lands End, might have consisted of five or six provinces of relatively equal size and populations, with no one of them dominating over all the others.
But the Normans did come, and they consciously set about ensuring that England became the single all-powerful entity on this island. William was very deliberate in his conquest strategy. He granted his barons lands stolen from the Saxon nobility, but in a patchwork quilt of seemingly random parcels across his newly conquered land.
In South Yorkshire, (where I lived for 20 years), the surrounding countryside was gifted to the Duke of Devonshire, the Earl of Arundel and Surrey and the Duke of Norfolk, with pubs in Sheffield named after them to this day.
His master plan was to ensure that no single baron could build up a geographical power base to challenge William’s absolute power, or, failing that, to secede from England itself. Thus the template was fixed for the next thousand years with the threat of any kind of rival regionalism extinguished. He and his successors were now able to embark on their next project: The creation of a Greater England.
The Welsh held out for a couple of centuries before finally being overwhelmed by English might. We sent them homeward to think again at Bannockburn, and the Irish endured centuries of brutalities from England’s efforts to bring them to heel.Eventually, of course, Scotland did acquiesce to a rebranded model.
Not Greater England but Great Britain.
And let us not forget that we did pretty well out of the arrangement for a while, being as the project now had a commercially driven global reach. As the historian Tom Devine puts it, “England owned the Empire, but Scotland ran it”. But in the 20th century, as the spoils of global plunder and slavery began to dry up, the scales gradually began to fall from our eyes.
Both nations, England and Scotland, now have to come to terms with new realities, and thrash out their respective destinies through their own increasingly very different politics.
Why should the English Tory and Labour parties clutter their conference agendas with topics outwith their immediate national concerns? In my 20 years in England, most of the time as a member of the Labour Party, I never once heard Scottish concerns mentioned in political discussion. What mattered in Sheffield was rivalry with Leeds or Manchester and access to power in London.
So back to the question of a credible alternative to the SNP on Scottish concerns. I hear the cry from avowedly unionist parties who call on the SNP to ‘concentrate on the day job’. Yes indeed, but that should apply across the board.
Take a leaf out of the English book on this one. UKIP didn’t need to run England for 14 years before England won their independence – because that’s what Brexit really is. (In fact, UKIP never achieved more than a couple of MPs at their height.) English politicians from both the Tories and Labour campaigned on opposite sides in the Brexit referendum, and in the meantime ‘got on with the day job’. Then afterwards, at least in the Conservative Party, came back together to get on with the re-defined day job of making English independence work.
The SNP is, of course, nothing like UKIP. They have a political programme outside of the independence debate for a start. A kind of left-of-centre Europhile centralism as I see it. But as long as the unionist parties define themselves by the limitations of the Union and shrug off burning issues like reforming Scotland’s immigration rules, or how we resolve the emergency of our devastating drug deaths, by saying, in effect: “the English winae let us dae that”, then the SNP has no choice but to keep to the fore the desire for independence, shared by at least 50% of the electorate, as the key to resolving these problems.
So, to our opposition politicians I say this: act like it’s your country too. And if, leaving independence to one side, you also support the call for all the powers we need to tackle our own ‘pandemic’ of drug deaths, then co-operate across parties to turn that demand into an overwhelming force.
In fact, if you still believe that this unequal Union can be saved, it’s surely in your interests to make devolution work better for the most vulnerable in our country.
And when the time comes, as indeed it will, when there is another referendum, pick your side in the campaign, and afterwards, return to the day job of making independence work.
One in the eye for Britain