By Peter Arnott
Take a step back from the Apotheosis of Everywoman that is the Nicola Sturgeon phenomenon. Distance yourself for a moment from Boris Johnson calling you a baby killer, Max Hastings getting Churchillian and the conspiracy theories of John Major.
What is actually going on here?
Well, if you ask an intelligent Labour strategist – and there are some – what the Tories are doing by “bigging” up the SNP is getting the not very nice, not very young voters they’ve lost to UKIP to come home in England while gleefully banging another nail into the coffin of Labour in Scotland.
They’d be right about that. Lynton Crosbie, the shadowy Australian strategy wonk who actually runs the Tory party, thinks his party workers wearing Sturgeon masks at Labour events in England is a fair dinkum idea. Lord Forsyth of blessed memory, by cautioning against the long-term damage to the Future of the Union we were all told was so terribly important, is, according to some sources I’ve developed in the Machiavellian undergrowth of political strategy, merely doing his bit to keep the SNP in the headlines.
What Nicola Sturgeon thinks, other than that every day is Christmas and she’d better try to keep a hold of herself from actually levitating or going for a stroll on Loch Leven and damp down some expectations, I wouldn’t presume to say.
So, as is often the case, especially at election times, there is a Byzantine and complicated (for politics geeks – journalists and politicos) version of “what’s going on” and there is what appears to be going on for the rest of us, for whom, (in my case) other than as entertainment, political process as such is merely an indicator of reality, and not reality itself.
Most of the time.
However, for what it’s worth, what I think is going on is this : Politics is catching up with the cultural meaning of devolution.
That’s right. I don’t think we’re on the threshold of a new form of chaos, or stepping on to the sunny uplands of a new vista for independence. I think we’re just getting used to two basic realities that devolution has always indicated since the very beginning.
First, Scotland, even in the UK, now exists “as such”, as a thing in itself. Scottish English and Welsh constituencies are not all the same anymore, even in a general election. (Northern Irish ones, for reasons of history, have NEVER been “just the same as everywhere else” since 1921. I’ll come back to Ireland in a moment). The election of SNP MPs is an elementary electoral recognition of the Cultural Reality of the “beginning of federalism”, and not yet, I don’t think, the beginning of “independence” (Whatever THAT means, and I’ll come back to that later too.)
Second, in becoming wholly an English nationalist party the Tories are just catching up with what we always thought they were anyway, what in a sense, they’ve been since the Scottish Unionist party merged with the British Conservatives back in the mists of time. (Before Thatcher).
Willie Rennie’s recent indication that the Liberals in Scotland would potentially go into coalition with the SNP at Holyrood while Nick Clegg has sworn on his mother’s bible never to go near the appalling Salmond and his cohorts – is again an acknowledgement of reality, that the UK now consists of quite distinct polities, and clearly differentiated electoral units to reflect our cultural, post imperial distinctions.
So, if the presence of 40-50 SNP MPs at Westminster does not immediately presage another bid for Independence, as, despite the insistence of Jim Murphy that not ruling it out is the same thing as announcing it, it clearly doesn’t, what does it actually mean? What might actually happen? When does the earthquake we seem to have been experiencing pretty much non stop since the beginning of 2014 actually do a bit of new country building?
Well, there are a few mathematical variables to take into account that we’ll get to on May 8th – from (shudder) a Tory Majority and an EU referendum ;a Tory minority that Labour refuse to bring down because they fear being illegitimate in England if they rely on the Nats; a Labour minority that the SNP sweetly support through thick and thin, driving them MAD with kindness (this is my favourite) and a Labour majority where the SNP would need to watch internal discipline as they are insulted by Labour day after day until the NEXT Westminster election.
The thing about all four rough sketches is that while each has its own challenges and unknowns, I don’t think any of these roads into the 2020s don’t end with fundamental constitutional change from devolution to…what?
Well, I don’t know that exactly, and whether a die-hard Tartanite (which is what I keep being told I am) would call it independence…I don’t know either
But the difference between the electoral reflection of power devolved but essentially retained at Westminster, which is where we are, and the possibly federal settlement that will involve all power being centred in Scotland and possibly devolved outward to the rest of the UK and the EU…or maybe just to the EU…that is rock solid certainly going to happen by 2030 at the very, very latest…is going to be huge.
It is preparing for that difference, and negotiating it, that will be among the many tasks with which all our political parties will be engaged, some of the time, between now and then.
The only one of them that currently needs to pretend that devolution will crush the Nats eventually…just you wait…is Scottish Labour. And they’re about to take a punching from which they will have to re-invent themselves completely to recover.
I hope they do. I think a grown-up country like the one I hope to live in one day will need a party of the centre left even as it will need a party of the establishment, and even some liberals, heaven knows, under whatever name those parties reconfigure themselves in the famous “next generation”
What is going on is both the unusually exciting banalities of politics and a profound political change. It took the Irish Nationalists (I told you I’d get back to them) 50 years as a bloc within Westminster to finally arrive at Ireland’s complicated version of Independence and equivocal variant on Statehood. I don’t think it will take an SNP bloc at Westminster anything like that long. But the other thing that the history of Ireland since the electoral franchise was opened up in the 1870s tells us , is that on “our” side and “theirs” there are right and wrong ways of doing this kind of thing.
Personally, I’m hoping for an easy life. I think that the Yes movement can be calm and confident enough to take events as they come. Unfortunately, that’s not just up to us.
I do hope that some of the smart, pragmatic folk who are in the Labour party now will come along for the ride once they see that’s where the horses are all going. I also hope that even the Tories, with their “wizard wheeze” of demonizing the Jocks to shore up their vote in the shires, keep the direction of travel in mind.