In 2021 the Union is in danger, but there is a way to ridicule and defeat the Nats

1 Jan

On Wednesday, Ian Blackford enlivened the start of the debate on the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill by insisting on a superfluous division and raising several spurious points of order.

The duty of the Opposition is to oppose, and as parliamentary leader of the Scottish nationalists he performed that function.

So although the thought of breaking the Union of 1707 fills me with horror – I believe the destruction of Great Britain would be “a monstrous act of vandalism” and turn England and Scotland into narrow-minded nations – one should perhaps, as one stumbles into the new year, lighten up occasionally, and admit that the Nats bring life to a House of Commons which might otherwise die of boredom.

Quentin Letts, sketchwriter for The Times, yesterday described them to ConHome as

“a sketchwriter’s dream – I often give thanks for them. Labour are a non-event. The Scots are always indignant about something.”

Boris Johnson has stolen many of Labour’s clothes, and with them many of Labour’s seats. He tore Brexit from Jeremy Corbyn’s palsied grasp, and on Wednesday left Sir Keir Starmer with no sane course but to follow in the Government’s wake.

Labour under its new leadership has not yet worked out what it believes in, who or what it is there to fight for.

The SNP knows exactly what it is fighting for, and can adopt the most irresponsible tactics as it strives to embarrass the British Government.

It hopes that this year will be its year, and that by sweeping the board at the Holyrood elections in May it will place Johnson under unbearable pressure to concede another referendum on independence.

It also regards Johnson as the best recruiting sergeant for Scottish independence. Kirsty Blackman (SNP, Aberdeen North) opened her speech in Wednesday’s debate by declaring:

“I want to take this opportunity to thank the Prime Minister. In recent years he has done more for the cause of Scottish independence than any other Unionist politician.”

And yet the role of Blackford and his colleagues at Westminster is not quite as easy as it looks. Later in her speech, Blackman said:

“I refuse to vote for this dreadful deal. It is a bit like we had been drinking a lovely glass of water. The Brexiteers offered the UK a malt whisky, but they are now saying that we will all die of thirst if we do not choose to drink the steaming mug of excrement that the UK Government are offering us. There is no way that I am choosing to drink that excrement, and neither will I be complicit in forcing my constituents to do so. Scotland’s future must be in Scotland’s hands, not those of the Prime Minister.”

This kind of horrible image, well calculated to appeal to the cybernats, gets any amount of play on social media. Blackman used the Commons as a broadcasting suite, with Twitter as the amplifier – an attitude by no means confined to the SNP.

But as a shrewd Scottish journalist remarked to ConHome, “There is a law of diminishing returns on that.”

He observed that if the SNP talks too often in that manner, respectable voters, whose support will be needed in the Holyrood elections and any subsequent referendum, will declare in a stern tone: “You’re an embarrassment to Scotland.”

And neither Blackford nor most of his colleagues wants to be an embarrassment to Scotland. They are not disgusting people, and in their most objectionable performances at Westminster there is a high degree of bogusness.

As Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House, put it to ConHome,

“The difficulty for Ian [Blackford] is that he’s such a fundamentally decent and nice man that he can’t really upset proceedings in the Commons. He’s not Parnell.”

Blackford’s speech in the debate was too long, and contained a flagrant inaccuracy about Scotland’s role in the Hanseatic League, identified by my colleague Henry Hill.

But as the next speaker, Sir Peter Bottomley, the Father of the House, remarked,

“The House will know that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) is a more cheerful person than his speech suggested.”

Other witnesses have confirmed that Blackford, whatever his public awkwardness, is in private life a delightful man.

Because of the obstructionism of Charles Stewart Parnell and other Irish MPs in the late 19th century, the Commons amended its standing orders in order to prevent business being brought to a standstill.

So even if the SNP wished to wreck the Commons – and delightful people do sometimes feel an urge to wreck things – the necessary means are not to hand.

But most of the SNP MPs are not, at heart, wreckers. Many of them grow fond of the Commons. Just as a footballer cannot help feeling an affection for a stadium in which he or she scores goals, so a debater cannot help feeling an affection for a Chamber in which he or she scores points.

The SNP’s star players include Stuart McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East), Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) and Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East).

Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) is described as being “terrific in the Defence Committee”.

And what is even more wonderful, some of these SNP MPs yearn to become members of the Privy Council, entitled to be addressed as Right Honourable, and sworn to defend Her Majesty the Queen against all assaults by her enemies.

In 2015, when the SNP made its great Westminster breakthrough, winning 56 out of 59 Scottish seats and supplanting the Liberal Democrats as the third party, its then parliamentary leader, Angus Robertson, was made a Privy Counsellor, having been appointed a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

To compile a full list of the SNP MPs who yearn for this distinction would be beyond my powers, especially as those on the list might deny any desire for such a bauble.

But only last month Patrick Grady (Glasgow North), the SNP’s Chief Whip, remarked of his party’s longest serving MP, who was first elected in 2001:

“I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend —he really ought to be my right hon. Friend—the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart).”

Grady is an amiable man, who may be presumed to know that Wishart (who incidentally would have loved to become Commons Speaker) would also love to become a privy counsellor, so entitled to be addressed in the Commons as right hon.

This streak of conservatism – of loyalty to existing institutions – within Scottish nationalism is not sufficiently appreciated.

Nor are the deep divisions within the SNP between supporters of the present leader, Nicola Sturgeon, and supporters of her predecessor, Alex Salmond, sufficiently understood.

The Nats preserve an outer unity which is far from doing justice to their inner hatreds.

Their discipline renders them incapable of working out what to do when one of their number – for example Margaret Ferrier – strays from the strict path of virtue.

They are, in short, in many ways ludicrous. As Michael Gove, winding up Wednesday’s debate and using to the full the advantage of being born a Scotsman, asked:

“What have they said in the past? Nicola Sturgeon said that no deal would be a ‘catastrophic idea’, that the SNP could not ‘countenance in any way’ no deal, and that SNP MPs will do ‘everything possible’ to stop no deal—except, of course, by actually voting against it today.

“Indeed, so opposed to no deal was the SNP that the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) went to court to ensure that if the Prime Minister took us out of the European Union without a deal, he would go to jail. Now the leader of the SNP is voting to take us out of the EU without a deal—something that his own party said should be an imprisonable offence. So what is he going to do now? Turn himself in? Submit to a citizen’s arrest at the hands of the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West? If his party follows through on its previous convictions, I, of course, will campaign for him. The cry will go out from these Benches: ‘Free the Lochaber one!'”

The SNP ought not to be taken as seriously as it wishes us to take it. Much the best way to embarrass its members at Westminster would be to hail them as friends and fellow members of the Establishment.

Garvan Walshe: Gloomy Sturgeon projects competence. The Government doesn’t – and the Union may be the price it pays.

19 Nov

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.

The Prime Minister’s reset has had immediate effects on Scotland. Out with “devolution is a disaster”, in with a “Union task force” (£). And in the Financial Times to boot, no longer boycotted by the No 10 media operation, but graced by a Prime Ministerial op-ed.

Details about the task force, which is to include English, Welsh and Scottish Tory MPs, are scarce. As the party with no Northern Irish MPs, it would be wise to add a Northern Irish peer, and David Trimble is an obvious candidate. Its mission to make the emotional and cultural case for the Union is welcome. Merely pointing to the fiscal benefits of Scottish membership of the Union is too easily spun as “we pay for you, so shut up” (a problem that scuppered Arthur Balfour’s unsuccessful “killing home rule with kindness” in relation to Ireland at the turn of the century).

The Scottish experience in the Union in the 100 years before the independence push has been a good deal better than the Irish (it’s only a decade since the last Scottish Prime Minister), but that hasn’t stopped the SNP dominating Scottish politics as Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond dominated the Irish scene.

Unlike Redmond and Parnell, the SNP doesn’t hold the balance of power at Westminster, but it has, because of the devolution, a platform to show how it would govern an independent Scotland.

Though it might irk unionists, who can point at failures in education, a self-inflicted wound over trans self-ID, the grubby mess involving Alex Salmond’s trial, and cruelty of anti-Covid measures applied to Scottish students, it’s a platform the SNP has made good use of.

It took maximum advantage of two events — Brexit and the Covid pandemic — to switch the balance of risk away from independence and convince Scots that leaving the Union had become the safer option. Brexit moved public opinion to give independence a slight edge. Covid has turned that slender lead into a solid advantage of around ten points.

The effect of Brexit will not be possible to address in the short term. There’s simply a difference of belief between the Government, which was elected to get Brexit done, after all, and Scottish public opinion, which is strongly against it, but safety and predictability are things the Government should, in principle, be able to get a handle on.

Number 10 has come in for heavy criticism for its management of the pandemic, which, however true it may be in an absolute sense, feels distinctly unfair when compared to Scotland.

England’s record has not been particularly good, but then neither has that of France, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, the United States, or most pointedly Scotland. All have had high death rates, found their test and trace systems overwhelmed, and struggled to gain acceptance for public health restrictions. These serious problems are common to almost all Western countries. An independent Scotland is just as likely to suffer from them.

What the SNP has been able to do has been to communicate stability (something that comes more naturally to Sturgeon than the bombastic Salmond). Unlike the Government in London, which has veered between seriousness and hope, Sturgeon has been consistently sober and gloomy. She has avoided overpromising on test and trace, and did not convert useful rapid antigen testing into a grossly over-the-top operation moonshot. This has allowed her to be perceived as far more competent despite having the same Western Standard Average performance in managing the disease.

There is, however, a useful lesson to be drawn from this. Projecting competence does not require achieving excellence. The public will react positively to a government that provides a realistic assessment of the difficulties faced. They understand that governing a country isn’t like pitching for investment in a start up, and would prefer a tolerably realistic assessment of the difficulties ahead then to endure an emotional rollercoaster of hopes raised only to be dashed.

This is not to rule out inspiration as a part of political rhetoric, but it is best for mobilising support for very long-term struggles, like the fight against climate change.

Scots go to the polls next May, and whether the SNP can get an overall majority at Holyrood will be a key test of their movement. Douglas Ross has an uphill battle to stop them, but reset towards realism from the Government could just convince wavering Scots that it’s safe to stay in.