Hyperion to a Satyr?

Dominic McGinley discusses the Scottish political zeitgeist. 

Recently, an attempt at enlightened open-mindedness about the SNP and Scottish Independence has grown fashionable on both sides of the border. It can be an aloof, judiciously positive appraisal of Nicola Sturgeon’s crisis management shared in the safe space of a Fabian Zoom call. Or perhaps merely an eyebrow raised in thoughtful contemplation of the differences in style between London and Edinburgh daily briefings. Either way it illustrates the effect of 5 months of favourable comparison with Boris, and 20 years of light-touch scrutiny. Sturgeon’s stock has risen. But as one of the few Scottish Labourites, squatting in our fallout shelters of nostalgia while the missile salvos of the constitutional battle whizz overhead, allow me to explain why the Nationalists are not the inoffensively twee centre-left pressure group they’re assumed to be, and how their position is set to grow more sinister still.

Without wishing to add to the pompous essays about ‘the new era/epoch/normal’ which have become de rigueur of late (cue garbled Yeats quote and crass historical comparison), it seems that Scottish politics is entering a new phase. Sturgeon’s tenuous grip on the SNP’s fundamentalist wing is slipping. Until now, an annual jingoistic tartan love-in at conference has done the trick, delivered to the howling delight of the die-hards, with their motorbikes and tattoos of Winnie Ewing at the 1967 Hamilton by-election. The pattern is simple – they talk the thrilling talk, and go home to leave her to walk a rather deflating walk.

But her natural caution is increasingly out-of-step with the party’s footsoldiers and parliamentary squads. Key figures are taking lines hostile to the leadership on independence. If the open criticism of her cautious approach continues, and she or her successor is forced to take a more militant line, the consequences for Scottish politics would be dire. Open confrontation with the UK Government and overt discussion of other routes to independence than a London-sanctioned referendum would be terribly divisive. The tone of the 2014 referendum was brutal enough – but a shift in approach could see the hitherto genteel nationalism give way to a much uglier variety, so far kept latent and beneath the surface.

As a dissonant prelude, this more militant school even look set to play the system at next year’s Holyrood elections to guarantee a pro-Independence majority. If it works as its architects (and SNP big-hitters like Ken MacAskill) intend, the ‘Alliance for Independence’ will scoop the list seats designed to be allocated to under-represented parties. Bluntly, if parties start actively undermining the electoral system (officially or unofficially), they reduce the currency of the parliament itself. Even placing the morally dubious basis for such subterfuge to one side, the Nationalists threaten to tarnish the legitimacy of the Parliament they spent 40 years advocating. We’ve seen this before, in Italy in 2001: Berlusconi and his pals set up dummy lists to maximise their seats, the Left were forced to do likewise, and soon the entire system was a complete dud. These inelegant tactics are not only offensive to common decency, but to the legitimacy of Devolution itself.

All of this is compounded by the creepy, Midwich-Cuckoo group loyalty of their MPs, MSPs and Councillors. It leaves Scotland trundling nonchalantly towards the uncomfortable hegemony of an unsuitable party. Facile Edinburgh-London comparisons which, admittedly, make Sturgeon look like Pericles will be of no comfort as rigor mortis sets in on a paralysed Parliament. Don’t forget, North of the border we must suffer both of them.

The one small mercy you can afford on us, as we wait for the day when a revitalised Labour Party can challenge the SNP and we can emerge from our bunkers like the prisoners in Fidelio? Learn from our mistakes, campaign relentlessly against the snake-oil of Nationalism, don’t neglect the threat of other national parties, and, when the opportunity next arises to paint some fuzzy picture of the SNP as would-be Greens except with shortbread crumbs around their mouths – haud yer wheesht.

Dominic McGinley is the Youth Officer of Dunfermline CLP who will be studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics from October. He also sits on the Executive Committee of the European Movement in Scotland.

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