Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Boris, Brexit, England and Reality

England, Their England – 20th September 2017.

In The Lion and The Unicorn, his great 1940 essay on the nature of Englishness, George Orwell, in Hampstead, as the German Bombers flew overhead, was trying to define the identity of something that was in real and present danger of being lost. Perhaps this is why it is the definitive statement of identity that it is, why it had to be definitive. The very survival of England was at stake.

(It wasn’t just England whose survival was in question, of course…the survival of Europe and of civilisation was up for grabs…but we’ll get to that, and Brexit, in a minute.)

Among Orwell’s most memorable observations was that the support of the “average Englishman” for the British Empire was expressed by being barely conscious that it existed, and that this blithe disregard for the complex reality that supported “his” simple way of life was one of the things foreigners found so maddeningly incomprehensible about the English. It wasn’t a wholly new thought.  The essayist Sir John Seeley in a book of 1883 made the famous and connected observation that the British had “conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind.” Absence of mind had extended to historical matters nearer home too, of course.  The name of the book in which Seeley had made this observation was “The Expansion of England.”

Orwell, in a rather irritated aside, addresses the anomaly, when he acknowledges that readers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland may object to the expansion of Englishness to include them in his essay on identity.  He argues, with some justice, that to the rest of the world, the differences between us are insignificant to the point of invisibility, and moves on, having dealt with the absorption of the minor Celtic nations into the big one purely as a matter of identity, and not as a series of political, historical and cultural events.  Rather in the way he fondly accused his countrymen of their not knowing that the British Empire existed, Orwell treated the Expansion of England as a fact of nature, rather than as a political process that could, as is the nature of processes, be reversed.

This is all in my mind this morning as we approach what future historians of identity in these islands may, (or may not, depending what May does in Florence on Friday) identify as a defining moment as much as 1940 – “Dunkirk and All That” – was definitive for the relationship of 20th Century Britain to itself and to everybody else. It seems to have been on Boris Johnson’s mind as well.  Not only is he ferociously, personally ambitious, he is also rather a gifted and passionate writer on English history and identity. Churchill is his hero and role model in this as well as, he hopes, finding himself summoned to the Palace to assume the office of Prime Minister in Our Darkest...and Our Finest Hour.

May was being widely trailed as finally making the statement of British Intent on Brexit that the aforementioned Maddened Foreigners had been waiting for. Finally, it was promised, more than a year after voting for it, they would be told definitively, what the British wanted out of Brexit.  There would finally be clarity in the negotiations because there would finally, actually be a real and conscious policy that Britain was pursuing.

And this is where we get back to absent-mindedness. The entire historical success of Britain, or England, has been in not really being conscious of what Britain, or England, was doing. The famous preference for “muddling through”, “buggering on” and so on, is not just a charming cultural trait like warm beer and cricket on the green.  It’s actually at the heart of how Britain, or England, gets things done.

The centre of things, the way things are, must not be challenged. The way to deal with change is always, ALWAYS to act as if nothing had changed. The Scots, Welsh and Irish may have been conscious of the particular circumstances of their absorption into greater England, but it is the genius of England barely to have noticed. The British Empire was not only absent-mindedly acquired over two centuries, it was as inconsequentially and easily abandoned in two decades in exactly the same way, as if it had never been.

The perennial question, since 1950, of “why are all these immigrants from India and the West Indies coming HERE?” is testimony to this sound cultural policy of forgetting. In a similar way, the consequences of the End of Empire on the immediate borders - the slow and differential self- assertion of the previously quietly absorbed peripheral nations of Scotland, Wales and Ireland over the last century or so - has been equally irritating and inexplicable.

As for Europe, and what is or is not going to happen on Friday, Greater England joined the EC in 1973 with exactly the same strategic self-persuasion that “nothing has really changed” with which she has been attempting to leave the EU.  “Britain” – the economic and administrative oligarchy that bestrides Greater England like an invisible colossus – may well have known that joining the EC was absolutely essential, if politically inadmissible, as a SUBSTITUTE for Lost Empire in connecting to the imperative yet invisible wider world. But England, like Ireland, Scotland and Wales, is inevitably, as the Empire fades from memory, asserting a distinct identity, and will be having none of it.

It turns out that Britain understood “England” just as poorly as it understood its other colonies, and with catastrophic results.

What the other Europeans, the foreigners, may have failed to understand is that unconsciousness, NOT having a fixed policy on Brexit, was absolutely essential not just for holding Britain together, but for Theresa May holding her cabinet together.  David Davis was never specific in his negotiations with the EU because he and the Cabinet had never been specific with each other.  They had never even really discussed it outside of algorithmically isolated cabals of Europhiles and Eurosceptics who only ever talked to people they already agreed with.

All that, by force majeure, was due to change on Friday.  The Prime Minister was going to get specific in Florence on a phased transition deal that once again try to keep the cracking edifice of Britain, and the cracking edifice of Her majesty’s Government together, that once again, would change everything, while changing nothing at the centre. And Boris Johnson, on Saturday in the Daily Telegraph, spoke for England, and said he and England were having none of it.

This is only Wednesday, as I write. Not, like Orwell, with German Bombers flying overhead, but just before what might be the next moment of crisis in Britain’s long, more or less managed post war decline.  Boris has drawn a line…the moment we get specific on Brexit, hard or soft, one way or the other, the Cabinet and Government split like an over ripe melon. It is entirely possible, even probable, given past precedent, which Theresa May will follow in the grand historical tradition of putting off till tomorrow the reality that she would rather not face today, and that her speech on Friday will be as gutted of content and specificity as almost everything else she says. But if Theresa May screws her courage to the sticking post and goes ahead with Speech A, make no mistake, the Tory Party Conference in Manchester in the first week of October is going to be a bloodbath that it is hard to see her Minority Government surviving.

As for the Labour Party, every bit as split on Europe, every bit as dependent for unity on “not really talking about it”, they must be thanking God and the Ghost of Clement Atlee that their conference isn’t the week after, but the week before. They will be able, if it happens, to fully enjoy watching the Tories explode into acrimony and accusations of treason while pretending to be unconscious of the thought “there but for the Grace of God…and the traditional scheduling of Conference Season…go I.”

As a footnote the subject of reality, it has just occurred to me that the name we might give to England leaving Europe on its own might be just "Exit"...but that's a thought for another time.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

"To Govern As If"

I won’t be the the only person to say this, on this blog-site and elsewhere, but the Programme for Government set out yesterday by the First Minister is far and away the most progressive and ambitious that the chamber has ever heard. An awful lot of it makes welcome reading to an awful lot of people involved in the broader Yes coalition over the last few years. From a primary to tertiary strategy on education, to a positive and manufacturing and export based vision for the economy - all underpinned by a publicly owned and run investment bank - from an unashamedly optimistic, joined up programme going from infrastructure to green targets to taxation and welfare, this PFG represents nothing less than an aspiration to transform this small country.

That this is being done in the doomed, minimal expectation atmosphere of Brexit is to dissociate Scotland from the UK without even mentioning the Constitution, and it left opposition parties floundering, responding to the speech that they were expecting, not the speech they got.  Within the narrow confines of the Holyrood Bubble and it’s attendant commentariat, it was something of a game-changer.

We’ve had a few months now since the election of denial and wound licking.  And the document produced yesterday is of course still ambition rather than achievement.  The question of how it will play in the wider world of Scotland, let alone the wider world beyond will probably come down to what the “story” is.  And that may comer down to nuance and feeling as much as the very firmly holistic and grounded “culture of government” that the PRG sets out. It unashamedly looks to a Scottish State to coordinate and shape a holistic vision of what a country can be. In the contemporary context, this is almost thrilling in its heresy. It is also entirely, unashamedly, optimistically European.

It is a Programme for Devolved Government with the ambition we’d look for from Independence.  In fact, in many ways, it is far MORE ambitious than was the White Paper produced for the 2014 Referendum Campaign.
And this, to me, is a sure sign that the Sturgeon Government has moved on. In retrospect, the perpetuation of the “Indy Mood” BEYOND September 2014 and through 2015 and 16 (until the Brexit vote, in fact) , that sustained and promoted the fortunes not just of the SNP, but of the rather more numinous “mood of optimism” in our political culture, was bound to come to cultural if not arithmetical grief in the unexpected election of 2017.  The wave had been stoked up and kept going by a mixture of stubborn ineptitude and arrogance in the Cameron government, and charisma in the person of Nicola Sturgeon…and the wave was bound to crash at sometime.

But what was clear yesterday was that the twin realities “external” to the aforementioned Holyrood Bubble of the increased uncertainty of Brexit on the one hand and the mercurial rise of Corbyn on the other may well have taken the immediate constitutional campaign of “IndyRef 2” off the front burner, but they have also opened a space for a far more specific and identifiable “left” programme of government by the SNP.

Thanks to an astonishngly positive response to the new circumstances that seems to be very much led from the front, the SNP government have hit the ground running in a New Normality that I, at least, was slow to see coming.
Buit make no mistake.  This degree of radicalism in government is only possible if the political priority of building a referendum coalition which includes, (as Salmond so cautiously did) a very Not-Radical proportion of the Scottish Electorate that is simply arithmetically essential to a Yes vote, has been decisively dropped. Ironically, we and Nicola Sturgeon may be being afforded this vision of Scotland’s future only because The Independence Campaign - as we have understood it up until now - is off the agenda.

The “Indy Moment” of 2011-2016 is over. We are in a new phase now. There are things happening over which we have control, as evidenced by the leaking yesterday of a Home Office paper on future UK Immigration policy as suicidal as it is illiberal, as oppressive as it is impractical. The contrast of confidence that was displayed yesterday between Edinburgh and London is absolutely stark. .  For my money, it is exactly what needed to be done to positively change the story we need to tell ourselves as a culture.  The way to prove to ourselves our fitness to govern ourselves…is to do it.  

To govern "as if "

Friday, 9 June 2017

Democracy? You've got to love it!

I spent most of last night in an impressively improvised TV Studio for Broadcasting Scotland in the same kind of incoherent shock as has been displayed by Theresa May ever since her tight wee circle of acolytes launched her manifesto, and the damn thing sank like a boat in a Buster Keaton movie.  But come the dawn, and the Tories having lost their majority, and Jeremy Corbyn talking about forming a minority Labour government with a mischievous plausibility that will have most of his own parliamentary colleagues reaching for a fresh pot of paint to daub a frozen smile across their masks of despair...with the EU now in a position to absolutely dictate whatever form of Brexit they feel like, even with  Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories and the DUP combining forces to put whoever is leading the Tories next week over the line…I have got a smile on my face that I don't have to paint on.

This election, on both sides of the border, has worked out really well.  In fact, even with the loss of some real talent from the SNP Parliamentary group, in terms of what comes next, I’m not sure how it could realistically be any better.

Think of it this way.  35 SNP MPs matter FAR more in THIS context, than 45 or so MPs would have mattered had the Tories achieved the thumping majority they were after, or than 56 mattered until yesterday.  I don’t believe any more than Jeremy Corbyn really does that Labour can REALLY form the next government…His main cause for celebration today is that the Blairite hegemony in his own party is now decisively over.  But even if they did try to form a government, they would absolutely now need the SNP to pass a budget, and to renew Trident…to name but two. 

As it is, yes, of course, the Tories will form the next UK government…and this is not a good thing...but did anyone really expect them NOT to? The real news this morning is that the UKIP/Tory fusion Party which Theresa May had decided was the way to keep her safe from having to make deals with ANYONE, her own party very much included, is as dead as a door nail, even if TM tries to hang on as a deeply damaged PM.

But what about Scotland?  Symbolically, if in no other way, this is a surely a huge comedown from the heady symbolism of the Tsunami two years ago?

Firstly, I’d argue that this is no bad thing in and of itself.  Symbolism, after all, is only symbolism.  If this election has taught us anything it is surely that real life continues anyway, and that the vast majority of the electorate, God Bless 'Em, don't give much of a toss for it. The Yes/No divide in Scottish politics is what produced that tsunami…the 45% for yes had somewhere obvious to go, and the Unionist vote, under the illusion in 2015 that Scottish politics could back to a status quo ante referendum led to them coming unstuck.  What has happened, paradoxically, in the highly successful reorganization of the Unionist tactical vote that has STILL left the SNP with a healthy “majority” of Scottish seats is first of all, a predictable and salutary catching up…better reflecting our divisions and no longer allowing the 2015 result to allow some in the Yes movement to imagine that we’d sort of won in 2014 after all…and secondly, it's a confirmation of the re-focusing of Scottish politics as an entirely distinct entity from politics South of the border, as having changed forever.  Scottish politics now is ALL about the constitution, and in the long run, that’s exactly where the nationalists want it to be.

But what about the second referendum? So that Scotland gets to decide on what kind of Brexit deal we want?  Well, first of all, the EU are in the driving seat on that one, and not the UKIP/Tory merger…and second, can we now admit that it was never a very good idea in the first place?  Calling a referendum when you don't know the result in advance may make for exciting television, but it's no way to run a government. It may be that democratically there was no option but for Nicola Sturgeon to announce that there should be some specifically Scottish say on the shape of the Brexit to come…but still, we're better off without it being any kind of immediate promise let alone terms of running Scotland properly, if nothing else.

Calling a second referendum when you can’t predict the outcome was always a very dangerous strategy, and one doomed to a second defeat, on this timing, in my view. Now that, first of all, the Brexit process is itself completely up in the air, and we have even LESS idea what we might be voting on in that referendum in 2019, in terms of narrow politics,  iit makes even less sense.  So when Ruth Davidson triumphantly demands that Indyref 2 get off the table NOW, I think we should let the baby have her bottle and think that we've just dodged a very nasty bullet.

In another wonderful paradox of democracy, by making this election campaign in Scotland about NOTHING but the “threat” of Indyref Two…the Tories have won some seats, but in the longer term, even in the medium turn, have done the SNP an enormous favour. It may be that Nicola Sturgeon, after due consideration of the changed UK posture on the Brexit talks, can concede that “while the Brexit deal is so uncertain, there will be no referendum in the course of this parliament “…and breathe a sigh of well deserved relief. This is a chance to remove am electoral millstone from around the neck of the Scottish Government, who can now take part in the Brexit process with a MUCH better mix of Westminster parliamentary arithmetic and a secure Scottish government for years to come.

What's more, with the Tories relying on MPs elected from Northern Ireland, there is absolutely no way that the "hard Tory Brexit" that justified that referendum can happen. The "fringe" nations, including Scotland are in a FAR better place to negotiate a soft, even differentiated Brexit, than they were yesterday.  Time to blow the dust off that proposal that Theresa May so arrogantly dismissed a couple of months ago.  If Indyref 2 is off the table, it's because a differential Scottish Brexit is now back on.  

Crystal balls probably belong in the trash…but by re-aligning Scottish politics so decisively along constitutional lines, and insisting as the “prize” of “SNP defeat” that the SNP drop a second referendum which I strongly suspect they never really wanted in the first place... and with pressure on the SNP in Holyrood coming from a Labour Party which entirely owes its revival to its own left wing, I don’t see, beyond the improbable “Coalition” that people may have considered in the wee small hours last night, that this could be any better.

Democracy, as well as being a ruthless bugger, as Theresa May and Alex Salmond have both found out, also has a fantastic sense of humour.  That’s one of the reasons you’ve got to love it.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

What Can Go Wrong?

Cast your mind back to the beginning of this year.  Since becoming Prime Minister in the unexpected summer of 2016, Theresa May has been thinking, of course, about the next election. There are two issues, she knows, that are going to be uppermost in the minds of the British electorate, whenever that next election is.  One is going to be Brexit…no matter what else is going on, the general Election after the Brexit referendum is going to be about the deal that she negotiates for the qualified disengagement of the British Law and economy from what has been holding it together for the last forty years.  And the other, associated issue is the leadership of the country that she has assumed after the posh boys had pissed all over it and run away.

And there is absolutely nothing she can see about an early election that can possibly go wrong. The Labour opposition have been supine and incompetent. Article 50 has gone through with barely a sniff of a hitch. The opposition leader is an impossible gift to the formidable Tory election machine.  The press and even the Parliamentary Labour Party are uniformly and contemptuously dismissive of the hapless, hopeless, unelectable Mr Corbyn.

What can possibly go wrong? 

Now do the same memory and imagination exercise for Nicola Sturgeon just a few months ago. Her decision is slightly different.  In response to the triggering of Article 50, does she announce the intention of a second independence referendum or not?  Part of the calculation for her is that this second plebiscite to be held sometime in the future – she doubts very much if it will be on the announced two year schedule for Brexit -  is that it will combine not only the national question, but also the Brexit question.  It will be a specifically Scottish verdict on what will almost certainly be a deeply tiresome car wreck of a negotiation process towards an outcome which is hugely demonstrably worse than even the 62% of Scots who voted against it in 2016 thought it would be.  The Prime Minister has said that there won’t be another election until after the process is finished, so why not pre-empt that 2020 election with the THREAT, the bargaining chip, not necessarily to be played, of a second referendum on Independence.  There will be a short term hit in the polls, an irritation with the prospect…but it’s not NOW…the electoral heat won’t be on the SNP for at least two years.

What can possibly go wrong?

Well, we don’t yet know the verdict of the electorate.  What we do know is that a good sized portion of the electors seem to be demonstrably pissed off with both incumbents.  Leaving aside the entirely unpredictable reversal in the predicted political performances of the leaders of the British parties, the unhappiness of the public with this election being so cynically called in the first place is surely the roots of what has indeed gone a bit pear shaped for Mrs May, whose anticipated landslide has been transformed, like the Better Together campaign, from a Dead Certainty into a Narrow Squeak at best.

What has happened to Nicola Sturgeon is that a threatened Indy Ref - which was predicated on the Prime Minister not lying about there being no election till 2020 - has been transformed from an Ace in the Hole to a Millstone around the neck of a General Election Campaign that in Scotland has not only NOT been about Brexit but has not, in any meaningful way, been about an election to Westminster either.  What we have actually been going through for the past few weeks has actually BEEN the second referendum campaign that absolutely nobody wanted to happen right now, and for which Nicola Sturgeon, rather than Theresa May, is getting the blame.

What has been inflicted on the public North and South or the border is a demonstrably meaningless exercise in cack-handed cynicism from which ALL politics is taking a hit.  The beneficiaries are the anti Politicians, the Corbynite left …and, paradoxically and ironically, the Scottish Tories who have successfully used the campaign to send “them up there in Holyrood a message”…The message being to fuck off and leave us alone when we’ve got terrorism and Trump and a forthcoming economic and then environmental apocalypse to deal with.

That the anti-politics mood should for the first time encompass the SNP government in Holyrood is probably the only lasting and consequential (and not wholly unwelcome in the long run) change that this whole ridiculous exercise will accomplish.  Even if the Tories go so far as to lose their overall majority, the likely result is yet another election in the autumn rather than a “progressive coalition.” If the Tories maintain or slightly increase their majority, as still seems more likely, then the election in 2022 will STILL be, in effect, a Brexit election, a verdict on whatever swamp of malfeasance and resentment they get us into.

In the words of the old joke, in neither 10 Downing Street or Bute House would either incumbent want to start from here.  At least Nicola Sturgeon can take some comfort from knowing, unlike Theresa May, that assassins in her own party haven’t already got the knives sharpened for whatever comes next.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

The Bewildering Brexit Election

What is so very strange about the way the "Brexit Election" has gone is that Brexit, as far as one can tell, isn't really an issue - in and of itself - at all.  This has wrong-footed both the Tories, who wanted to build an entire campaign around Theresa May being the only possible God Given Champion of what The British People Demand - and , perversely, the SNP, whose pitch of "Scotland rejected Brexit and demands a say" is likewise evincing no electoral traction except with the small fraction of voters who were already strongly committed to that view. This election campaign is catching all the experts off balance, in the parties and in the papers, in Scotland and England.  So what's going on?

The conclusion behind all this may be that "The European Issue", both for and against Brexit, is STILL really only a very minor consideration for the vast majority of the electorate, (with the possible exception of Northern Ireland, where the voters have THEIR border very particularly in mind) just as it was before the Tories' unexpected outright win in 2015 accidentally put it front and centre of a political agenda that was so shallow rooted as to be manipulable by the noisy but marginal likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.  Just as the EU referendum took place in an atmosphere of ill informed indifference as to the outcome, so it seems that the consequences of Brexit, economic and political, simply haven't sunk in...for the very good reason that they haven't happened yet. This is why, after all, with that whopping great lead in the polls, Theresa May and a VERY tight circle inside the Tory party, decided to call this election before the excrement made contact with the ventilation system.  What she, along with the rest of the political "chatteratti", all commentators included, including me, didn't get...was just how shallow are the roots of political engagement, how very little connection is now made between "politics" and "real life"and consequently, just how volatile political allegiance has become.  

All this makes the prediction game extremely and unusually hazardous.  You've got a submerged Labour Party establishment who were completely convinced that a ruinous campaign would allow them to ditch Corbyn and get "their" ball back.  This turns out to be as ill-starred an expectation as the Scottish Labour Party's abiding conviction that "their" voters would see the light "any day now" and come flooding back penitently to the cold embrace of Old Corruption.  It also seems likely that Ruth Davidson as much as her leader is about to discover the limits of the Cult of Personality (though no one could surely have predicted just how abysmal and unhappy a public performer Theresa May would turn out to be.)  The Corbynites even have the outside possibility of the Hung Parliament that everyone expected LAST time, all unbidden and unwanted, swimming into the realm of possibility THIS time.  With a week to go, there is surely nowhere for the Tory vote to move but down...and it may well be that if the Tories DO scrape home again it will be thanks to their formidable and sub-media ground game in individual constituencies, just as it may well be the local machine politics of the SNP, calling on at least a fraction of their huge, passive membership, that may save 50 or so seats for Nicola Sturgeon.  

The threat of the SNP holding the Balance of Power is likely to dominate the last week of the campaign, as it did in 2015.  But in today's atmosphere, can you really sing the same song twice?  Will the electorate in England, having already had their spasm of nationalist resentment in LAST year's referendum, really respond to another war cry against the Jacobites coming down the hill to Derby?

And here in Scotland, specifically, other questions occur which may or may not be answered next week. If the election South of the border is hard to define, then the election North of the border is very, very clearly about one thing and one thing alone…and it isn’t Brexit as such.  Despite the protests of the SNP, the dominant energies of this election are ALL to do with the prospect of a second referendum.  The very amorphousness of the UK campaign has allowed, with the Labour, Tory and Liberal parties banging on about it endlessly, independence to entirely dominate the debate…both for and against.  This prompts two observations.  One is that Scottish and British politics now seem to be irrevocably divorced.  The other is that the anti-politics mood from which the SNP benefited with the huge protest-vote Tsunami of 2015, now very much includes the SNP.  The “scunnered with all of it” mood which inflected an element of the Yes campaign in 2014 has turned round to bite the Nats. If the Electorate in the UK are acting as if Brexit is settled and done, rather than about to break over our heads with fury, farce and chaos, then the electorate in Scotland are acting, paradoxically, as if the Yes vote won in 2014 and that the SNP can be held to account for the wider failure of politics to make anything better.  It may be that a Rubicon into a new normality has been crossed. 

Or it may not. It may be that when the cards land back on the table, we will all be back exactly where we started…with a Tory government with a small majority, an undefined Brexit and an uneasy, unstable devolution within the UK, as fraying, nervous and unstable as the Prime Minister herself - and a chaotic, undefined, unwilling, angry, messy car crash of a divorce from the EU that none other than a couple of loudmouth loonies in the pub ever really wanted.

As I've said here before , Nobody Knows Anything.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Nobody Knows Anything

Nobody Knows Anything

It may be only for this weekend, it may be an anomaly in the polling, it may not take account of the fearsome intelligence of local campaigning in key marginals as practised by the dark artists of the Tory Party Machine…but what was universally assumed to be a Dead Cert Tory Landslide in the General Election is looking like being a bit of a nail-biter.  It looks like the Tory party have pulled off the trick, for the third time, (Better Together in Indyref 14, Remain in EUref16), of turning an unassailable lead into a narrow squeak…and that the hung parliament that everyone thought was going to happen in 2015 actually might happen this time instead.

Now, bearing in mind what happened in 2014, when one poll result set the Hearts of Oak aflutter...and mobilised the unionists, this may just be a blip, but even if that is all it is, it is beginning to look like “Received Political Wisdom” is fish and chip paper. If nothing else, if Theresa May ends up delivering a majority that will make every vote on Brexit into a constitutional crisis, leave alone a SMALLER majority than now, which leaves the SNP anywhere near a “balance of power” situation (a few by-elections permitting) then every single assumption that the political classes have made about the prospect of Tory hegemony in the UK for the foreseeable future is, like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove caught in the headlights of their unexpected and unwanted Brexit victory last year, left mumbling pale faced and traumatised: “Christ on a bike!  That wasn’t supposed to happen!”

Brexit suddenly isn’t the settled will of anyone anymore…the party in government can’t rely on an electoral boost from a terrorist outrage, the Labour Party might find themselves winning a on a Right Wing Issue like Police numbers with a Left Wing (ish) manifesto.  And here in Scotland, we might well find that the historic “SNP Tsunami” of two years ago leaves us with a Thatcher era number of Tory MPs with the SNP having directly replaced Labour, virtually seat for seat, as a somewhat despised “establishment” party of devolution…the “feeble fifty” de nos jours. 

Honest to God, I’ve no idea what’s happening.  I’m thinking of trading in the Crystal Ball for a Ouija Board.

Maybe part of it is to do with history having a sense of humour: that the democratising advent of social media, like the advent of printing five hundred years ago, is making the world both more promising and more scary at the same time. Maybe Twitter and Facebook and the demon algorithms aren’t so much (or not only) making politics less polite and more open, but are also sealing it in a bubble of specific leisure activity…that this hermetic form of what has always been “show business for ugly people” is now entirely divorced, in the public mind, from the “real world.”

Certainly, from the Socialists in France, the Democrats in the USA and the SPD in Germany to the Labour party in Scotland (to name only the most recent casualties) it is the parties of Social Democracy that have suffered the most from the sundering of the two parts of all of their names.  The Social, with all the work and housing and shopping, is over HERE…and the Democracy, with all the politics and opinions and shit, is WAY over there on Facebook…and paradoxically, it is the comparatively de –classed cohorts of North London Radical Labour who find themselves, in England, wholly against expectation, to be doing much better, at this moment, than I’m sure they ever thought was possible. 

(I don’t think John and Jeremy had any expectation of EVER assuming the offices of state, any more the afore-mentioned Boris and Michael saw themselves as the signatories of an ACTUAL suicide pact for the British economy.)

People voted for Trump…and Macron...and maybe will for Jeremy…and maybe even for Oor Nicola…not just because they might have actually WANTED to be represented by a thuggish moron, a slippery unknown, a retired geography teacher and a National Treasure respectively…but because, what they hell, it’s just Facebook.  Everything is unfixably crap, democracy is a crock of shit, so we might as well be entertained…

This state of the public zeitgeist, would be, of course, for fascists and populists, a consummation devoutly to be wished…and if this is anything like what is going on, it probably has something to do with the breakdown of the neo-Liberal Globalisation project, and the consequent exposure of the moral vacuum at the heart of it…just as Islamo-fascist terrorism does.

Global trends have local consequences.  One of them, on these islands, has been the rise of nationalisms in Scotland and England, with what optimists like Robin McAlpine have described as “Trade Unionism for the People” on the one hand, and Never-Neverland pre-Suez Nostalgia on the other.  Maybe everyone is voting for time machines, either to fling us into a bright, imagined future or into the warm glow of the imagined past.  I still think of the Glasgow Taxi Driver who told me voted to Leave the EU because he wanted to restore Full Employment on the Clyde…”because we used to have that before we joined.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Maybe the present tense, for young and old, is unbearable. Maybe there’s nothing new in this. Maybe this discontent is a constant of our human condition.  Maybe I should stop there before I get too philosophical. Maybe, like William Goldman so wisely said about trying to predict successful movies in Hollywood, “Nobody Knows Anything.” As a fully paid up member of the Political Nerd Club I am probably entirely unqualified to comment. All I know for certain about this election, this weekend anyway, is that the way it’s shaping up is making me feel very excited and very, very old…all at the same time.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Fasten your Seatbelts

Two weeks in, and it is already clear that this is going to be a challenging General Election for the SNP. They have been incumbent in Holyrood for a very long time now - ten years old is ancient for a government -and there is some tiredness and creaking of ministerial knee joints creeping in. Also, a strange paradox of their success since 2011, peaking in 2015 in electoral terms, of the sheer profile and impact they’ve achieved in Scottish life , is that they are more truly accountable to the electorate than at any time in the past. Indeed, they are more vulnerable to democratic scrutiny than any Scottish administration has ever been.

This democratic oversight and parliamentary pressure is, despite tribal sensitivities, a good thing overall.  Governments in Scotland have never really been accountable to anyone before…being too far away from London to appear on the radar most of the time, and immune to popular pressure at home.  A succession of oligarchies have ruled in Scotland (with permission from London) since the Union, and none have ever been especially accountable to a specifically Scottish electorate.  Till now.

And the SNP are indeed feeling the immediate pressure.  They have an organised, motivated, energised Tory Party focusing the Unionist vote in a way that has never been so electorally coherent as it is now.  They also, as of May 11th, have a UK Labour manifesto that may well be attractive to those people on the left in Scotland for whom a socialist agenda underlies the aspiration for independence, for whom the Yes movement is a means and not an end. There may be a disconnect between Corbyn’s vision and the Follow-the-other –lot’s-leader Unionism that Scottish Labour are pursuing, but that is of little importance beside the overwhelming logic, so far, of the General Election campaign as it is playing out in Scotland so far: it is ALL about the SNP.

If, until a few years ago, the territory of Scottish politics, and its territorial ferocity was all about who was the “REAL” opposition to the Tories, Labour or the SNP, now the governing logic is a fight for who occupies the lead opposition spot to the SNP, the Tories or Labour…with Willie Rennie yapping for attention in the background. All the pressure, and certainly all the vitriol, is going to be concentrated not against the Tories and their lunatic attempt to cancel economic and political reality in a wave of Little England blethers, but against that other “bloody difficult woman.”

None of this feels especially healthy or democratically enlightening.  It feels like a rather sick, narrow world to inhabit for the next four weeks. But looking forward, it may well be that the current concentration of furious focus on the SNP on the one hand, and the last chance saloon for any kind of social decency in the UK as embodied by Jeremy Corbyn, may both benefit the Nats in the longer term.  For one thing, this is surely peak Tory in Scotland.  It will surely be very difficult to recruit and maintain many more angry Union diehards than are being recruited right now..not when Brexit bites, not when the Barnett Formula comes under some serious pressure as tax revenues collapse and inflation surges…as both may well do in the next couple of years.  (Why do you think the Tories didn’t want to risk hanging on till 2020 before putting Brexit to the electoral test?)  As for the hopes for a real change of direction in the social disintegration and polarisation of the UK, these hopes now rest with Labour overturning a huge Tory lead in the opinion polls and forming a government in Westminster very much against their own expectations, let alone probability.

Peak Unionist and a progressive UK in the last chance saloon. While the pressure in the present tense may all be on the SNP, who will inevitably lose some of the seats they won in 2015, historically, the pressure is all the other way.  This is on the left and the right, the strongest the forces of the Union look like being for the foreseeable future.  Realistically, there was probably never a prospect of the In dependence project taking the next step till the prospect of Tory little England for that foreseeable future stared us balefully in the face.  The odds overwhelmingly are that this is exactly the long dark tunnel we’ll be looking into on June 9th. If the SNP feel some pressure from the left in the meantime, and can do an exact head count of the Unionist opposition while they’re at it, this may be no bad thing for them in the long or even medium term.

The next four weeks, however, will be a bumpy, angry ride.