David Jamieson asks if the dominant parties in England and Scotland are really that stable after a week that challenged both.
Seeking to ride a wave of patriotic feeling around the English national team’s Euro 2020 run, whilst simultaneously denouncing that team from a culture war angle, displays remarkable hubris.
Overconfidence has clearly built-up in Tory circles in the last two years following the 2019 victory, the disarray of Labour and the mood of national solidarity that developed at the height of the pandemic. In recent days the government seem to have misjudged the public mood at a sensitive time in England. One doesn’t need to be very sensitive to notice a mood of euphoria at the end of lockdown measures, which have mixed with the frustrated joy of England’s near miss at a trophy. Apparently, the England team refused to meet Johnson for the traditional reception, feeling they were made a target of enmity by government ministers who criticised them for ‘taking the knee’.
It’s a reminder that so much of the Conservatives’ hegemony depends on the weakness of the official parliamentary opposition, headed by Keir Starmer, who has remained invisible throughout this episode, as so many.
The retreat of social democracy is structural to British politics today, as it is across large parts of Europe. In England, this has seen the Tories transfigure the electoral landscape, robbing Labour of its traditional stores of voting power in the North and Midlands.
The novelty of this situation means we don’t know how well it can be maintained, or the extent of the schisms it may open up in the Tory party. Tom Hazeldine has touched on these questions for the New Left Review blog Sidecar:
“Whether society is as pacified as the current Westminster scene would suggest, beyond party-political disagreements over the schedule for final lockdown easing, is another question. The Conservatives lost the safe Home Counties seat of Chesham and Amersham on 17 June on a huge swing to the Liberal Democrats, having earlier taken Hartlepool from Labour by a similar magnitude. But see-saw byelection results aren’t necessarily destabilising in the aggregate.
“‘Are provincial gains for the long-term? Probably. Can the party hold on to at least most of the affluent South? Definitely’, argues James Frayne, an associate of the Prime Minister’s former advisor Dominic Cummings, writing in the Telegraph. He urges Johnson to hold his nerve and persist with the Vote Leave-derived electoral pivot to working-class voters in the Midlands and the North, although they should dial down the rhetoric – ‘provincial voters doubt “levelling up” could ever happen; affluent Southern voters think they will be fleeced to pay for revolution’.”
In Scotland, the SNP’s hegemony is also predicated on the collapse of Labour and the rise of the national question, but they dynamics are different. Scotland’s national team didn’t ‘take the knee’ (except, tellingly, when playing against England), despite there being blanket political sanction. Little pressure formed around this matter and none of it against the government.
But in recent days the Scottish Government too has been caught overreaching its very considerable political dominance. Following revelations from the SNP party treasurer that ‘ring-fenced’ independence campaign funds (some of them raised from party members, others from the wider independence movement, all on false pretences) had been spent on routine party activities, Police Scotland launched a formal investigation.
Meanwhile the Scottish Government launched yet another advisory group, this time attached to a 10 year “National Strategy” to “unleash entrepreneurial potential and grow Scotland’s competitive business base”. It’s make up is as big business and establishment as that sounds, with the selection of Nick McPherson – a former senior British state official and one-time anti-independence doyen – attracting much attention.
The new advisory group was followed by revelations published by The Ferret that almost a third of Scotland’s largest windfarms are owned by tax avoiders, and that 39 of the largest 50 were owned abroad. This is no mistake, it confirms the model of development established by the Scottish Government itself with its green investment portfolio, which was the product of the last ultra-elite advisory group.
The strange thing about all this is that it is so unnecessary (perhaps not the disappearance of the independence campaign funds – which were apparently necessary to make ends meet). In the recent Scottish elections, the SNP leadership spun any amount of outright nonsense about “four day weeks” and a “National Care Service” which will be purely ethereal when it emerges years from now.
Talking left and walking right is a trick they have perfected. But here they are vaunting entrepreneurship and business competition as the UK economic consensus shifts in a state-interventionist direction.
Both sides of the border, it seems, political leaderships suspended in mid-air by their own successes are losing touch.