There’s something missing from the present national crisis, argues David Jamieson – any distinctive profile for the Scottish national question.
Recent weeks of Tory infighting and the collapse of Liz Truss government have made one thing clear. The period of disruption for British politics, opened by the 2016 Leave vote, did not end with Boris Johnson’s victory in 2019.
Instead, we can now see that the whole British political system is seized by profound structural problems, many of which arise from strategic quandaries of British capitalism. Quite simply, state managers have the task of finding a new way for the system to accumulate profits in a sustainable way, and thus reproduce itself over time. The old model is cracking, and no one in ruling circles yet knows how to replace it.
This is, then, not a simple party crisis for the Conservatives – though the turmoil in this leading institution of the state is important and telling. It is a much more widespread disruption that could throw all kinds of latent contradictions into motion.
These include the structural weaknesses of much British industry; its low productivity and profitability, and a high number of zombie firms in a financially weak position and unlikely to survive as Britain and Europe enter recession. The uptick in industrial unrest implies deep dissatisfaction among increasing sections of the workforce.
Then there is the re-animation of some of the UK’s trickiest national questions. The failure to form an administration at Stormont in Northern Ireland not only continues to erode the power-sharing settlement but calls into question the UK state’s relationship to the EU. It is possible a lobby for EU realignment will feed on the paralysis.
For all the pieces moving into play, one remains frozen – Scotland. From the recent weeks of carnage, you’d never have thought Scotland had a live national question, a dominant national party, its own distinctive institutions such as a parliament, or a body of MPs – the vast majority of whom formally support national independence. There has been almost nothing by way of protest from the SNP.
Ian Blackford, the party leader at Westminster, is content to repeat the same questions as Keir Starmer at PMQs and be laughed off. There are only so many times this can be meaningfully portrayed as ‘contempt for Scotland’ – though that surely exists. Blackford and the SNP Westminster operation have proved themselves ineffectual. Their comfort in the Commons, with its numerous perks, is apparent at a glance.
Sturgeon’s primary demand from the incoming government has been a phone call, so outraged has she been that Truss never made one to the first minister. This request for courtesy and due respect was met within hours of Sunak taking up the job, and so what?
As is so often the case with the SNP leadership, a more political demand – for a General Election – was briefly picked up, shaken around a bit, and then dropped. Once again, as before, Nicola Sturgeon has refused to put any muscle behind demands for democratic rights.
Notwithstanding her determination to run-down the movement of pro-independence street marches in Scotland in recent years, she could call a Scotland-wide demonstration for a General Election tomorrow and there’s little doubt that tens of thousands would appear. And that’s why she won’t do it. The SNP leadership is actively suspicious of social movements, and doesn’t want to help anything into existence that could upset their current arrangement.
Short of this, Sturgeon could support the Britain-wide demonstration for a General Election in London on 5 November. After all, she was perfectly happy to back London People’s Vote marches and take selfies alongside ghouls like Alastair Campbell (even as she ignored the independence movement in Scotland). But even this is too far. It’s one thing to support public demonstrations for the maintenance of the status quo, quite another to encourage a fight against a Prime Minister and a Chancellor favoured by institutions, like the Bank of England and ‘the markets’, to which she has tied her politics.
For his part Rishi Sunak has already ruled out an independence referendum, on the grounds that a period of economic instability is not the right time for it to take place. This is a feeble excuse covering the denial of basic democratic rights, but Sturgeon and SNP colleagues have already made arguments of this kind on numerous occasions to dodge responsibility to fight for a referendum.
On one hand, the traditional stasis of the SNP leadership’s phoney independence drive continues. But there has probably never been a time since 2012 that the cause of independence was in so little evidence.
One does not need to be a Scottish nationalist, nor even a supporter of independence, to recognise the dysfunction evident here. Once again, Scotland is bracing itself for spending cuts devolved from Westminster. There is no evidence of either an independence movement or an anti-cuts movement from a governing party that makes much of its opposition to London rule. SNP politicians will pass on cuts budgets just as they have for well over a decade (Finance Minister Kate Forbes pledged tens of thousands of public sector jobs cuts even before the recent drama).
This is deeper than an SNP problem. There isn’t a single party in the Scottish Parliament that would resist cuts budgets or the democratic prolapse this predicament represents. The whole Scottish national dynamic is lying prostrate before events. Our political class is absent and futile. Initiative can only come from elsewhere.