The deeper Britain heads into economic and political crisis, the less willing the SNP leadership will be to fight for independence, argues Jonathon Shafi.
This article was reposted from the Independence Captured newsletter.
In 1959, John F Kennedy, then a Senator, made a speech in which he stated: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.”
It had all the poetry and elegance of language for which he was known. Yet, in one respect, he was incorrect. The Chinese word for crisis, does not contain anything resembling the notion of opportunity. Despite this, the incorrect interpretation of the Chinese word for crisis, “wēijī,” has been widely deployed in the West by everyone from political pundits and commentators to New Age movements.
But perhaps that is because, regardless of the mistranslation, the concept is so widely regarded as a truth. That, indeed, crisis can also represent an opportunity. Without the preceding disarray, the required convulsions do not take place to allow for the opening up of new frontiers.
One place, however, which appears to be hermetically sealed from any such idea is SNP Headquarters. This week we assess the way in which the SNP leadership have sought to navigate the latest, perilous events which have afflicted the Tory party, and by extension the British state.
We will also go further than stating the obvious, that the party and its leading figures in both Scotland and Westminster have failed to exploit the manifest opportunity in front of them to put the independence cause at the centre of developments, to ask why this is the case.
In short, recent weeks have revealed twin crises. That of the Tory party and the architecture of the British institutions, and that of the SNP leadership and their inability to prosecute an independence strategy that meets the challenges, and opportunities, of the hour.
The nature of the crisis
At Independence Captured, we have already explored the major faultlines in the Tory party. These reflect broader divergences in the British ruling class as a whole, as they search for a way forward politically and economically. Of course, Brexit is part of this process. It has created an unsolvable puzzle, as well as a series of interlocking conflicts, between the leadership of the British state, the primary party of British capital, the financial institutions, the Confederation of British Industry and so on.
But those who refer to the departure from the EU as the “original sin” perhaps use an appropriate phrase give the semi-religious feeling liberals north and south of the border have for the project of European integration via Brussels. Such a view is a rejection of material reality, which shows the problems pre-date Brexit. The circumstances that led to Brexit are not just rooted in the Tory party, either. They stem too from the way New Labour governed. Events such as the Iraq war tore into the body politic in unpredictable ways.
Brexit is just one example of an international phenomenon. There have been all kinds of responses to the failures of corporate globalisation. Again, the columnists racking up the retweets with tales of the exceptional nature of the British populist right could not be more inward looking. The radical right exists in more advanced form in continental Europe. Look to Italy, where the election of Georgia Meloni heralds the most right-wing government since Mussolini.
The point is that the crisis in the Tory party is multifaceted, deep set and despite the installation of Rishi Sunak, is not coming to an end any time soon. Writing in the months preceding the Johnson implosion, Fraser Nelson of the Spectator wrote:
“…we have a recipe for multi-dimensional Tory wars: high spenders vs the frugal, Scots vs English, Northerners vs Southerners, Brexit radicals vs incrementalists, free traders vs protectionists. All fought, quite plausibly, with a toolkit of dirty tricks.”
On the day after Johnson resigned as Prime Minister, I wrote:
“…the mainstream of the establishment is tilting towards a scenario which attempts to move the Tories beyond the wreckage of recent years. One which looks to draw a line under the Brexit era, building strong relationships with the White House, establishing a new dynamic with Scotland and focussing on rebuilding from the pandemic. Getting there, cleanly and without rancour, is a much more complicated issue.”
Perhaps this underestimated the degree to which the Tory party has embibed the Kool-Aid. Firstly, they failed to move Sunak into position, having been rebuked by the membership who opted for Liz Truss. Though her mandate was less than overwhelming, she set up a cabinet which excluded rival factions. This meant, from the start, she would have to avoid missteps and mistakes.
As we know, the precise opposite was to transpire. Kwasi Kwertang attempted to push through a budget which played out the fantasies of the libertarian right in real time. This led to a full blown crisis, in which the International Monetary Fund had to intervene. The pound plummeted. The Bank of England stepped in to prevent a £50bn fire sale of gilts that would have taken Britain to the brink of a financial crisis, buying £65bn in gilts over a 13-day period.
Sir Jon Cunliffe, the Bank of England’s deputy governor for financial stability, in a letter to the chair of parliament’s Treasury committee, put it bluntly. That without such intervention, there was the live threat of, “severe disruption of core funding markets and consequent widespread financial instability.”
Truss was evidently unable to deal with anything approaching this magnitude. She appeared disconnected from events to the point of being unable to form meaningful sentences in response to criticisms. Sacrificing Kwarteng merely stymied the inevitable. After a few weeks in the job, she was finished. A profoundly unimpressive character left the political scene. Britain’s reputation among its piers was already shattered. Now, it was lying in a ditch, with many asking if it could possibly recover.
As the polls sank to record lows, the Tory hierarchy needed to move swiftly. They would have a new leader, and the country a new Prime Minister, in short order. Setting a tight time scale for a fresh leadership election, and the barrier of requiring the backing of 100 MPs, they hoped to avoid yet another period of blood letting.
“Party gate” seemed like a long time ago, despite its proximity. Johsnon, disgraced in every conceivable way, made his move from a beach holiday. Could he come back? Rumour of his meeting the required backing circulated. It would be Johnson versus Sunak. Yet more divsision in a party riven with ever deepening splits.
In the end, Sunak was the only candidate to make the ballot. We had, then, the imposition of an unelected billionaire, tasked with unleashing more austerity. The “tough decisions” would affect millions of people and thousands of communities already on the receiving end of ten years of cuts. Everything is, it appears, up for grabs. Including the triple lock on pensions.
Even now, with Sunak in place, the party is going to limp from one disaster to the next, each time inflaming the unresolved splits. Just into his premiership we can see how weak a position he is in. Suella Braverman, and instrument of the ERG, is back in the Home Office, where she has already defined the party under the reign of Sunak as that of the far-right. In another sop to the right of the party, Sunak claimed he wouldn’t go to COP. That was until Boris Johnson revealed he would be in attendance.
Be in no doubt about two things. First: the severity and depth of the political and economic crisis over the last period. Second: the Tory crisis has not been resolved, and is subject to many more eruptions between now and the next election, whenever that may be. Meanwhile the economic front is only going to get choppier.
Where is the SNP response?
Given all of this, we might raise a question. How have the SNP responded? There has been next to zero inclination towards turning the Tory crisis into a platfrom for independence. This is not a new phenomenon. Many of us have been charting the litany of missed opportunities to advance the arguments for independence for several years. This is not an exception to the rule. It is the rule.
There are some very good SNP MPs. But as a unit, under the leadership of Ian Blackford, they couldn’t muster a single stunt to place the question of Scottish democracy at the heart of events. Never mind interrupting the workings of Westminster, they couldn’t bring themselves to organise a photocall or an emergency press conference to place their demands on the table.
When the SNP MPs arrived in 2015 to Westminster, they did so on the back of the post-2014 surge towards the party. They were there to “stand up for Scotland” and so on. Jacob Rees-Mogg welcomed them to Wesminster by complimenting their good order. In 2015 he remarked of the party:
“They take the House of Commons very seriously, they are always there, they participate in debates and they take the Commons more seriously than a lot of MPs, so I’m becoming rather pro the SNP.”
His point, which has proven accurate, was to say that the SNP could be very easily institutionalised into the Westminster system. That, without doubt, they have been. The SNP at Westminster are to all intents and purposes a British party, working to a UK wide agenda. They are not there as a detachment of the independence movement, agitating for the break-up of the British state.
What have they achieved when it comes to independence? Blackford makes his pantomime like speech and to be frank, the opposition benches lap it up. A bit of entertainment before retiring to the tearoom. There is nothing about their orientation that suggests they are preparing for independence. On Brexit, their modus operandi was to join a coalition of parties to oppose the UK exiting the EU, rather than pursuing a course of action aimed at delivering Scottish statehood.
Today, and in recent weeks, the SNP leadership at Westminster have been focussed on rebalancing British institutions, just as they hoped to do during the height of the Brexit crisis. They talk of the need for “stability” and for UK wide economic growth. For a party that used to berate Scottish Labour MPs as the feeble 50, they seem not to have learned from their own history.
Just as they, and the SNP as a whole, meekly accepted Johnson’s refusal of a Section 30 order on his last day as Prime Minister, they appeared to refuse to take seriously the deepest crisis of the Tory party in government in living memory. We shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of dynamism, given the flatness of the SNP conference. Nor should we be shocked at the lack of imagination, creativity or elan on display.
The truth is, there’s just nothing there. As we have meticulously covered, they still don’t have a workable or credible economic plan. Indeed, they were neutered as the pound collapsed, since their prospectus advocates that the Bank of England should govern Scottish monetary policy even after so-called independence is declared. As I have repeated since embarking on this project, this approach is leaving the independence movement stranded and disorientated.
The best that can be mustered is, yet again, a rehashing of lines that could be applied at any time in the last decade of Scottish nationalism. That Scots don’t vote Tory. That Westminster is a “shambles.” That the Tories should not be allowed to get away with more austerity. All of these are simply holding positions. They represent nothing approaching the kind of political courage and intent required to make a forceful and compelling argument for an independent Scottish state at a time when the Tories are in freefall, and as the certainties of the provisions of the British state are in such flux.
It is remarkable how quickly things just seem to come and go, passing by an SNP leadership which has no desire to face the wicked questions around independence head on. Thus, the White Paper on the economy blinks in and out of SNP output. There is little to no fanfare around it. It fails to precipitate any new campaigning materials. Even the party’s own MSPs and MPs are at least unsure about it, with scant few promoting it. Don’t worry, though, at least we have the new “broadcast platform” ready to reach into every home and workplace with a revamped case for an independence which is closer than ever.
Apologies. Sarcasm, I know, is the lowest form of wit. But at this point, where else is their to turn? Even the major set piece around a referendum, at the Supreme Court, came and went without causing so much as a ripple. There is no attempt to interweave a steadily building case for independence, or indeed, strategic advancements towards a referendum.
A lack of preparation
So, ask yourself. Why, as the Tories fall apart, at the height of the crisis of the last period, did the SNP not counterpose the democratic arguments for a referendum and the debates at the Supreme Court with the broken democracy of the UK? Yes, they called for a general election. But you struggle to find any spokesperson pressing the pedal to the metal around “indyref2” or independence.
Indeed, as MPs were interviewed in television studios, there was even the need for presenters to prompt SNP spokespeople to mention independence at all. There has been a total absence of any street based movement responding to events on top of the turgid approach taken by the official party of independence. But who can blame independence supporters for failing to spring into action, if their leaders are refusing to lead and if there is no real belief that independence is on the near horizon.
As you read this, you can probably hear the words of cunning Special Advisors: “Don’t interrupt your enemy when they are making a mistake.” Sometimes there is a case for that, of course. But in this situation there is only so many times the independence cause can be demobilised in the face of the chaos in the Tory party and the British state, before passivity and demoralisation sets in. In truth, it already has.
But here there is a deeper point. There is a school of thought that hypothesises on the inevitability of independence. I remember speaking to people after big and bustling Yes meetings in 2014. I’d ask how they think it was going. More often than not people would respond by saying “oh, we will win by at least 60% of the vote” or words to that effect. Now, don’t get me wrong, you need to have confidence in the cause you are advocating for. But you also need to retain the ability to look at things objectively in order to direct a more effective strategy, rather than simply fostering illusions.
In this vein, there are many who argue that all independence supporters need to do, is to let the polls grow in favour of “Yes” as a result of malfeasance at Westminster and the revulsion at the Tories. This is true to the extent that part of the reason why independence remains at between 45% and 50% is largely due to the nature of the UK Government, and not because the SNP has presented a standalone case. But that’s about as far as it will take matters.
Without active interventions, without a prospectus based on sovereignty rather than continuity, and without a campaign, the dial won’t shift no matter how explosive the situation in Westminster is. Agency is required. Intervention is not an optional extra. Without it, events simply pass by, much like the SNP’s independence “initiatives.” Each time an opportunity comes and goes, the movement is a little weaker, a little less sure of itself and a little more passive than before. We have now been through this process many times.
Imagine, there was a fully fledged independence campaign, a real prospectus for Scottish transformation and statehood, and a leadership with the ability to push each of these elements forward when the opportunities present themselves. That would stand a chance of shifting public opinion more decisively. That could generate the kind of popular movement required for the task.
Once again, the lack of preparation is obvious and resounding.
Why the SNP leadership as passive
Whether you support independence or not, questions have to be asked. Why are preparations so lax? Why are the SNP so muted in the face of the scale of the crisis? There are a few answers to this, which should be widely discussed and debated.
Look again at the prospectus and the attitude of the SNP leadership. It can be summed up in one word: continuity. They are strictly aligned to British and transnational institutions at all levels; social, political and economic. No risk, no challenging of orthodoxy and a totalising capitulation to the corporate sector and international capital. They seek only to imbue themselves further with every element of the status quo, from the monarchy to the Bank of England. They are, in simple terms, an extension of the British state itself.
Thus, when there is a major crisis, they don’t want to “add to it” by stepping up the pace or sharpening the messaging of the independence cause. To do that would undermine their carefully crafted approach to all politics, based on being a responsible and predictable actor for the mainstream of the establishment in Britain, Europe and beyond.
The last thing, then, that Nicola Sturgeon wants to be seen as is the leader of a national movement intent on utilising the disarray of the British state in a way that adds another dimension of instability. For the First Minister, this is intolerable, and she is unwilling to take such action. This is why, in reality, at the height of the crisis not only was independence not front and centre, but it went into retreat.
Opposing Brexit, for example, is much safer ground than pushing hard for independence, because it aligns the SNP with the European and transnational mainstream. In the same way, during the acute and precarious recent few weeks for the British state, the safer ground was simply to fall behind the mainstream of the Westminster political opposition, and indeed, the financial markets.
In addition, every glimpse into a major political and economic crisis further chills the SNP leadership when it comes to delivering independence. Because that process can’t and won’t happen without disruption. It is simply impossible for it to be seamless. Borders, currency, EU membership, the attitude of the State Department and the ways in which institutional and market power will militate against it cannot be assuaged to the point of a frictionless separation.
In such circumstances, it will be the First Minister and her government in the midst of a crisis they simply cannot navigate because they will never challenge the status quo. The pain involved in such a project is gargantuan in comparison the relative political benefits of ensuring independence never gets to such a stage and remains as a rhetorical and electoral device.
Such is their desire to avoid any and all conflict, they have evacuated independence of any meaningful content, should such a moment accidentally come to pass. They would be turning up to any future negotiations with the white flag already hoisted. It is not just a question of this present SNP leadership. There are structural barriers to independence that would have to be overcome no matter who was in place. But since we are dealing with things as they stand, it is worth stating that Nicola Sturgeon is also thinking about her own, personal, prospects like most leading politicians.
In the world she will go into, the onus is on diplomacy, on steering a steady ship and on being one of the infamous “adults in the room.” They, and she, could not be more averse to being part of the discordant energies that are driving events. Instead, their role is to attempt to preserve institutions, and to sustain the orthodoxies attached to them. A strand of No voting middle Scotland has flirted with independence, and the SNP, on this basis.
This, in combination, is why the SNP leadership did not take the opening presented to them by the Tories to prosecute an elevation in the campaign for independence. This is why none of the infrastructure required to push the independence movement forward exists. This is why the prospectus makes no sense for a pro-independence party. This is why the Supreme Court comes and goes, and why Johnson’s rejection of a Section 30 passes without comment, even on the day he leaves office in disgrace. This is why the SNP MPs sat and watched, agog, and did nothing.
This, utlimatley, is why the SNP leaderhsip cannot, and will not, deliver independence for Scotland.
Independence = crisis