The SNP’s conformism means there is no official Scottish political response to yet more Tory party infighting, argues David Jamieson.
It’s notable how important the 1922 Committee – the private members’ den of Tory parliamentarians – has become to UK politics. A strange feeling of time standing still must have occurred to anyone watching the failed bid to oust Boris Johnson as leader of the party and Prime Minister, just three and a half years after a similar attempt to dump his predecessor.
Whatever else this expresses about divisions in the Tory party over narrow electoralist concerns or differences about the future of the country, it also reflects the weakness of parliamentary opposition. The Tories feel sufficiently insulated from Labour, SNP and Lib Dem efforts that they are content to scrap in public. The only real question in an election, the theory goes, is if the Tory party is led by the right sort – not what opposition parties might do.
Labour failed to make much hay in the recent local elections. The SNP meanwhile, remain electorally strong. But its supposed flagship policy of independence is simply not a factor in the present Westminster crisis.
It’s no longer just journals like Conter that notice. BBC political correspondent Philip Sim Tweeted from the fray:
Obviously when a party is tearing itself apart, the best thing for opponents to do is stand aside (and laugh). But it feels slightly striking at this moment of utter chaos in the UK govt that there apparently isn’t much in the way of an independence campaign seeking to capitalise
Maybe it’s coming…but bearing in mind that indyref2 is meant to be not much more than a year away, you’d think Yes supporters might have been hoping for a bit more urgency in terms of campaign machinery whirring to life than a Nicola Sturgeon tweet about democratic deficits
He was responding to the reticence of SNP leaders even to use the word ‘independence’. Westminster leader Ian Blackford instead used his prime time media slots to appeal to the sense of propriety that must surround British institutions: “We cannot have a leader of the United Kingdom that behaves that way. That thinks he’s above the law.”
Blackford went on to demand the rights of the House of Commons, the sanctity of the ministerial code, and the effectiveness of parliamentary ethics watchdogs that he felt sure would deal with Johnson in short order. A critical attitude to the British state, let alone Scottish nationalism, was in very short supply.
As Sims notes, it’s little over a year before the supposed 2023 referendum takes place (a vote in Scotland in the winter months is extremely unlikely). And so far, all we have is an SNP praising the institutions of the “United Kingdom”, and asserting that it is not the traditions of UK prime ministers to act above the law. Remember, this is the nationalism nostalgic for the days when Alistair Campbell interpreted the legality of war.
Yet faintly, in the background of the tawdry dispute between Tory factions – each venal as the next – there are murmurings about the future of British capitalism. Some of Johnson’s backbench detractors want a more traditional Tory approach to the state – focusing on lower taxes – as a means to appeal to the Tory base and as a response to the cost of living crisis. This jars somewhat with the Tory record since even before the pandemic.
Nationalisations, public stakes in private firms, direct handouts from an oil profits windfall tax and more all point to a strategy of state intervention in the interests of big capital. As economist James Meadway argues:
“The national lockdown merely accelerated this statist tendency. Even if one excludes additional Covid spending, the government is now set to spend more as a share of GDP than the average level under Tony Blair.”
A faction is now forming in the party which is critical of this approach – but with no real alternative prospectus beyond the prejudices of the ‘treasury wing’ of the party: traditional small state and austerian platitudes that offer nothing in a supply chain crisis with shrivelling demand for all goods beyond the basics.
No regime that arises from this debate means good things for working class people. Yet it remains the case that the Tory party seems to be the only place where any debate about the economy is taking place. The Labour leadership remains obsessed with appearing loyal to the state after the disruption of the Corbyn years, and, quite bizarrely if not unexpectedly, so do SNP leaders.
Nothing useful is likely to emerge from the parliamentary-political sphere in the coming period. The official independence prospectus is perhaps the most becalmed and conformist area of anti-Tory sentiment. Any answer to the crisis facing millions must come from elsewhere.