Jonathon Shafi

Jonathon Shafi

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“Christ in the Rubble: A liturgy of lament.” This was the title for the service delivered by the Reverend Munther Isaac, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, on December 23rd. Unlike the White House and Westminster, there is no denial of the scale of the ethnic cleansing taking place. Leaders of the so-called ‘free’ lined up one after the other to give the green light for this genocide against a captive population,” says Isaac. “Not only did they make sure to pay the bill in advance, they veiled the truth and context, providing political cover.” As we move into 2024, the Biden administration continues to undermine what remains of the United Nations and international humanitarian law, and regional tensions are escalating. Some are calling for direct military confrontations with Iran. The consequences – political, moral, economic and human – are profound. However, they are not contained by geography and will impact the domestic politics of this country.

Since the turn of the century, meant to be the golden age of Anglo-American dominance, the largest mobilisations of public discontent have been associated with opposition to war. Of course, much of the political establishment is incentivised to underplay the influence of the anti-war movement and to demonise its adherents. After all, such matters should be left to “military experts” and the highest echelons of the state, despite the repeated catastrophes they have unleashed. In this vein, Tony Blair’s decision to march in lock-step with George W Bush over the Iraq war is not separate from the general decline in the quality of democratic life in Britain. Iraq played a key role in breeding alienation from the institutions, and in political shocks like Brexit. As Sir Jeremy Greenstock remarked: “The linkages can be traced from the protests over Iraq in 2003 to the vote in the June 2016 referendum to leave the EU. Iraq has had a real international effect on the UK. I think it is connected with Brexit. It was one of those things that got people in this country thinking our elite, our toffs, our leaders up there are not listening to us, are not looking after us in the way that we want.”

In the Scottish context, Iraq was central to unravelling support for Labour. The SNP joined the demonstrations against the war in 2003 and many members played an active role. Indeed, this is where a young Humza Yousaf cut his political teeth. John Swinney made an important speech as party leader in the Scottish Parliament, where he transmitted an anti-war message which chimed with the demonstrations. As the weapons of mass destruction failed to materialise in the years that followed, and the human toll of the war became clear, Scottish Labour’s electoral prospects were wounded by growing resentment in the 2007 Holyrood election. And foreign policy – whether Iraq, Afghanistan or Trident – raised more fundamental questions about sovereignty. For key activists in the independence movement, especially its younger cohorts who had been politicised by the wars conducted under Tony Blair, these were core ideological motivators in campaigning for a Yes vote.

Today, the demonstrations around Gaza have been at the centre of politics in recent months. Labelled by the erstwhile Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, as “hate marches,” protesters were undeterred. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets one weekend after the next – indeed at a more intensive rate than in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Large numbers of Labour councillors have resigned. Front benchers in the party have lost their positions, unable to support the leadership line. For some, as a matter of principle, but many fear the party’s attitude to events in Gaza threatens their re-election. Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, voted in favour of the ceasefire motion in Holyrood, while Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan also broke with Starmer early on. Meanwhile, that sense of disconnect between large swathes of the electorate who support a ceasefire and much of the political class who have given the green light to collective punishment, including the total siege of Gaza, reanimates the kind of dislocation described by Jeremy Greenstock.

Some have argued that Starmer is not Blair, and Gaza is not Iraq. But this is a little too superficial. What brings back the ghosts of the Blair era is the inability and the unwillingness of the Labour leadership and the Prime Minister in waiting to deviate from Washington. The situation in the Middle East has cemented the notion that the British state is little more than a vassal for American foreign policy imperatives. An unwavering ally, no matter the diplomatic and human cost in a world where military conflict is not just on the agenda, but driving it. The First Minister has asserted a moral line of division in this context. But will this be enough to rebuild momentum around independence? That seems fanciful, thanks to the lack of preparation and campaigning during the Sturgeon era; the absence of a credible prospectus; an SNP which appears to teeter from one crisis to the next; and with the remnants of the 2014 movement disorientated and without direction.

But foreign policy in the Scottish context is going to be a key area of contestation in the coming years. Labour MSP Katy Clark wrote in 2021 that, “lightning rod issues like Trident and unpopular wars such as Iraq have effectively been recruiting sergeants for the cause of independence,” and that “the principle of the union between the nations should be based on the consent of each nation…North of the border, this could require that political decisions relating to defence which specifically affect Scotland – including major decisions on the Trident nuclear weapons system – to also require the consent of the Scottish Parliament or the block of Westminster MPs representing Scottish constituencies in the House of Commons.”

With the US leadership and its DeFacto representatives in Number 10 – whoever should reside there – having failed the most basic tests over Gaza there is little evidence to show that anything has been learned from the foreign policy disasters of the last two decades. As such, a new debate on Scotland’s role, and powers, against such a backdrop is pressing.

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