50 More Days of the ‘Come What May’ Attitude: Is She Looking for Backing, Silencing Dissenting Voices by Establishing Her One Party State, or Just Worried About the Crown Prosecution Service Amputating Her Majority?

Waking up to snow blizzards in Munich in the second half of April, and Theresa May has apparently called a General Election for June 8th – after saying she would do nothing of the sort for the last 8 months (she last reiterated this via a spokesperson on March 21st).

She gave a series of reasons for this turnaround, a mere 21 days after raising Article 50, citing ‘disunity’ in Westminster in contrast to the ‘coming together’ she imagined over the weekend in her ‘God Loves a BrExiter’ beatific Easter Sunday message to the nation. The House of Lords – an unelected chamber that has been a bulwark for the Conservatives and the establishment for centuries – was suddenly the ‘enemy within’ (although their amendments were quickly removed by the House of Commons). The Labour Party was identified as a problem – despite the fact that they (regardless of their leader’s wishes) have shown zero inclination to vote against anything proposed by Theresa’s government, BrExit or otherwise, so scared are they of looking like anything other than Red Tories. Even having helped Theresa obtain a majority for the BrExit bill, she felt threatened by them because they have apparently said they might vote against the final EU agreement that she would bring to Westminster after negotiations were complete. But…surely, in allowing the idea that the Commons could vote on that final agreement, as Theresa had already proposed, that means that people could vote other ways than just supporting whatever pig’s ear of a piece of nonsense she turned up with? (Although, to be fair, on recent form she may have just been expecting Labour to abstain.) But to her, ‘disagreement’ may simply be synonymous with ‘division’.

In her speech on Tuesday morning outside Downing Street, where she had left a cabinet meeting, she invoked the ‘national interest’ – a codified phrase for ‘everyone should unquestioningly be supporting me as the leader of government, come what may’. And she appealed to the public to back her, with her cartoon supervillain line of ‘Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger’. (No secret glowing amulet was immediately visible at her neck.)

It is perhaps significant that her domestic policies are being blocked by members in her own party in a way that her BrExit moves are most certainly not – this notion of a ‘Westminster Fifth Column’ against her BrExit is nonsense, and it is more likely that she is simply creating this myth as a pretext to get past domestic opposition from within her own party. So it may at first sight seem a little strange that she has chosen this path – especially as private polling for the Conservatives by Crosby Textor from only a couple of weeks ago (see 5th April, the New Statesman New Statesman ) indicated that more or less all the Conservatives’ 2015 gains from the LibDems looked to be returned to them in the event of an early general election call. But projections from the weekend’s two polls suggest that this move will increase her majority from 17 to somewhere between 100 and 140, and this would most likely help her a lot in bringing her domestic will to bear. She is clothing her own weakness in her capacity as leader of her own party in the robes of imagined ‘traitors’ to her at Westminster – she will brook no opposition to ‘The May Way’ from within her own party. Because, it’s…y’know…’divisive’. (Or ‘different’ – that has been a very popular thing for Conservatives to complain about, since they started adopting UKIP’s finery – perhaps they are just taking that fear of ‘difference’ that little bit further?)

She did note her current small majority of 17 seats in Tuesday morning’s announcement of the June 8th General Election – and perhaps that is the key deciding factor for her…perhaps even more than the 20-21 point lead over Labour that those two polls over the weekend gave her. It is worth noting that early the same morning as May’s announcement, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that they would deliver their judgement on Tory election fraud in the 2015 General Election in the next few days. With fifteen police forces having handed files to the CPS regarding possible electoral fraud, and 30 individuals consisting of sitting Conservative MPs and their agents under consideration for charges as a result, the chance of Theresa May losing (or having vastly reduced) her current 17 seat majority cannot have been far from any strategic decision that she made in the cabinet meeting before she walked out of Number 10 to stand in front of the cameras to announce the snap election. The CPS will now be in an invidious position in terms of making a decision, given that many of the suspected electoral fraudster MPs will already be out campaigning by the time such a decision is announced. Despite this, Theresa has made clear that she has no problem with those individual MPs standing for the June election – in spite of the fact that they might be under investigation for – and guilty of – criminal wrongdoing in campaigning for the previous General election. (Having said that, a by-election to a Manchester seat has also been confirmed as going ahead shortly, in spite of the fact that it will be to a doomed parliament with less than 50 days to run – farce may simply be compulsory for General Election 2017.)

Within minutes of Tuesday’s announcement, the pound started to recover (by around 1% against both US Dollar and Euro), with London stocks similarly falling (90% of the FTSE 100 fell – see image above, from Newsnet ) – perhaps because the markets could see a glimmer of light for the first time that maybe the London financial market was not going to disappear into the wilderness for 40 years plus due to BrExit locking it out of the European Union (but more likely because businesses relying on income from abroad would start to lose with a strengthening pound…still, it is a nice idea that that might be the cause.).

In recent weeks, Theresa May has looked by turns confused (this is just the latest position that she has reversed on), isolated, at times even quite dangerously deluded – anything but strong, as her narrative of a resolute hard and successful BrExit went cascading off the rails before she had even raised Article 50, with Nicola Sturgeon so predictably preempting her, ensuring no easy negotiations with the EU. She has looked so out of her depth – up to and including calling this ‘snap’ election – that she has seemed the real ‘player of political games’ – playing at being a grown-up possessing the political aptitude to carry out the responsibilities of the position that she occupies, when she clearly does not.

Making a move to use local council elections in Scotland as a vote against an independence referendum mandate secured by the SNP and Scottish Greens in last year’s Holyrood election was a strange tactical move by her, and could be seen as wrong on many levels – but perhaps the most important one being that it is hijacking an election of representatives for local councils which have nothing whatsoever to do with referenda. In short: prioritising the election of a political gesture so that the electorate feel pressured into using their vote for something other than selecting the best council service representative – then are stuck with that individual instead of the representative that they might have selected to do the job for 5 years, as opposed to be a proxy for 1 day of election result exploitation. (An almost Mayfly-like fleeting political existence, one might say.)

In contrast, at least in calling a General Election as a vote of confidence in her (thus far) unmandated BrExit strategy, May’s result will actually be relevant to the representatives elected, in that the elected MPs will actually have an influence as representatives on that BrExit process (even if it is merely as her personal rubber stamp in the House of Commons) – unlike electing council representatives as a proxy for whether or not an already-mandated Scottish independence referendum happens.

[This is a bit of an academic sidebar of a question now, perhaps, but what would have been the benchmark criteria for that, anyway? How could one say a win or a loss either way for May? Simply whether or not the Conservative vote share increased? The SNP’s went down? Or just a straight win on numbers? Or numbers of councils controlled? This question now looks to be applicable to the General Election in 50 days time, as far as Scotland is concerned…what – if anything – would Theresa ‘accept’ as not undermining the Scottish Government’s current mandate? The right wing press are arguing that – less than a direct measure of one party’s fortunes relative to another’s – any metric that in any way declines for the SNP (be it seats, votes cast, vote share, numbers of jellybeans) at all from its astonishing current level, would be swiftly interpreted as a ‘Conservative victory’. But surely – if she is effectively ignoring the mandates of the devolved parliament in Edinburgh, then we are back to the old pre-devolution metric – that a majority of Scottish MPs being SNP would automatically start negotiations for independence?]

Regardless of this, something appears to have changed since Theresa May’s Easter Sunday message about ‘sensing a coming together’ behind BrExit – although one could easily argue that her Easter message was all about establishing a narrative that ‘the country was unifying’, when there was precious little evidence that it was doing anything of the sort, so that she could justify calling a General Election against those naughty (and possibly largely fictional?) MPs who were not mirroring that ‘pattern’. In fact, one could far more easily make the counter argument: the 52% to 48% vote for leaving the European Union has shown little sign of change, whereas the vote to raise Article 50 in Westminster was achieved with a 498 to 114 majority. If anything, the country remains divided, whereas Westminster has – inexplicably, and with a few noteworthy exceptions – united behind her headlong charge at national self-harm.

Although yesterday Theresa May managed to suspend the Fixed Term Act (another tight vote in the House of Commons that she barely scraped through by 522 in favour and 13 against – another ‘clear example’ of Westminster refusing to support anything she does for BrExit…) brought in by her predecessor David Cameron to stop Prime Ministers opportunistically calling elections based on positive opinion polls (although the veracity and sincerity of that move by Cameron is open to question, see here), what might have been of more immediate concern to her was the possible fixed term sentences (a year in prison) that might be handed out to a possible 15-30 of her sitting MPs.

So once again it seems that Britain’s future is being thrown into the tombola wheel – or perhaps simply under the nearest leftover ‘Leave’ campaign bus – purely for the sake of the Conservative Party leadership. By the time May began the debate yesterday to suspend the Fixed Terms Act in parliament, the Crown Prosecution Service had indicated to Channel 4 News that the early General Election would not affect their prosecutions of any of the 30 individuals that they are currently considering charging in connection with 2015’s Conservative Party electoral fraud. And perhaps that was what had changed since her broadcast message on Sunday.

Perhaps May simply knows that the police investigations are not going so well for some of her MPs, and is therefore choosing to jump before the collar (to use the vernacular) is felt of the ‘May Majority’ – to consolidate it, before it is taken from her by her dear BrExit friend – the judiciary.

 

“If any hint of that impending reality has dawned on the UK Prime Minister then she will move heaven and earth to stop Scotland being given an option to choose a better, more progressive, international and egalitarian national culture than post-Brexit Britain can offer…Not least since without Scotland, the UK’s balance of payments deficit would collapse the UK economy and Sterling would sink below the dollar without Scottish exports of food and drink and oil and gas. ..If Scotland’s independence referendum is announced before the Brexit negotiations complete, then the only bargaining chip Theresa May has to retain financial passporting, is offering access to Scottish fishing waters, and if Scotland is to become independent with an option to be fast tracked to full EU membership after a period of EFTA/EEA single market access (if we want it) then May will enter the Brexit negotiations empty handed while simultaneously facing ScotRef, where the economic certainty of the single market, and potentially hundreds of thousands of new jobs would be on offer to an independent Scotland.” (Gordon Macintyre-Kemp, 7/4/2017)

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When the Dykes Held Firm: the Dutch withstand the onslaught of the Alt-Right Tidal Wave from the West…this time

There is a narrative about the last 12 months in western politics, whereby (without going into the realms of tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theories), BrExit and Trump’s election are part of a global phenomenon – a wave across the world, a rise of right wing politics. (Indeed, within Scottish politics, many of us in Yes, would add the ‘No’ vote in the 2014 referendum to this trend, as it bears the same hallmarks of support and funding by the same groups that delivered the Leave vote as well as Trump’s victory – see here and here). Under the terms of this narrative, Trump’s victory sweeps east across the Atlantic like an Alt-Tsunami, sweeping BrExit to the hard right, and thunders towards mainland continental Europe, where a series of right wing parties are poised with forthcoming elections to sweep back civil rights, demonise immigrants and generally move towards the door out of the European Union. Graphic image, isn’t it? I can almost see Roland Emmerich applying for the right to make the movie.

Within the narrative of this political catastrophe, March 15th 2017 was the first real test of how the wave was going to strike, with the parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, followed by France in just under two weeks time in April, and Germany in September. And in February, it seemed that the rumoured apocalypse was going to happen: the far right PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid, or Party for Freedom) was on course to become the largest political party in the new Dutch parliament, standing to win 35 seats in a parliament with a 75 majority. In the wake of a coalition between the conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie – VVD) and the Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid – PvdA), in which the Labour Party was disappearing in the polls (as did the LibDems in the UK, after their similarly disastrous coalition with the Conservatives), this was a significant problem, with the PVV led by Geert Wilders (who is, indeed the only member of this party) looking to take much of VVD’s political support. All the political parties that were running for the Dutch Parliament vowed not to work with Wilders even if he was successful…but many are the political parties who have espoused fine values until the ballot stations are closed, then will do a deal with whomever is necessary, in order to be a part of government.

The conservative VVD had been less outspokenly xenophobic in its rhetoric than the PVV – and opposed PVV’s advocacy of the Netherlands leaving the EU (‘Auf Niedersehen’ – or ‘NExit’ – as it was less imaginatively dubbed) – but in the final run-up to the vote, the VVD’s leader, the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte looked to try to take the fight to the PVV…by beginning to ape their language. This is a similar scenario to the recent one faced by London’s Conservative Party, who in late 2014-early 2015 moved to disempower UKIP by occupying a similar anti-EU and anti-immigration position. (And we all know how that brilliant strategy is currently working out.) Rutte launched an advertising campaign touting supposedly ‘Dutch values’, with ‘Doe normaal of Ga weg’ (‘Act normal or Go home’, reminiscent of Theresa May’s advertising campaign during her time as Home Secretary) as the strapline. Then, as a further move to triangulate on PVV’s electoral support in the week running up to the election, he engineered a confrontation with Turkish government officials visiting the Netherlands to speak to Turkish voters there. In the high-profile statements and expulsions of diplomats from the country, Wilders was all but absent, only able to stand by while Prime Minister Rutte used his position in government to ‘act tough on foreigners’, clearly positioning himself as a crypto-Wilders to the PVV’s would-be supporters. By this final week, the polls were already showing a slide from the PVV’s high water mark the previous month, but after the confrontation between Rutte and Erdogan,  it seemed that the VVD had consolidated their position to be the largest party.

I was watching the election coverage with an apprehensive group of Dutch academics at Munich University on the night (the picture above shows the whiteboard in the common room, with predictions and the exit poll figures in black), and sure enough, the exit polls came through as the polling stations were closing (a few had to remain open as they had had an unexpectedly high demand and so had run out of ballot papers), and PVV were projected to be equal second with two other parties (Democrats 66 and the Christian Democrats) on 19 (only gaining 4 new seats, instead of the previously predicted 20), and the VVD remaining the largest party on 31 (losing 10 seats). There was some relief…but over the next couple of days, the final tallies came through, and VVD finished on 33 seats, with Wilders’ Party on 20 – the second largest in the Dutch Parliament.

Tom – a friend in Amsterdam – had made a schoolboy error, arguing that everyone in his extended family should vote for the VVD to keep Wilders out (the VVD were weak in Amsterdam, so it is debatable how much this strategy would have worked anyway – at a time when the Greens were in the ascendancy, a vote for them would have been a more effective use of his franchise). But more than a wasted vote, the approach of voting for the VVD as an attempt to undermine the PVV, is of course counter-productive – it reinforces the support for a party espousing overtly right wing mantras – effectively borrowing PVV’s political ‘clothes’ – and thus validating that rhetoric and keeping the ground free politically for the continued expansion of the VVD to the right. Such a vote validates VVD’s xenophobic approach (ironically, Tom has a Polish wife, so this may well lead to a problematic position for his family if the VVD goes further down the PVV or UK Conservative Party’s path, in terms of foreign residence and right to remain), and sets their agenda: the existence of Wilders’ political support means that they know that they always have room to expand to the right to consolidate their power – and the moment they start to look ‘weaker’ on xenophobic policies than PVV’s hectoring, they know that that same support will return to Wilders, so they are unlikely to abandon their rhetoric. It depends how much of an influence the final coalition (which currently looks to contain the more left of centre Democrat 66 and the Greens) can devise to keep the most right wing of VVD under control. In a political system where coalition is the norm (rather than the UK’s first past the post, where coalition is an unusual anomaly), there is not a single party of government (as the UK Conservatives had, making their EU referendum obligatory), so less opportunity for the government to be forced to move to the right to disempower the far right, thus legitimising far right xenophobic viewpoints as mainstream Dutch politics. In addition to giving the far right more prominence, the VVD’s climate change denial agenda is liable to pressurise any of the Green policies that they wish to enact.

So, is that it? Emergency over, Fortress Europe’s western seaboard flood defences held, everyone stand down? Well, not really – there is still a bloc of 33 seats of the right wing VVD, whose leader Mark Rutte (likely to continue as PM, regardless of the final coalition agreement), had recently talked about people who were not ‘normal-acting Dutch’ that should leave the country (even if they were born in the Netherlands). Then there is the second largest party with 20 seats, the anti-EU membership PVV.  The PVV drove the VVD to the right, making the right wing perspectives normalised, and sustains the problem presented by the PVV. Unless the VVD can work back from their current position, they are in danger of being nudged further each time by the presence of a farther right group such as the PVV.

In terms of the broader European question, perhaps there is cause for more hope: the expected boost to Marine Le Pen in advance of April 23rd’s first round of the French Presidential elections that would have come from Wilders having the largest party in the Dutch parliament, has not happened.  The day after the Dutch election, the IFOP survey indicated that public support for the EU had increased by double digits in Germany (18%), France (19%) and Belgium (11%), having seen the mess that the UK was making of leaving the European Union. But Marine may yet succeed politically through expressing anti-immigration sentiments, even if not (yet) advocating a French exit from the EU. She is, after all, the second most influential MEP after Martin Schulz, and under her leadership the Front National won 24.9% of the vote in the European elections in France – personally winning over 33% of the vote in her own constituency: she is clever – more so than her father (the previous Front National leader) or Wilders, and may win office without the right wing wave of xenophobia from the Netherlands that she might have been hoping for.

Under Angela Merkel, Germany currently looks unlikely to fall prey to the far right or anti-EU movements – as indeed its neighbour Austria rebuffed such approaches from Norbert Hofer in its October 2016 presidential election.

The results for the Dutch Parliament – however the coalition turns out – still shows that there has been an accommodation towards a ‘normalisation’ of immigrant-hatred, which is close-kin to a more general hatred of foreigners, and its affiliated suspicion of all things ‘European’. There will not be grounds to feel safer until that tide of the right starts to recede from mainstream politics.

So, yes, this time the flood defences held, but the move of Dutch politics to the right means that there may yet come a ‘NExit’ time.

 

“Nobody in their right minds has faith in [the PM getting ‘the right deal’ for the UK] as the Conservative government stumble and stagger towards negotiations in a European community now strengthened by the Dutch election results.” (Mike Small, ‘Citizens of Nowhere’, 16/3/2017)

 

[For a more in-depth review of the political background to the Dutch election, I commend you to Bella Caledonia’s article on the Dutch election result: http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2017/03/20/dutch-elections-curb-your-enthusiasm/ ]

Introducing Melanie Phillips, the new Gustaf Kossinna: New Alt-History from The Times of London, and British Exceptionalism from the Lessons of History

There’s been a very historical feel to the news in these last weeks – even more so than one has come to expect with the standard issue ‘Empire 2.0’ nonsense of BrExit. As Paul Kavanagh noted, with the invocation of Henry VIII powers in conjunction with the Great Repeal Bill, so that legislative alteration avoids scrutiny, and some mainstream newspapers analysing whether war with Spain was viable over Gibraltar, it has all gone a bit 16th century within 4 days of Theresa May sending her Article 50 letter to Donald Tusk in Brussels. This could be interpreted as a positive sign for Scotland – which was of course independent way back then, and free of the worst excesses of England’s trade blockade (see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2016/11/08/tales-from-brexitland-brexit-and-the-new-darien-an-equivalent-for-the-navigation-act ) – but the campaign to oppose Scotland’s return to independent statehood has recently been remarkably unafraid to revisit and revise history. Just over a week before Nicola Sturgeon stood in Bute House and announced to the world that she would be requesting that the Scottish Parliament support her request for a Section 30 Order from Westminster, a remarkable piece of historical revisionism appeared in The Times on the 7th March, penned by one Melanie Phillips.

Its timing seems to have been dictated by an article two days earlier, with Professor (also Sir) Tom Devine, described as the “preeminent historian of [the British] Isles” in The National on 5th March (http://www.thenational.scot/politics/15133372.Interview__Tom_Devine_on_the_end_of_Scotland_s_long_love_affair_with_Europe/?ref=mrb&lp=14 ). Within this interview, Devine made the point that Scots were European long before they were British: “If you take mainland Britain, then Scotland has long been the less insular part…If you look from the 12th century until today and divide it up into centuries, Scotland’s linkage with Europe has been longer than its link with the Commonwealth, the Empire or with England.” So far, so unsurprising – as a Kingdom Scotland existed from 843 A.D., with England arising a century or so later (possibly taking longer to unite, as they had been overrun by the Roman Empire). Devine explained – using perhaps less than flattering evidence – the reasons why Scotland was less introspective: “The historical theory is that [it] was because of Scotland’s relative poverty. People had to go abroad. A French proverb of the 12th century sates: ‘Rats, lice and Scotchmen, you find them everywhere’. The Scots were nomadic from an early age.” He pointed out that between the 12th and the 18th centuries the Scottish link with Europe was extraordinarily powerful, and believes that this experience prior to the 18th century allowed Scotland to become one of the most efficient trading countries with the New World. “What happened in the mercantile sense is that the lessons Scottish traders had learned in trading with Europe were simply transferred en bloc to the transatlantic area,” he says. Devine then went on to express sadness and regret that this longstanding relationship with the rest of Europe was about to come to an end with BrExit.

Clearly, emphasising that Scotland’s oldest link was not with England but with Europe is not the sort of thing that Westminster wishes promulgated much at a time when Scotland will soon have to choose between these two Unions – and one suspects that the idea that Scotland is a hundred years older as a country than England would not have been terribly welcome either. But hold: two days later, undaunted by such trivialities as academic knowledge and a lifetime of study, there came journalist Melanie Phillips, riding to the rescue of the beleaguered Union.

In a bizarre Alt-Right ‘history’ piece for the second-longest running national newspaper in the world, The Times (The Glasgow Herald being the longest-running), Phillips puts forward an audacious proposal – that there is, and indeed has only ever been, no nation other than Britain on the British Isles (you can find the full article here: http://archive.is/Tq8lH ). Her primary objective lies in one line: “Britain is a nation with the right to rule itself. It is the EU which is the artificial construct” – but then she attempts to justify this with some remarkably convoluted – verging on contortionistic – argumentation.  Firstly, she puts forward the interpretation that “Throughout its history, [Britain] was beset by attempts at secession by tribes across Hadrian’s Wall and across the Irish Sea”, glossing over the possibility that the presence of such movements might just be because it was an artificial political construct. She then asserts that “Kingship matters because monarchs unify tribes into a nation”, overlooking the fact that that would give Scotland priority through precedent, as noted above. She then grudgingly acknowledges that Scotland developed “the characteristics of a nation: a distinct language, religion, legal system and so on” but apparently that is not a ‘real’ nation, so that adds nothing to its right to exist.  All of these differences, history, trade, psychology, philosophy…all dismissed and trumped by the geographical unity of a landmass.

Phillips (fide Wikipedia) writes pro-Israel articles for The Jerusalem Post – so a cynic might say that it is perhaps no surprise that she finds it easy to rip up old established identities and  cultures and resettle them with a constructed fiction of her choosing, but I would be fascinated to see her apply her geographically-driven approach to African nationhood.

But Phillips seems to have a bigger beef with Ireland than Scotland: “Britain, by contrast” with Ireland, which apparently only came into being in 1922, according to her, “is an authentic unitary nation. It didn’t begin with the union with Scotland but as the British Isles, an island nation defending itself (or not) against invaders from across the seas.” The oldest bond, she wrote, was the bond between “Britons”, as being all residents on the same island. Priority means nothing – historical fact, even less.  Never mind kingdoms, identity, or wars of invasion to try and remove that distinctive separate political identity (see writer, poet and lecturer Stuart McHardy’s new book ‘Scotland’s Future History’, in which he points out that these conflicts really are misrepresented by the normally-applied phrase ‘Wars of Independence’, given that Scotland was established as a kingdom a long time before the founding of England); never mind alliances forged with European nations against England because of those invading armies from the south: clearly, the greatest connection is amongst those living on that single landmass.

JK Rowling – no fan, it should be noted, of Scottish self-determination – attacked Phillips’ piece, by quoting it and substituting ‘UK’ for ‘EU’ (as you can see for the graphic above), which she believed demonstrated how ridiculous Melanie’s argument was…although it has to be said that Rowling’s version reads a lot more reasonably as an argument for Scottish independence than Phillips’ original does for Britain. It may be something of an understatement to say that Phillips’ was a ‘bold’ claim, unhindered as it was by facts or reason – but she has now been regarded as such a legitimate commentator on the subject, that she appeared as a recent guest on the BBC’s ‘Question Time’ panel show.

In the run-up to Theresa May initiating Article 50, this move by those opposed to Scottish independence is an even more bizarre shot than the misfire with Sadiq Khan at the Scottish Labour Party conference some weeks earlier: historical details being swept away in the presentation of the sort of irrational sentiment that the pro-independence campaign used to be accused of, once upon a time. This sort of convenient historical revision is not exactly a new stratagem when matters of empire are afoot – Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931) was an archaeologist whose material culture work in the 1920s was used to spread the idea that there was ‘one German people’ that inhabited parts of Poland and Czechoslovakia, in order to pave the way for those countries to be annexed as part of a ‘traditional greater German homeland’ in the thirties. Having disseminated the idea that there was a deep subterranean unity across territorial borders, it weakened the objections of German people to those borders being dismantled, and the territories annexed.

One article (even if it is in The Times) does not of course equate to the same scale of justification employed by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in Germany, who went so far as to fake newsreels of archaeological digs in order to support their arguments for expansion. But a determination to rewrite well-established history in such a globally-respected media organ indicates the limited stock that is likely to be placed by Westminster and its pet London commentariat on such accounts of strong European roots and links for Scotland, in the run-up to the second independence referendum. British Nationalists seem unhesitating in reaching lower and lower – into what is undeniably an all too familiar toolbag. When Theresa May, at the Scottish Conservative Party Conference at the start of March, attempted to justify her ignoring of the different political cultures demonstrated in the EU vote as a way of unilaterally setting up a hardline BrExit for English voters, it was more than a little chilling that she used the expression “for at heart we are one people”: as one commentator put it, “did she add ‘one leader, one Empire’?” British Exceptionalism is alive and well – and apparently applies to the warnings from history, as well.

Germany today is a modern global leader, with a progressive view of what Europe can be, and an accompanying comparatively open attitude towards refugees. To a very real extent, there is a sense that Scotland is more represented by what Germany is now in terms of progressive and social democratic pro-EU policies, whereas with its gunboat diplomacy on Gibraltar and rising xenophobia, England is heading very much more in the direction of what Germany was – back in the 1930s. The degeneration of British nationalism continues apace, and there is no small amount of bitter irony that the more the BritNats have attempted to traduce the Yes movement (often in the process trying to refer to them as ‘Nazis’), the more the British establishment has begun to look increasingly like a deeply racist regime…and resembling the early days of one of the most notorious of the twentieth century.

I have dealt with some of aspects of the demise of the British identity that previously gave some access for Scotland to be a part of Britain (first two of three parts here https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/12/20/the-queens-buried-rules-when-the-impartiality-of-the-monarch-is-strained-the-death-of-scotlands-post-war-dream-part-1 and https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/football-is-not-a-matter-of-life-and-death-its-much-more-important-than-that-of-football-and-diverging-flags-the-death-of-scotlands-post-war-dream-pt-2 ) in the Three Estaits series, and Paul Kavanagh  (https://weegingerdug.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/the-wrong-side-of-history/) neatly summarises a further dimension, while looking at Phillips article: “the many ties of Britishness, all the institutions and organisations which once fostered that sense of Britishness which remains strongest in the oldest generations, have been destroyed by the British state itself and most often by the Tories. Just 50 years ago there were dozens of large state owned organisations, British Coal, British Steel, the Royal Mail, British Leyland and many more, all were owned by the state and helped to create and promote a sense of a shared British experience and identity. They’ve all gone now, sold off and broken up, and as they disappeared they took that fragile sense of a British identity with them. And the reason it was fragile was because it was never strongly rooted in history, no matter how much Melanie tries to rewrite the past.” It is one thing for a historian to write of modern political events in the context of such history, but when journalists such as Melanie Phillips indulge in a Kossinna-like reinvention of history to justify the dominance of an anglocentric power construct, it suggests that advocates of the Union may still be experiencing difficulty finding that elusive ‘positive case’ that they searched so long for in 2013-2014.

Trying to reinvent a unitary British dream that was allowed to die in the decades following the second world war, and digging deep in the dirt of an imagined past for shards of justification, has no relevance when looking to decide what our future might be.

 

“I can confirm today that next week I will seek the authority of the Scottish Parliament to agree with the UK government the details of a Section 30 Order, the procedure that will enable the Scottish Parliament to legislate for an Independence Referendum…before it is too late to decide our own path.” (Nicola Sturgeon, 11:44, March 13th, 2017, Bute House, Edinburgh)

 

The ‘Once in a Generation’ Game: 12 Referenda for ‘No’ Monkeys

A reviewer took me to task recently, over my use of the word ‘generation’: in the paper that I had submitted, I was comparing two historically separated figures variously engaged with Enlightenment science, and had said that there was a generation between them. A furious note was scribbled on the manuscript when it came back from review: ‘a generation is 25 years’. I had to confess that I had never before heard anyone say that there was a specific mathematical figure for how many years a ‘generation’ constituted, and thus considered myself duly enlightened.

‘Generations’ are topical right now: there has recently been an upswell in what is colloquially referred to as the ‘YoonStream’ (the Unionist social media bubble), regarding the recurrence of an independence referendum. The prospect of a second independence referendum is taken as perhaps the equivalent of the notorious ‘Vow’ made by the Westminster parties a few days before the 2014 vote, wherein large-scale, wide-ranging new powers would come to Scotland’s Parliament if we only voted ‘No’ to independence. It would be (Scotland was told) the same as Home Rule, the abiding aim of the de facto Labour Party’s founder, Keir Hardie – effectively a federal UK. (If any of this sounds familiar, that is because a couple of Saturdays ago you might have heard similar promises by Gordon Brown, the same architect as last time. What is interesting is that he was wheeled out in the final week of the campaign in 2014, as the polls showed Yes was ahead – perhaps his early appearance now, before the campaign has even started, is a similar reflection of recent polling showing that ‘Yes’ is again ahead…although it may equally have been an attempt to divert attention away from Nicola Sturgeon’s keynote SNP spring party conference speech to former ‘No’ voters, on the same day.) This ‘Vow’ naturally failed to materialise once the No vote had been secured – but the ‘vow’ equivalent that Yes is accused of, is that there was a ‘promise’ that this referendum was a ‘once in a generation’ or once in a lifetime event – ergo there should be decades before there was even the possibility of it happening again.

However, the whole premise is rot, relying as it does on the wilful misrepresentation of comments made by Alex Salmond in the run-up to the vote on 18th September 2014.

I remember seeing the reports in 2014, with him being asked about the referendum by somewhat hostile journalists, in terms of the frequency of such things. Alex swerved the question neatly, choosing to emphasise the rarity of having the chance to have such a vote for independence. “It is a once in a generation opportunity”, he replied. I understood exactly what he meant: it was a warning. He did not want anyone to be relaxed that this plebiscite might commonly recur in the future, that it was a question that could easily be regularly revisited, so no pressure to go with it this time. He did not want such an impression to spread, making the electorate complacent and feel that they could casually vote ‘No’ (or not vote at all) without serious consideration, as there would be ‘another independence referendum along soon’, like a number 11 bus. There had been no vote – or even token gesture of consultation – on the Act of Union in 1707 (to be fair, the closest that regular non-land-owning people had to free expression back then was the series of riots that took place in virtually every Scottish town and city in protest at the idea of the Union coming in to being), or at any point in the ensuing three centuries plus. So to say that the opportunity to have such a say was rare (or even once every twenty five years) is a significant understatement.

It seems fairly safe to say that a major reason for the 2014 plebiscite being agreed to by Westminster was that David Cameron was confident that he could use it to destroy the SNP as a political force.

There was no largesse here, or great love of democracy – he felt he could use it against his political opponents (in much the same way that he disastrously initiated the EU referendum purely to resolve the Conservative Party ascendancy) to his own ends. If Cameron had not seen an opportunity for himself, then that referendum would most likely have been denied – of course, not by being as foolhardy as to say ‘no’, but probably under the guise of ‘now not being the right time’, as Theresa May tried last week: hitting it into the long grass, as the political golfing metaphor goes. In short, it was a fluke of Conservative arrogance and caprice that the first independence referendum happened – Salmond was never, ever in any way shape or form saying ‘fair dos, if you win this, we will not ever mention it again’ – he was saying ‘they have never been so daft as to let the question be asked before, and this will probably be our one shot at it’. You cannot misrepresent the act of encouraging someone to vote because it is a rare chance that may well not come again, as equating to making a promise or vow – such as Cameron, Clegg and Milliband did in that last week of the campaign, in trying to make the referendum seem to be about ‘independence or more powers’, instead of In or Out of the UK. (You can read elsewhere about how that intervention undermined what the referendum was actually asking, as commented on by political scientist Professor Tony Carty, at https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/12/12/beyond-conditional-nos-the-ongoing-political-uncertainty-of-what-the-no-vote-actually-meant .) The two simply do not equate – but perhaps it says more about a certain kind of Unionist mindset that they would hear Salmond’s words as those of someone coming cap-in-hand to beg a favour, rather than a warning to the Scottish electorate against being complacent, because the state might well block any future calls for Scottish self-determination in perpetuity. Instead, they prefer to play the Once-in-a-Generation Game.

Of course, the issue of self-determination is not evenly spread throughout time, and becomes more of an issue at times when the colonial or ‘parental’ government becomes more obviously incompetent or unwilling to represent broader interests and concerns. This has the effect of reminding people of the state that they are in, and how brazenly unresponsive it can be to their needs. At other times, this is not so obvious – although having come through the crucible of 2014, the Scottish electorate look more forensically at Westminster’s performance than ever before. As hard as it was to battle through to the end of the September 2014 referendum and see it end in a failure, the more sanguine among us had been considering that it was an exercise in waking ourselves up – ready for the next time. Like Morpheus in the Nebuchadnezzar, unplugging as many individuals from the mainstream media Matrix as we could, so that they looked more critically at the political world around them, and what it really means to be Scotland in Britain. (Given the recent Panelbase media survey, whereby only 32% of Scots expressed confidence in the BBC as a balanced news-provider regarding constitutional issues, I think we can say that we have had some significant success in that regard.) That has meant the awakening of critical political thinking in Scotland – with political parties judged harshly, and rewarded richly, according to how well they stood up to public scrutiny. The political landscape of Scotland has been transformed – and, some might argue, this has had a knock-on effect in England. It also means that the electorate are a lot more questioning of the media that they more passively consumed in the past.

The ‘Yes’ Movement suffered last time from failing to criticise how Scotland faired as a component within the UK, instead focussing on the many possibilities and opportunities that would come with becoming an independent state. (One of Cameron’s purported reasons for refusing to debate Salmond during that campaign, was to avoid turning it into a referendum on Westminster’s ‘custodianship’ of Scotland within the Union.) Ian Bell wrote that he felt the main reason that ‘Yes’ lost, was in its failure to address why one might not wish to be considered British – in truth, Westminster has stage-managed exposure of precisely why one might not wish to be considered that since the result in 2014, running from English Votes for English Laws, the failure of the Smith Commission, the watering down of those insipid proposals, and the implosion of the EU Referendum and the sudden xenophobic leap towards a hard BrExit. And, so, we find ourselves once more looking at a Scottish Independence Referendum – perhaps more as an indication of the need to call Westminster’s performance over the last three years in the wake of 18th September 2014 to account, than anything else.

It is fair to say that the British state has not favoured the Scottish question being asked, and has relied on a series of unlikely-to-be-surmounted obstacles to prevent that from happening. But how ‘precious’ is that long-lasting union, if the countries of the UK are only in it because none of them are allowed to leave? As one commentator noted, it is the difference between parliamentary democracy and political capture – are we really being treated as though we are nothing more than a 19th century colony, in this ‘union of equal partners’?

For example, it is worth noting that, prior to devolution, there was no consideration of a referendum as the mechanism for Scotland attaining independence – all the SNP had to do was secure a majority of the MPs representing Scotland at Westminster, to automatically gain the right to declare independence. That was, of course, seen to be astronomically unlikely…but Westminster could not have foreseen the degree to which people in Scotland would become so utterly disillusioned with first the Conservatives (primarily from Thatcher), then Labour (through Blair in Iraq), and finally the Liberal Democrats (through coalition with Cameron’s aggressive government). Suddenly, the SNP were the only credible party of government left in Scotland. Today, those old Westminster guidelines seem laughable, with 56 out of 59 MPs elected to represent Scotland in Westminster being Scottish National Party members: never mind a simple ‘majority’ of Scottish Westminster seats as a requisite for declaring independence, they were close to getting ALL of the seats. That could easily be taken as a mandate – but the SNP have even more than that to underpin their right to hold a further independence referendum.

As I write this, the Scottish Parliament is debating the motion to pass a request for a Section 30 Order from Westminster, to make an independence referendum legal and binding. That same Scottish Parliament is governed by the SNP, who were elected explicitly on a manifesto that said that if Scotland voted to stay in the EU but the UK voted to Leave, then this would constitute grounds for a new independence referendum on Scottish independence (especially given that continued membership of the EU was supposedly one of the major reasons to vote ‘No’ in 2014 – although that argument was hotly disputed by ‘Yes’). Although the SNP dropped their absolute majority of the previous Scottish Parliament (which was supposed to be mathematically well-nigh impossible to achieve), the SNP have enough members to pass the motion against united Conservative, Labour and LibDem opposition in Holyrood, and they also have the support of the Scottish Greens for an independent Scotland. The SNP have a clear mandate for an independence referendum from their manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections last year, which described the specific EU vote circumstances that transpired – never mind what would have been a pre-devolution mandate from their near unanimous occupation of the Scottish benches at Westminster. But as you once more hear the desperate unionist howl of ‘but you PROMISED it was only once in a generation!’, remember that there was never any undertaking to Unionists, by either politicians or by the Scottish people, that there would not be another one – it was a warning to the Scottish electorate that, with the paucity of opportunities during the lifetime of the Union for Scots to assess whether the Union should be dismantled, that another chance might well never come again. Not an undertaking, but an expectation – and who could have expected that the Conservatives would press such a self-destructive button on their relationship with the EU, less than two years after citing it as the main reason for Scotland to stay in the UK?

It is interesting to note that Alex Salmond’s explanation to Andrew Marr (see quote below) of the sort of timescale that he imagined for a political generation is not so far from the literary one mentioned at the start of this article – the gap between the Scottish Assembly vote in 1979 (won on the same 52:48 majority as the UK’s EU referendum, incidentally) and the 1997 vote for the Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers, is one of 18 years – and between that and the independence referendum, 17 years. This time, the gap will be much smaller, because circumstances have changed catastrophically over an incredibly short timeframe…and it is hard to envisage another change as cataclysmic (Conservatives take UK out of the UN? Offer to join with Russia as an appeasement to Trump for a better trade deal to circumvent US protectionism? Yeah, I know…as unlikely as hard BrExit was 18 months ago) as to once more demonstrate a clear need to reassess the viability of the Union again. But – as much as Westminster might like to pretend that this is all a ‘plot’ of the SNP, or whomever is in charge of the party at any given time (because they always like to personalise it as an individual’s ‘obsession’, rather than the electoral preference of the electorate…although that is arguably far far more true of Theresa May’s premiership than Nicola Sturgeon’s), it is ultimately the people of Scotland that have that power – and who make the choice of when and if any given political party is given a mandate for an independence referendum. And if the people say it shall be so, then so it shall be.

But if the Unionists want it to be once in a generation, then we have quite a backlog of overdue independence referenda to get through – if it is twelve (for each unassessed batch of 25 years since 1707), then by my reckoning that leaves nine still outstanding, after 1979, 1997 and 2014 are taken into account. The sooner Scotland starts on getting through that backlog of referenda, the better.

Either way, it is coming.

 

“If you remember that previous constitutional referendum in Scotland – there was one in 1979 and then the next one was 1997. That’s what I mean by a political generation…In my opinion, and it is just my opinion, this is a once in a generation opportunity for Scotland.” (Alex Salmond to Andrew Marr, 14/9/2014)