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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‘Questions, a Burden to Others’: The True Divisiveness of the Scottish Independence Referendum

The 1960s television series ‘The Prisoner’ warned against asking questions when living in The Village. ‘Questions, a Burden to Others’, followed by the ever-so slightly patronising companion message ‘Answers, a Prison for Oneself’. Nobody wants you to ask questions, is the message – and you will not like any answers that you get. Perhaps they saw it as ‘Divisive’?

‘Divisive’ has become a very popular word in the press recently, in reference to referenda: it is supposed to indicate that asking a referendum question is a bad thing, because it ‘divides’ people. The usage seems to me to be desperately trying to ignore that any democratic process – whether referendum or election – becomes therefore intrinsically ‘divisive’. There is a reason why they ring a ‘Division bell’ in Westminster to signal MPs to go to their division lobby to vote for or against a resolution. Should they rename it something less ‘choicey’? Something that sounds less – dare I say it? – ‘separatist’? If democracy was not divisive, then that would be because everyone thought the same….and therefore there would be no reason to check which was the preferred option for any given question. So, in that sense, ‘divisive’ though asking a question may be, it is also kind of intrinsic to the idea of democracy in the first place…otherwise people are just being dictated to. (We might guess that the individuals that ran The Village were more in favour of the latter – rather than the former – option of government.)

Therefore, the treatment by politicians and the press of ‘Divisiveness’ as incredibly unusual in a democracy, and something that people need to be protected from, needs closer examination. Political elections are HIGHLY ‘Divisive’ – and the fact that they happen pretty much annually, whether for local councils, Holyrood, Westminster or to the European Parliament – suggests that society somehow manages to recover and continue on, no matter how ‘divisive’ – or ‘choice-ive’ – multiple parties on a ballot paper are. So are the dangers of being ‘Divisive’ more unique to the clearly terrible phenomenon of a referendum, rather than an election, then? Astonishingly, Switzerland – which had 31 referenda between 1995 and 2005, to answer 103 questions – has not collapsed into internecine violence and anarchy as a result of this ‘division’ in its political culture. It seems that asking questions is not so dangerous after all.

One thing that the prospective referendum certainly seems to have been ‘Divisive’ about, is the response of the political parties. At their conference in Perth on Saturday, the Scottish LibDems said they would oppose a second independence referendum – just as Nick Clegg (former Deputy Prime Minister and ex-party leader) said that Westminster should not block one. The leaders of the political parties opposing the SNP in Holyrood have faired little better: the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has gone on record saying that she opposed a second independence referendum, but that Westminster should not block it.  In September 2015, the Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said that she would allow Scottish Labour MSPs to have a free vote on a second independence referendum, even permitting them to campaign for independence. However, since then she has moved from her position, saying in July 2016 in the wake of the EU Referendum (The Guardian on 7th July) that it would be “categorically wrong” for the UK Government to refuse a second independence referendum, and now saying that she will oppose such a referendum. And – to top it all – the UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said on Saturday that it would be “fine” for there to be a second Scottish independence referendum. He changed his position again this morning, just before Nicola’s announcement from Bute House – but not before a Labour supporter had started a Twitter poll on whether or not Corbyn was right to approve of the referendum, and 89% of the votes cast said ‘Yes, he was’. So the latest statement from Jeremy is that Scottish Labour will vote to block the referendum in Holyrood, but UK Labour will not vote to block it in Westminster. All clear, then? All this from the party that brought you the new Twitter hashtag of #unitescotlandnotdivide with zero sense of irony.

‘Divisive’ – the word was even used by No.10 Downing Street today, straight after Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement, when the Prime Minister’s Office said that an independence referendum would be ‘Divisive’. This would presumably be ‘Divisive’ in a similar way to BrExit, except that BrExit gets more and more ‘Divisive’ as it continues, steering harder towards an antiquated imperialistic world-view, and away from the liberal state that people once thought the UK was…even going so far as for Theresa May to threaten to take devolved areas back from Holyrood.

In this regard, Theresa May seems to have been keen to be as provocative as possible and make people in Scotland feel divided from the UK’s decision-making, even if she does not want them to vote for independence so that Scotland is actually away from the UK. That single odd action by Theresa May at the Scottish Conservative conference a couple of weeks ago – talking about taking powers back from the Scottish Parliament, for some new devolved settlement – exemplifies how unnecessary it was for Westminster to be facing the prospect of another Scottish independence referendum again, especially so soon. All of this is happening as a result of the UK Government’s mismanagement not so much of the 2014 Referendum, as of the aftermath of the Referendum: from Cameron’s English Votes for English Laws on the morning of the 19th September 2014 (rendering Scottish MPs second-class members of the Westminster parliament, hot on the heels of promises that the Union was a partnership of equals), on to the homeopathic treatment of the Smith Commission to make the promised ‘Vow’ an irrelevance. All this, just at the time they should have been endeavouring to woo people back, to make them feel valued as part of the Union – as JK Rowling opined in her advocacy of a ‘No’ vote: “I doubt whether we will ever have been more popular, or in a better position to dictate terms, than if we vote to stay.” But no: on it went, with the disappointing response to the differential EU referendum result for Scotland…it has all been botched by an indifferent Westminster government, who did not seem to realise that there was ever a ‘peace’ to win, once the first campaign was finished and won.

So ‘wooing’ (rough or otherwise) was the path not chosen by the UK Government. Instead, the message of ‘gotcha, suckers’ was writ large. They were so confident that such an SNP mandate was a one-off circumstance that would not be repeated, that they could be as boorish and triumphalist as they wanted about their victory, secure in the knowledge of the inevitable collapse in support for the Scottish National Party now they had lost the September 2014 Referendum. This was clearly the end of the SNP, and the end of aspirations for an independent Scotland.

Well, not so much. We arrived today at the First Minister’s residence in Bute House for a morning press conference called at short notice. A series of recent polls showing increased support for Scottish independence (one even exceeding 50%) and the campaign had not even had the starting pistol fired. At the end of the First Minister’s announcement to the press that she was going to ask the Scottish Parliament to pass legislation for a second referendum on Scottish independence, a fundraiser was launched to raise a million pounds for the referendum campaign in 100 days. In seven hours, it had raised over a hundred thousand pounds (almost an hour after Wings Over Scotland’s annual crowd-fundraiser had coincidentally hit the same figure following 14 days on Indiegogo).

As much as the rhetoric has been about ‘Divisiveness’ from the unionist parties run from London, it is the negative actions of those parties that have led to a uniting of Scots from different party backgrounds under a Yes banner. Far more so than when the last starting gun was fired, back in 2012, with support for Scottish independence on 28%. The answer this time may – or may not – be different, but the responsibility for the question being asked lies solely in London.

 

“A country denied the ability to run its own economy is blamed for being bankrupt by the authority which exercises those macro-economic powers over it. The British Treasury pulls our wings off then laughs when we can’t fly.” (Derek Bateman, former BBC Scotland broadcaster)

(Thanks to Chris Cairns of Cairnstoon for the above cartoon, first published 11/3/2017)

P.S. I would love to have said that Scotland might culturally be more comfortable with the idea of having referenda than many other areas of the UK, due to its tradition that the people – rather than parliament – are sovereign…but that might be giving a lot of people a little more credit for knowing more details of Scottish political history than might perhaps be realistic. Especially as I could not have claimed to have known this myself before the previous referendum occurred…. 🙂