SNP majority reduced to one as two MSPs resign over pro-Nato stance

Blow for Alex Salmond as John Finnie and Jean Urquhart leave in protest at change of defence policy.

After the SNP voted narrowly in favour of abandoning its 30-year-old policy of opposition to Nato membership at its conference last weekend (see James Maxwell's recent piece for more on the background to the dispute), two of the party's MSPs, John Finnie and Jean Urquhart, have just resigned in protest. In their resignation statements, both argue that the party cannot support membership of a nuclear-armed military alliance whilst simultaneously demanding the removal of Trident from Scottish waters.

John Finnie said:

I cannot belong to a party that quite rightly does not wish to hold nuclear weapons on its soil, but wants to join a first-strike nuclear alliance.

Although I envisage that I will continue to share common ground with the SNP on many issues, I cannot in good conscience continue to take the party whip.

Whilst Jean Urquhart said:

The issue of nuclear disarmament and removing Trident from Scotland's waters is a red line issue for me, and I could not remain committed to a party that has committed itself to retaining membership of Nato.

We are both steadfast in our belief that Scotland should be an independent country, and will actively and positively campaign for a yes vote in 2014. We believe in an independent Scotland, not a Nato-dependent Scotland.

Significantly, their resignations mean that the SNP now has a majority of just one in the Scottish Parliament. The party won 69 seats in the 2011 election (giving it a majority of four) but lost one backbencher when Tricia Marwick became Presiding Officer and lost another when Bill Walker was suspended from the party over allegations of domestic abuse. The departure of Finnie and Urquhart leaves it with 65 out of 129 seats, a majority of one. However, Alex Salmond, who has suffered the first major revolt against his leadership since the party's remarkable victory in 2011, will hope that he can continue to count on their support in most votes as independents.

In response to their resignations, the SNP leader said:

I'm saddened that Jean and John have decided to resign from the party. They have been excellent servants to the SNP, and I'm grateful to them for their tireless efforts.

We had an excellent and democratic debate at party conference last Friday, and agreed a policy of reaffirming our opposition to nuclear weapons as a non-nuclear member of the Nato alliance - a position that will be accepted by the party as a whole.

Jean and John have indicated to me that they will continue to support the Government from the back benches, and I welcome that. I also look forward to working with them both in the campaign to achieve a Yes vote in Scotland's referendum in 2014.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond speaks at the SNP Annual Conference last weekend. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage