The SNP has always liked its trite stunts. Rebellious Scots Jim Sillars and Alex Salmond, and now Ian Blackford, have all been conveniently kicked out of parliament in recent decades. Salmond, fresh from appearing on Call My Bluff back in 1999, produced a pilfered card with the word “bluff” on it as Tony Blair laid into the Nats at a lunch in Glasgow; the massive new intake of SNP MPs in 2015 occupied the Labour benches and declared themselves “the official opposition”; there was a deliberately disruptive period of repeated applause in parliament by that same cocky group.
Most of these stunts have been cheap. Few of them have been amusing or dignified. All of them managed to create headlines in the next day’s papers and ostensibly show the party “standing up for Scotland”: so, job done.
It’s easy to see this week’s banishment of Blackford, the party’s current Westminster leader, followed by the walkout of his colleagues in solidarity, as just another childish incident in a long line. And it certainly was that. But context matters, and in that the Nats also made an important symbolic point that won’t only resonate with their fellow separatists.
To be a Scottish Remain voter in the time of Brexit is to be in a sizeable democratic majority, but also to be disenfranchised and sneered at; to be marginalised and ignored. We watch, passionate but powerless, as English politicians drag us somewhere we have explicitly made clear we don’t want to go. Adding insult to injury, it’s painfully clear to us that these politicians haven’t the first clue what they’re doing – that they campaigned for and delivered this rupture without any significant understanding of its consequences or grasp of its complexity. It is a horrible betrayal.
This government is comfortably the worst in living memory. We look at Boris Johnson and David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg – the first a man of desperate moral unseriousness who seems to view the country as his plaything and the Brexit calamity as a career opportunity, the second scarily out of his depth and covering his inadequacy by threatening to quit on the half-hour, the third a spoiled, self-indulgent dilettante – and we wonder what we’re supposed to have in common.
National stereotypes are a dangerous path to go down, but the list of politicians Scotland has supplied includes Keir Hardie, John Smith, Gordon Brown, Donald Dewar, Robin Cook, Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson. One could go on. These are far from flawless individuals, but there’s a thread, a type, you can follow there, right? When it comes to politics Scotland isn’t fannying around – we’ve never been able to afford to.
So there is, for many of us, a building resentment at the antics in London. Any stunt by the SNP is exceeded by the daily behavior of the whinnying showpony that is Boris Johnson and the walking hissy-fit that is DD and the Victorian grotesque that is Rees-Mogg. Any search for an alternative champion to the SNP pauses only briefly on the Labour benches, where Jeremy Corbyn’s cynical opacity on Brexit inspires contempt and where too few of those who share our internationalist instincts have shown the requisite steel.
There may not be another independence referendum any time soon, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an intense conversation taking place about which constitutional arrangements will suit Scotland best in the medium to long-term.
Having things done to you by a neighbor who vastly outweighs you, and who can conceivably make all sorts of important choices on your behalf, is an uncomfortable situation to be in. The Union has worked for so long precisely because that didn’t happen. The decisions England’s politicians take in the next few years – on immigration, on the economy, on trade deals, on the staffing of Number 10, on tone – might well make Scotland’s future clearer, and perhaps even inevitable.
We might look at Murray Foote as a weathervane. Foote was until recently the editor of the Labour-supporting Daily Record, which is still Scotland’s most influential newspaper. He was a great success in the job, securing the Newspaper of the Year award three years in a row. He was also the originator of The Vow, the famous promise of greater devolution, signed by all the main unionist UK party leaders, that some argue made a decisive impact in favour of a No vote in the final days of the independence referendum.
In today’s Times, Foote declares himself a convert to independence. “Over the past few years heavy negative forces – like Brexit, that parade of Tory chancers and a dysfunctional opposition at Westminster – have tugged the independence stars ever nearer alignment,” he writes.
He found the recent SNP Growth Commission report, which sought to bring a new frankness to the independence debate, persuasive. “I fully recognise an independent Scotland would face financial challenges and [the] report is an attempt to address many of these realities with intrinsic honesty. I’ve considered the constitutional arguments against and, yes, the difficult decisions our independent nation would face and the sacrifices we may need to make do trouble me. But what troubles me more is the prospect of bequeathing to my daughters an isolated Britain governed indefinitely by the progeny of Rees-Mogg and their ilk.
“For me, independence is about autonomy, allowing Scotland to meet success and failure on its own merit and not point an embittered finger of blame at anyone else. I have reconciled that independence would herald good and bad. I trust in us to solve the problems that will come our way. If so many other countries can, it is inconceivable that Scotland can’t.”
The greatest danger to the Union is that a growing number of Scots reconcile themselves to the case “that independence would herald good and bad” and decide to go for it anyway. A post-Brexit United Kingdom shaped in Rees-Mogg’s unforgiving image, or that falls under Johnson’s cartoonish shadow, would be likely only to accelerate that process. After all, if England had the guts – or the arrogance – to ignore all those hair-raising warnings from presidents and business tycoons and global institutions, why shouldn’t we?