A long week in politics

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Mhairi Hunter

A long week in politics

It can be difficult sometimes to gauge what will provoke a reaction in politics. It’s been commented on that Brexit doesn’t seem to have had as big a political impact in Scotland as was forecast. The events of the past few days suggests that may be changing.

I suspect many Scottish people – indeed many British people – still haven’t fully recovered from those crazy weeks after the Leave vote when the UK didn’t really have a government and no-one knew what the hell was going on. True, the UK now has a government of sorts but it’s still the case that no-one knows what the hell is going on, least of all that government.

In Scotland bemused despair at the antics of a UK leadership which is patently unable to agree a workable form of Brexit is deepened by the fact that the overwhelming majority voted to remain in the EU. At least down south a small majority voted to leave, even if many of them did so in the false expectation that the Leave side had a plan. For most Scots, though, the idea of leaving the EU was – and is – self-evidently bonkers. And everything that has followed on from that disastrous Leave vote has continued to be bonkers.

Small wonder political commentators have struggled to analyse Scottish public opinion. Basically, the average Scot wishes the EU referendum had never happened and that they could wake up – Pam Ewing style – and realise it was all just a bad dream. Especially that surreal bit tacked on at the end about Donald Trump being elected President and meeting Nigel Farage in a golden lift.

This kind of political environment has made it challenging, to say the least, for the SNP. One of the key problems around the Brexit debate has been that it’s all so damned legal. A debate about the (as yet theoretical) repatriation of powers from Brussels was never going to set the heather on fire, was it? Except that it did.

OK, when the Scottish Parliament declined consent for the EU Withdrawal Bill it didn’t set the heather on fire. It didn’t even really set twitter on fire, a medium far more flammable than heather. But when the UK Government over-rode that lack of consent with calculated contempt and SNP MPs walked out of parliament after they were denied a serious debate – woosh! Up the heather went.

Not only has the SNP gained thousands of new members but reports have been coming in from across the nation of “real people” being overheard discussing the issue and supporting the SNP’s position. What exactly is going on?

It is not, in my view, an endorsement of the SNP walking out of Westminster for good. Far from it. Rather, I think it’s a recognition of the hard work SNP elected members have been putting in to defend Scottish interests and a shared annoyance at the contemptuous response.

Like them or loathe them, I think most people would have to admit SNP parliamentarians have put in a hell of a shift on Brexit.

From the very first days following the Leave vote Scottish Government ministers – supported by the SNP’s elected members at all levels – have worked diligently and seriously to protect and support EU citizens, to make the case for the UK remaining in the single market and customs union, to argue the positive case for freedom of movement and to argue for a fair and consensual approach on the repatriation of powers, one which protects the devolution settlement.

On the whole they have received widespread if occasionally grudging support for their efforts and, I suggest, earned a degree of respect even from those who are not their natural allies. The cross-party support for the emergency Continuity Bill demonstrates this.

Labour argues that devolution is “their” project and that therefore the SNP’s effort to protect the devolution settlement is opportunistic and essentially bogus. But the SNP has done a good job working to protect devolution, as well as working to argue for the least terrible form of Brexit at a UK level – work that Labour should have been doing, but hasn’t been. I think people recognise that.
That’s why the casual contempt from the UK Government and Tory MPs at Westminster has actually shocked people. It’s almost as shocking as the lack of concern shown by Brexiteers for the impact of their pet project on the Good Friday Agreement. The whole debate has shown up what narrow nationalism really means. A complete lack of care and thought for the distinct interests of the devolved nations of the UK by a group of politicians who appear more clown-like by the day.
This is now having a political impact in Scotland. Surprising people are contemplating independence and, if not exactly embracing the idea, wondering if it might not be the least worst option.
It’s absolutely vital in my view to understand the political dynamics of this. Yes, the MPs walkout was a dramatic moment. But it only had an impact because of the months and years of hard work that preceded it.

There’s a clear lesson here I believe for the independence campaign. If we work hard, if we make our case in a serious and evidence-based way people will listen to us. They won’t necessarily agree with everything we say but they will respect us for working to earn their trust and they will give us a fair hearing.

The same, of course, is true of those who believe in the Union – but they are hampered by that very cause which ties them to a Westminster system of government which has been exposed over the past few days as being antiquated, inept and downright farcical, requiring MPs to scurry in and out of lobbies like mice in a maze and devoting nineteen minutes exactly to overturning the serious political work of decades, with backbench Tory MPs who haven’t had a serious political thought in years braying like donkeys as they did so.

This does not have to be our future. Bemused despair does not have to be our response to this boorach. The impact of Brexit can lead us in a completely different direction and I think something really changed this week to make more people understand this. We still have a mountain to climb but the way forward is, I believe, a bit clearer and more people are coming to join us on the journey. We should welcome them with open arms.

 

You can read more of Mhairi’s writing here or listen to her and other contributors on our podcast

Union of Equals?

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Maggie Chapman

Union of Equals?

The last couple of days have been quite extraordinary. We have seen changes made to Scotland’s devolution settlement without Scottish MPs being heard, nevermind the Scottish Parliament giving its consent. We witnessed a Conservative MP suggest that suicide was the choice open to Scottish MPs who thought this was perhaps not the way democracy should work. And we’ve seen an SNP MP barred from the Chamber for trying to use the Parliament’s own standing orders to get a debate on the division of powers between Holyrood and Westminster, leading to the whole SNP group walking out of PMQs.

Was the walk out a stunt? Yes. Was it the right thing to do? Yes.

Political stunts most certainly have their place in campaigning, in politics, in the theatre that is the oppositional nature of Westminster. It is quite clear to me that there is no other way the SNP MPs could have protested the series of events that would show up the UK Government for what it is: self-important, shambolic and completely uninterested in the wishes of either the Scottish parliament or the Scottish people.

Westminster is a farce. It has been for some time, but yesterday’s events show just how broken it, and therefore how broken British democracy, is. True debate, where everyone respects each other, listens to each other, learns from each other, is just not possible. There does not seem to be any real respect for individual or groups of MPs. And there is certainly little respect for the citizens that parliament is supposed to represent.

Without respect for democracy, the UK is well and truly broken. Theresa May talked of a Union of Equals. Well, she and her government wouldn’t recognise equality if they bumped into it in the streets. Probably because they have no idea what actually goes on in the streets of the UK. They certainly do not understand, or seem to care about, the streets of Scotland that I call home.
You can read more of Maggie’s writing here.

Disorderly Democracy

Reading Time: 5 minutes

 

Disorderly Democracy

Constitutional Chaos following Brexit Power Grab

Image by Red Raiph

By Debra Torrance and Derek Stewart Macpherson

Debra:

What the heck happened in the House of Commons?

Today, Wednesday 13th of June at Prime Ministers Question there was “unprecedented chaos as a SNP member of the house was ejected by the speaker, and the rest of the party walked out” – BBC News.

But what actually happened? What’s going on?

So after receiving a text, since I’m currently bed ridden with MS issues and nerve pain, unable to do any walking, a message saying SNP MPs walked out of Westminster.

Hmm? What? I immediately sat up and opened twitter and my messenger. Yup. On the face of it, they did. All of the Scottish National Party Members of Parliament who were there for PMQs got up and walked out after Ian Blackford, the SNP at Westminster group leader, requested to move to a vote on a private sitting.

The speaker of the house John Bercow, seemed flustered and gesticulated with his aides in front of him over rules and passed papers between them. He demanded Ian Blackford sit down and said he preferred the vote to be held after the session, to which the SNP MP requested “I beg to move”.

I am not all that familiar with parliamentary language, but that sounded pretty official. Ian Blackford is a knowledgable guy and extremely professional. Bercow ejected Blackford and the SNP MPs stood up and followed their leader.

Some commentators have suggested this was a pre-planned stunt, but for me Joanna Cherry’s actions suggest it wasn’t, she scooped up her belongings and walked out with a wave, the exact same way I’ve witnessed many women do when they have had enough.

To me this was a principled action by professional people who have committed years to their work in Westminster, followed archaic and seemly endlessly bureaucratic legislation and traditions to serve their constituents in Scotland.

And Scotland is what this is really all about, the EU Withdrawal Bill debate so far has been a farce. Scottish Parliament, Holyrood has devolved powers enshrined in its very existence. Powers which the Tory party are trying to steal back through Brexit.

Video by Sarah Mackie

Now if you disagree with this, that’s all very well, but how are we meant to have a democratic debate on the matter if no Scottish MP gets the opportunity to speak about it in the chamber? If sessions are allowed to be filibustered and timed out by nonsensical votes, what other options do representatives have?

Is the walk out a stunt? Did the SNP speak about such actions? Yes it is as much a stunt as mocking an opponent when you get an opportunity to speak at a debate in the chamber. Was there chat about the possibility of a walk out among SNP politicians? I dunno, probably, but I don’t think that means it was pre-planned. Watching it over again, it looks so spontaneous. It felt impromptu.

How were the SNP meant to know Bercow would act in that way? They followed the rules and evoked powers entitled to them as members of Westminster Parliament.

To me the whole thing just highlights the democratic deficit of this institution and the entire governance of the supposed United Kingdom. I’m proud of the SNP MPs walking out, they used their feet when I can’t. Thank you!

 

Derek:

“Today, Wednesday 13th of June at Prime Ministers Question there was “unprecedented chaos as a SNP member of the house was ejected by the speaker, and the rest of the party walked out” – BBC News

Well, it’s hardly unprecedented, it’s the sort of thing that happens from time to time in Westminster system parliaments all over the world. And I’m still not sure that’s even what happened. Did the Speaker intend to eject the member, or merely to sit him down? Well, apparently later he clarified that he had been expelled. However many people believe in the BBC clip he can be heard to say, “Well we’ll have to have the vote then.”

How he intended to have a vote the mover of which he had just ejected is unclear. A case of premature ejection it would appear. It sounds as if he realised he’d got it wrong just as the SNP members were following their colleague out.* It adds to the sense that Bercow’s grip is not what it once was, that he’s stressed and making mis-steps.
*
The procedural motion Ian Blackford moved was one of those parliamentary delaying and disruption tactics that are often used when a government is trying to ram something through, which is what’s happening at the moment with the EU Withdrawal bill. They had to overrule the House of Lords on no less than 15 amendments, which left no time to debate the Scottish concerns and the fact that Holyrood has refused consent.

So was it a stunt? The reason for the ‘chaos’ is that there is a very real constitutional crisis here, and it’s one entirely of the government’s own making. The Scotland Act of 1998 is very clear – anything that’s not specifically reserved to Westminster is devolved to Holyrood. Including each and every power being repatriated from Brussels. But the government doesn’t want to give Scotland some of those powers. There are 158 of them. The government wants to retain 24 including some really quite important to Scotland economically such as agriculture, fisheries, food labelling and public procurement.

Why do they want to do that? Presumably so they can use some of those things as bargaining chips in Brexit negotiations. And why is it such a problem? Because it undermines the devolution settlement, and because it puts the parliaments on a constitutional collision course. They have passed (or will shortly in Westminster’s case) conflicting Brexit bills, and the courts will have to resolve their constitutional competence over the various matters at issue.

This is a pretty big gamble by the May government, and it’s one that a hell of a lot of smart legal money thinks they might well lose. Not only that, but the potential precedents the case could set may have ramifications for years to come, on subjects as yet unimagined. It might even touch on the great question. The ultimate question. The question of life, the universe and everything! Well no, not quite, but nearly. The question of sovereignty, that of not only the Scottish parliament but of the Scottish people. And of a fascinating little constitutional law bomb set many years ago, by that indefatigable champion of Scottish independence Winnie Ewing.

Way back, on the first day the shiny new Scottish Parliament at Holyrood was due to sit, somebody had to declare it open before it could even elect a Presiding Officer, so the task fell to the oldest member of the House, Winnie Ewing MSP. She said,

“I want to start with the words that I have always wanted either to say or to hear someone else say – the Scottish Parliament, which adjourned on March 25, 1707, is hereby reconvened.”

Those were carefully chosen words. That particular parliament has had a lot of bad press, some of it from me, but whatever else it might have been there’s one important thing we know that it was – sovereign.

But despite the obvious weight and moment of these matters, the government did not see fit to allow MPs a chance to debate them, in its haste to ram through its ramshackle legislation. What the SNP members are trying to do is demonstrate how serious this is. How constitutionally significant. A lot of people have exhausted their attention spans when it comes to Brexit. They just want it to be over. I understand that, but this really does matter. The high-handed actions of this omnishambles of a government threaten to undermine the very constitutional foundations of the Union. And it might not end the way they expect.

 

 

You can read more of Debra’s writing here, Derek’s writing here, and listen to them both on our Podcast