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