Ungagged asked me to write a wee piece about the current political situation. Where do you even start? Probably with the shortest-lived government any of us can remember, led by Liz Truss.
I have a feeling that the Tories and sections of the media would like us to simply airbrush the Truss government out of history, to forget it ever happened. And it does seem like quite a long time ago somehow. But it’s important that we don’t forget.
For a few days it really did feel as though the UK was on the brink of something catastrophic, sparked by Kwasi Kwarteng’s loopy mini budget. That his plans were loopy was obvious, no matter your politics, and that was what ignited the market meltdown.
Kwarteng and Truss, it has been suggested, were ‘incubated’ by the shadowy but influential free market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), with Britain as their laboratory. Like a poorly run meth cartel, it didn’t take long for the lab to blow up.
Most of us, I’m sure, would much prefer that the financial markets did not exercise such a powerful influence on our economy. But, unfortunately, they do. The irony of ideological free marketeers encountering such an enormous rebuff from the market they idolised was powerful. Instant political karma, it was brutal to watch.
There is also a serious democratic issue here. We witnessed ideological zealots capture the UK Government via an internal party election and attempt to implement an extreme and damaging programme for which they had no electoral mandate. No one outwith the Tory party could do anything about it.
In my view, Westminster politicians should be thinking hard about how to prevent that from ever happening again. I think it is much less likely to happen in Scotland, due to our PR system and different political culture, but nonetheless it does need thought.
Much of the Scottish commentating class, of course, interpreted the doomed mini budget primarily as a challenge to the Scottish Government. Would they match the UK Government’s dramatic tax giveaway? And, if not, would that result in crowds of folk fleeing over the border to save themselves a bob or two?
The Scottish Government made clear that they were not minded to follow Kwasi Kwarteng’s lead, (unlike UK Labour which very quickly pledged to match his unfunded basic rate income tax cut). This was just as well, given how quickly the programme collapsed. I was struck by John Swinney tweeting in the aftermath that he had not even started to recalculate the Barnett consequentials from the mini budget, so confident was he that it would not stand.
And so now we have Rishi Sunak, PM. It is a great thing that the UK has its first Prime Minister from a South Asian background. We should all welcome that. But I’m sure I am not the only one who feels I don’t know very much about Rishi Sunak. He is not, after all, a very experienced politician, being first elected just 7 years ago.
Clearly the legendary men in grey suits exerted considerable influence to ensure that Sunak was selected, without Conservative members being given the chance to vote for Boris Johnson instead. I commend them for that. I would imagine that their priority at the time was to select a leader who could stabilise the markets, and in that Sunak seems to have had some success, at least in the short term.
But the Tory party remains deeply divided, volatile and unmanageable. There is no question that there should be a Westminster general election as soon as possible. But there’s also no question that the Tories will do all they can do avoid one. The political challenge for Sunak is to hold his party together for long enough to make some sort of recovery before an election is held.
I think we can speculate about some of the ways he is likely to try to do that.
I don’t think he is likely to give the Tory right what they want in terms of tax and spending. This doesn’t mean he is going to do what we would want him to do either. We will need to wait and see what his fiscal plans are. There is much at stake. As the First Minister has said, the challenges facing public services are now existential. There is no fat to be trimmed, no significant efficiencies left to be made. Further major cuts will go straight into the bone.
However, nothing Sunak or his Chancellor does is likely to appease the Tory right, whose support he needs. So, he will have to produce something different for them, to find an alternative source of raw meat for the Tory balcony to chew on. Judging by various Cabinet appointments, I am afraid that his solution is going to be to allow ministers to ramp up the right-wing culture war even further. We have already seen that happening, with Suella Braverman’s disgusting comments about asylum seekers. It will probably get worse.
His fundamental political problem, of course, is Brexit. (This is also true of Keir Starmer, whose position on Brexit is essentially no different). It’s true that the UK is not alone in facing challenges on multiple fronts. But every one of those challenges is exacerbated by Brexit, and by years of needless austerity that have increased inequality and undermined individual and collective resilience. The UK may be a rich country but many of her people are, in comparison to most of Europe, poor and set to become even poorer.
It all adds up to a state in turmoil.
For some, this only increases the urgency of achieving independence. But for others, the chaos of Brexit, and the mounting economic and climate challenges of our times, only serve to make them doubtful about the wisdom of moving for independence at this juncture. The argument that becoming independent would be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire will resonate with those who just want things to get back to normal again, however hopelessly.
I’m sure that, like me, you will find those sorts of arguments frustrating, particularly when they are made by the same people who allowed Brexit to happen in the first place. But we need to understand that voters who are receptive to those arguments aren’t necessarily opposed to independence. They are just worried about how we get there, and whether it could all go wrong.
In her speech to SNP Conference, the First Minister related a conversation with a woman who said that she would like Scotland to be independent. She thought it would be good. But she also worried that getting there would be hard. So, her question was this – is it essential? The FM reflected that today, more than at any point in her life, the answer to that question was yes, it is essential.
That’s a perspective I fully agree with. For all my adult life I have supported independence from principle and because I thought it would improve the governance of Scotland. But never before have I felt so certain that independence is a necessity. This makes it even more important that we present a credible and compelling case based on improving the lives, wellbeing and future prospects of the people of Scotland. And, perhaps paradoxically, the very urgency of the need for independence is why that case must be made with patience and, above all, with empathy for those who simply feel lost in a political and economic storm.