Of course it was a “stunt” – the Westminster village’s preferred term for any piece of nonsense that disrupts the serenity of the mother of parliaments – and of course it was planned in advance. Pete Wishart, the SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, tweeted that prime minister’s questions would be unusually interesting this week.
For a given definition of interesting, that is. The SNP’s walk-out was engineered to win the party some attention and a place at the top of this evening’s Scottish news. Job done. Mission accomplished. Well done lads. It was all very reminiscent of the 1980s when Alex Salmond, among others, was forever making an exhibition of himself the better to win the SNP some – indeed any – attention at all. A howl of indignation against a world that declined to show the party the respect its tribunes felt it deserved.
This, of course, is an Era of Hurt Feelings and in that respect the rest of the world has caught up with the SNP and its easily-bruised sensibilities.
“My SNP colleagues and I were treated to the same braying and disrespect that we receive on a continual basis. Scottish Tories told me to sit down. Let me be clear, the SNP shall not ‘sit down’ and allow the people of Scotland to be treated this way.” Nobody puts Scotland in the corner, you understand.
The SNP is a national party for a national movement. That is all very well and good and, whether you like it or not, entirely respectable. It does not impose, however, any requirement to take the SNP at their word or agree with their own good-faith interpretation of the national mood or the national interest. Other Scotlands, including one that is also British, are available. Other points of view are as valid as that insisted upon by the SNP. They speak for themselves, not the country as a whole no matter how much they pretend otherwise. Ian Blackford is no more the voice of the people, in their messy entirety, than Nicola Sturgeon is. (The same strictures apply, it should not have to be said but probably does, to Ruth Davidson and Richard Leonard.)
The nationalists must make everything about the nation because that is the language of nationalism. Sometimes this requires them to indulge an appetite for victimhood that is not necessarily entirely helpful. It is axiomatic, however, that Scotland will never be “respected” by what Sturgeon calls “the Westminster system”. Scotland’s interests must always be distinct from those of the UK as a whole and they must always be subordinated to the interests of other places (and one place in particular that need not be named). Scotland is the victim, a much put-upon place that will never be given the respect it deserves.
The interests of the nation – as defined by the SNP – are paramount. I do not say this in any pejorative sense. I merely note that anything that encourages a greater identification with Scotland, Scottishness and a sense that Scotland can never, ever, receive a fair shake or a square deal at Westminster is something that can be leveraged by the SNP. A nationalist army must always march on its grievances.
Many people find this wearisome but the “So. Much. Disrespect.” agenda makes sense when viewed from a nationalist perspective. Sometimes, it is also true, there is a measure of validity to it. Tory MPs, in particular, who enjoy braying at their SNP counterparts do not present a particularly attractive picture when seen on Scottish television screens. And there are times when, to put it mildly, the UK government does risk looking, if we are generous, careless with the devolved parliaments.
Even so, SNP thinking also rests on a category error. Sturgeon suggests that last night’s series of votes in the Commons shows how Scotland can never be “an equal partner” in the “Westminster system”. Well of course not. Because you cannot be a partner with yourself. That is to say, there are times when Scotland and Scottish politics are purely Scottish matters and there are other times when they are subsumed into something larger than that; times when they are part of, and not divisible from, British politics. Because Scotland is – and has chosen to be – Scottish AND British. This remains the case even if the SNP cannot, or are reluctant, to see it.
The substantive prompt for these shenanigans is also far from clear cut. Again, I happen to think that the UK government has been clumsy – at best, and more probably something worse than that – in its dealings with Edinburgh lately. Equally, Whitehall has still not fully grasped the manner, or the extent, to which devolution has changed the architecture of British politics.
Even so, good faith disagreement on the withdrawal bill and the principle of consent remains possible. That is to say, both sides have something approximating to a point. Scottish constitutional scholars have spent an inordinate amount of the last 24 hours squabbling over what, precisely, “normally” means. As in, what the extent and force of the Sewell convention’s agreement that Westminster will not “normally” intrude upon prerogatives enjoyed by the devolved parliaments.
Well, setting constitutional law aside, I fancy that the lay person will concede these are not “normal” times. That does not mean, as some hysterical commentators have suggested, that this is the “death of devolution”. On the contrary, convincing people of this requires them to discard the evidence of their own eyes, their own experience, and their own tax bills.
A Scottish parliament that now enjoys control of most elements of income tax and that has also accrued welfare powers that even the SNP allows are significant is not a parliament devoid of responsibility. Voters, I think, appreciate this. And they appreciate, too, I think, that more responsibilities will flow to Edinburgh if and when Brexit is ever, at long last, eventually delivered.
Moreover, those voters paying more attention will also wonder how, if Westminster is indulging in a “power grab”, the SNP government in Edinburgh should have agreed that, in a number of areas including fishing and agriculture that might otherwise have been considered fully devolved, there should instead be, for a period of time, common and agreed pan-UK “frameworks” until such time as fresh arrangements can be made. If there is a “power grab”, then, it is one that the SNP has accepted at least to the extent that these matters are best arranged on a cross-UK basis. (It is true that the question of who should have the ability to change these frameworks is a different, and more ticklish, matter but that’s one that it’s possible to think is implicitly accepted in the provisions the SNP was happy to accept. People may disagree in good faith on this.)
As they may in other areas. The Labour party in Wales, for instance, accepted the compromise hammered out on the withdrawal bill; the Labour party in Scotland did not. Labour in Scotland had other reasons for taking this view – being in opposition, not wanting to be seen to be voting with the Conservatives – but even so the discrepancy in Labour views across the kingdom is enough to suggest these matters are not clear-cut or as obvious as either the SNP or the Conservatives have portrayed them.
But all this is, in the end, theatrical smoke masking the fact that, just last weekend, the SNP admitted defeat. For the last two years Nicola Sturgeon has been searching for a moment and a means by which Brexit can be used to force a second referendum on independence. Stubbornly, however, and much to Ms Sturgeon’s surprise (and, yes, to my surprise too) this has not happened. The people, damn them, have remained placid. Their fires of outrage have not been stoked.
A referendum that was successively “likely”, “more likely”, “highly likely”, “more highly likely than ever” and so on has not actually become more likely than not. Losing 21 seats last June put paid to that scheme. Not because the SNP did not win the Scottish portion of the election – they did – but because they went backwards and their slide has given Ruth Davidson and Theresa May what they consider the moral authority to say No to the SNP. That does not seem likely to change – as matters stand – before the next Scottish elections in 2021.
Other people recognise this too. Nicola Sturgeon is one of those other people. At the weekend she admitted defeat. Of course she didn’t quite put it like that but she still asked delegates at the SNP’s conference “not just to focus on the ‘when’ of independence but to use our energy and passion to persuade those who still ask ‘why?’ Right now that is the more important task”.
Doubtless so but the meaning was clear: there will be no referendum before Brexit has happened. Just in case some people hadn’t got the point, she told Andrew Marr that the Yes movement should “stop obsessing about when we might get the chance to vote on independence again”.
That is the big news. That is the context in which this week’s events must be understood. Having lost one battle, the SNP are seeking – perfectly reasonably – to change the terrain upon which the next battle will be fought.
If they can encourage voters to believe that Scotland – poor, small, Scotland – is being bullied by a ruthless, heartless, UK government that is intrinsically and forever hostile to Scottish interests and, more generally, the Scottish people then that will help prepare the ground for future campaigns. They ask voters to put aside all other considerations and remember that, whatever else they may be, they are Scots and Scottish first. An assault on Holyrood or the casual disrespect shown by the UK government is, then, an assault on us all. An insult up with which no proper Scot can put. We, the SNP might say, are all in this together.
It is, viewed this way, a matter of pride. Of dignity. Of respect. How dare they talk to us like that? Don’t let them get away with it. And so on and so on; the beating of a nationalist drum that can never be quietened.
Better, certainly, to focus on all this than on the manner in which, for the time being anyway, the referendum game has been conceded. You might think that linked to this afternoon’s shenanigans and you might well be right to think so. Fancy that.