Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Bringers of Chaos 3: We have met the enemy and he is us

In Part 1 and Part 2, I looked at reasons not to panic over the rise of the SNP. The UK political classes seem determined to panic anyway.

Both Labour and Conservatives talk as if the SNP are a new Jacobite rebellion, marching south to seize power at the point of a claymore. They have indulged in hysteria for the sake of short-term partisan advantage. The consequences could be profound.

The SNP's method of taking power. Note the absence of guns, bombs and bayonets.
Source: Daily Telegraph

Canada withstood the rise of the separatist Bloc Québecois. The Canadian political establishment has many, many faults, but also two important virtues. It was willing to take constitutional reform seriously; and it treated Québec nationalists like the responsible, democratic politicians they are.

Neither virtue is evident in the UK. Statesmanlike behaviour is nowhere to be seen in either main party, and their record on constitutional reform is dismal.

Labour has clung grimly to the terms of the 1999 devolution settlement. In their view, the West Lothian Question will go away if they continue to ignore it. They wanted the partisan advantage of having a large bloc of Scottish MPs to help them govern England; but now that support is being swept away. Conversely, the Tories push incoherent schemes of "English votes for English laws", again in pursuit of a narrow partisan advantage.

The major parties regard the SNP as the second coming of Lord Voldemort. The nationalists cannot be negotiated with, only opposed.

A Jacobite charge (re-enacted).
Source: BBC News

The UK establishment now resembles the most blockheaded parties in the bad old days of Northern Ireland. John Major and Tony Blair were willing to negotiate with bona fide terrorists. Their successors regard the SNP, with its exemplary record of peaceful and democratic behaviour stretching back to 1934, as entirely beyond the pale.

They are likely to pay a heavy price for this intransigence. Their rhetoric might as well have been calculated to infuriate the Scots. Meanwhile, it has stirred up a surly, defiant English nationalism which will not easily be contained. The Union between England and Scotland was hardly in robust health to begin with, and this election campaign may help bring about its demise.

Alex Massie, Rafael Behr, and Owen Jones, among others, have pointed out the dangers, but the UK's leaders seem oblivious.

I am left wondering if Cameron and Miliband truly care about Scotland remaining within the UK.

Of course, Miliband wants more Labour MPs. I am not so sure he cares where they come from or why. He is a Londoner and has, to put it charitably, shown very little interest in Scotland. For their part, the Scots have no time for Miliband; his personal ratings north of the border are even worse than Cameron's, which is quite an achievement for a Labour leader.

Will Miliband make real sacrifices, or risk his own party's short-term advantage, to keep Scotland within the UK? I wouldn't bet on it.

David Cameron, reflecting on Scottish hatred for the "effing Tories".

As for Cameron, his self-interest could not be more clear. Scotland and the UK Conservatives are locked in mutual fear and loathing. (I'm excluding the small, stubborn band of Scottish Conservatives, whose influence on the UK party is negligible.) For decades, the "effing Tories" (to use their leader's words) have been caught in a vicious cycle. The less they know about Scotland, the fewer elections they can win, and the less they want to know.

Without Scotland, the Conservatives would have won a small overall majority at the last general election. The coalition would never have existed. Getting shot of Scotland would improve the Conservatives' electoral chances immensely.

What stands in their way? What is there to stop them doing a deal with the SNP, and telling Scotland "goodbye, and good riddance"?

Nothing more than pride, and tradition. To the extent that Conservatism is about keeping things which worked well in the past, they want to preserve a union which has lasted 308 years. Who knows, in another half century Conservative fortunes in Scotland might turn around.

On a personal level, I imagine Cameron feels a sort of sentimental patriotism which includes Scotland. He doesn't want to see the land of Adam Smith, Chris Hoy, the Edinburgh Festival, and his own ancestors declare independence. He also doesn't want to go down in history as the Prime Minister who lost Scotland.

It's not much of a motivation to fight for the Union; and I don't know if Cameron's colleagues would even muster that much. In particular, I can imagine Boris Johnson cheerfully waving Scotland farewell.

The example of Canada suggests that if British leaders are imaginative, flexible, and statesmanlike, they can reform the UK and find a settlement which satisfies all four of its component nations. Cameron, Miliband and the rest show very little understanding of the challenge. Instead, they are drifting into a scenario where the UK is dismantled by default.

It might take five years, ten, or twenty, but if the UK establishment continue to treat Scotland and the SNP with such contempt, Scotland will leave. It would be a pity if the UK broke up, not out of deep incompatibility, but because the current generation of its leaders was too arrogant and narrow-minded to renew it.

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