Brian Wilson: Expect more words about ‘respect’ this election

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson listen to Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon making a statement on BREXIT to MSP's in the debating chamber at the Scottish Parliament in the Edinburgh.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson listen to Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon making a statement on BREXIT to MSP's in the debating chamber at the Scottish Parliament in the Edinburgh.
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And verily, it came to pass, that temptation for the vicar’s daughter was just too great. With a 21-point lead in the polls, high-minded principle gave way to mortal opportunism with impressive alacrity.

Apparently she succumbed during a walking weekend in Snowdonia which, I suppose, is the time-pressured equivalent of 40 days in the wilderness. “Get ye behind me, YouGov,” she cried, but to no avail. The vision of an open goal prevailed.

In self-justification, the Prime Minister bemoaned the role of wrecking opposition parties and unelected Lords, all hell-bent on denying the will of the people. That seemed disingenuous since neither of these forces has so far laid a glove on her agenda, or had much potential to do so.

More plausibly, this is classic recognition of Churchill’s great adage about the opposition being in front of him and the enemy behind. Like John Major and David Cameron before her, Mrs May craves a comfortable cushion against the irreconcilable demands of her hardest-line Brexiteers; those of dubious parentage.

Far from seeking a hard Brexit, May needs room to manoeuvre in search of pragmatic solutions which will inevitably be denounced by the Bill Cashes and Duncan Smiths. With a majority of 100, she could leave them to bark in the outhouses – just as Margaret Thatcher used to do when signing these treaties that took us ever-deeper into the EU. Undoubtedly, Mrs May would have looked to the Scottish experience and learned a highly relevant lesson. The new politics consists of holding a referendum, dividing the country in two, keeping your own true believers together as a movement and then sweeping the boards under first-past-the-post.

That is exactly what happened in Scotland when the 45 (per cent) became the 56 (MPs) and there is now every possibility of something similar in England. The swing from Labour to the Tories is higher in areas that favoured Leave, with voters coalescing to ensure that Brexit proceeds as instructed.

Because secessionist movements are driven by a single cause, it is easier to hold them together under these circumstances than to create a counter-force. People like me continue to think that elections should be about social and economic priorities, and act accordingly. There is not the same impetus towards maintaining a post-referendum voting block for electoral purposes.

In Scotland, the situation is confused by there are now being two constitutional blocks which are far from co-terminal. Many anti-EU Nationalists will presumably baulk at the pitch that we must have a second referendum so we can get back into the EU. And there will certainly be more tactical voting, intensified by the unpopularity of Ms Sturgeon’s demand for an early replay.

The great imponderable is whether these two categories of voters – anti-EU Nats and pro-UK tactical voters – are sufficient in numbers to make a significant dent in SNP dominance, based on its 40-plus per cent. Even a little greater diversity after 8 June, more reflective of votes cast, would be healthy for the quality of Scottish debate and priorities.

There is nothing in any of this to enthuse over. Once false political dichotomies are established, they are difficult to displace. Check out Ireland, which is still working on it nearly 100 years later. As that experience demonstrates, dividing a society along a constitutional fault-line puts progressive politics into cold storage for as long it takes for scales to be lifted from eyes, as Scotland is slowly discovering.

For Labour supporters, the early election has one obvious up-side but otherwise not much good news. I was puzzled by Jeremy Corbyn’s immediate decision to facilitate the Parliamentary process which has allowed it proceed. Being called “frit” was surely the least of the prospective outcomes which should concern him.

Anyway, the die is cast and I hope enough of a Labour rump survives to provide decent opposition and start the recovery. Regardless of constitutional preoccupations, working people and their families need a credible force to represent them. Politics are more volatile than in the 1980s and it need not take so long to recover, if sensible choices follow. What kind of campaign will it be in Scotland? I’m sure we will hear a lot more words of dubious sincerity about “respect” but if the tone set by the unpleasant campaign to demonise Ruth Davidson over the so-called “rape clause” is the harbinger, then we should not hold our breaths. It is worth digressing to deplore how cynical this operation has been as it has important lessons for the weeks ahead.

Surely nobody maintains that it would have been better not to have an exemption for rape victims from the “two child credits” rule than to create one? In other words, the real political issue is the dodgy piece of social engineering inherent in the legislation – not the exemption from it. And this is where Ms Davidson has a perfectly reasonable point.

This dilution of child credits has been approaching for two years. If the Scottish Government regarded the “two child” rule as obnoxious, it has been within its powers since September to state unambiguously that they would negate it in Scotland, using around £30 million of the £800m additional resources. That would have won widespread support and sent a signal of how devolution allows Scotland to do things differently on welfare. It would also have involved making choices about how money is spent and would have meant there was no “rape clause” in Scotland around which to promote indignation and denigration.

For pointing all this out, Ms Davidson was denounced by the First Minister as “beneath contempt” – maybe she learned her definition of “respect” from a charm school run by Peter Wishart.

Surely it is possible to disagree politically – as I do on the “two- child” rule – without inciting “contempt”; a commodity, some might say, worthy of those who talk piously and do nothing.

Hard questioning of Nationalists who pontificate on issues over which they hold unused powers might be a usesful feature of the campaign.

Child credits, incidentally, were one of the great successes of the last Labour government reducing child poverty by 800,000 between 1997 and 2010. But who speaks now for the poor and the meek in an election pre-ordained to be about Brexit and referendums?