‘GOOD grief, you aren’t a Scottish Nationalist, are you?” The massive, tweedy don inspected me, eyes twinkling with surprise and a kind of benevolent contempt. Determined to skewer this odd specimen of humanity, after a fortifying slurp of claret, he patiently explained to me that I was wrongheaded and mistaken. Like a dim undergraduate in a tricky tutorial, he said, if I thought matters through, I would soon realise the absurdity of the Nationalists and my position.
From the detached comfort of the Oxbridge college, possessed by its own backbiting and petty provincialisms, Scottish politics resembled the faraway sectarian divisions which gripped Swift’s Lilliput, about which end of your boiled egg you ought to crack first at breakfast. My armchair Gulliver was unsympathetic.
Finding a little steel, I reminded him that these “crackpots” had made a decent fist of running the country, and had been elected and re-elected by the Scottish people by a healthy margin. He may think that the separatists are an odd, rotten lot, but he had no reason whatever to believe that the majority of Scots shared his scorn. He shot me a bovine look and refilled his glass. The table rhubarbed in sympathy with his analysis. I courageously changed the topic and passed the port the wrong way.
It was an encounter I was to experience again and again in England in the run-up to last September: a curious mixture of complacency and incuriosity, punctuated by outbursts of panic as these misplaced verities crumbled. For the old don, the SNP still belonged in a Victorian cabinet of curiosities, or a childhood book of boggards, to be gawped at, heads shaken, a queer, almost quaint, ragbag band of political children.
I wonder now what this unimaginative character would make of the SNP breaking free of its traditional spot in the British curiosity cabinet, and if recent polling is to be believed, descending on the Palace of Westminster in force never before seen. Horror, I suppose. This failure of empathy always struck me as confusing. The Yes campaign was – at its heart – an expression of frustrated exhaustion with Westminster and its decisions. These frustrations are not isolated to constituencies north of the Tweed. I defy anyone to watch Michael Cockerell’s recent Inside the Commons documentary, and not to feel a kindling of Jacobin sensibility in their belly. But the yelps and growls accompanying Nicola Sturgeon’s recent, testy appearance on BBC Question Time in Stockton-on-Tees suggests that the party will not have its troubles to seek in establishing itself as a credible, legitimate UK political actor.
While the First Minister has evolved into a UK political figure with admirable speed, it will take time for her voice to be heard over the fizz of suspicion, hostility and misplaced victim fantasies. But Sturgeon’s interventions, critical of the Westminster austerity consensus, have been canny, lucid and well-judged. Alex Salmond once argued that “it is not for flags and anthems that we fight, but for fairness and compassion”. Scotland voted on 18 September to remain part of the UK. The SNP owes it to the people, to all the people, to use whatever power we have, to articulate and fight for a fairer, more compassionate vision of the United Kingdom and to expose the timidity of Ed Miliband’s leadership.
When you adopt the discourse of your opponents, when you co-opt their vocabulary and their ideology, you may think you are working a neat political trick, triangulating your way to victory. For a time, it may appear as if you have wrong-footed your enemies, as they struggle to replace the political costumes you have stolen from them. Tony Blair was a past master at this. Today, the technocratic and soulless Ed Balls continues to practice these dark arts. But ultimately, triangulation is a way of ensuring that your opponent wins, whether you retain office or they boot you out. It is a recipe for an asphyxiating political consensus, for conceding your opponents’ common sense, and not for victory on something like your own ideological terms.
Surveying the polls, I suspect my sceptical old don remembers his Yeats, and wonders fretfully, “What rough beast, its hour come around at last, slouches towards Westminster to be born?” This is the wonder and terror of politics. Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold. But I prefer a lightly adapted phrase of Churchill’s: “The Battle for Britain is over. The Battle for Britain is about to begin.”
In September, the SNP fought for an idea of Scotland. In May, we fight not for independence, but a noble idea of Britain that has been gnawed at, and attenuated, but has not perished. A comical Times editorial last week described a substantial SNP bloc as a threat to the “policy coherence” of the United Kingdom. I can think of no better endorsement. Britain’s ability to reinvent itself is not spent. The SNP must fight to change it for the better. «