Kenny MacAskill: Proof that Great Britain is no longer so great

The Independence movement in Scotland and its leading exponent, the SNP, have had their travails recently. Referendum defeat and an uncertainty in how to address Brexit have been compounded by a loss of political surefootedness by Nicola Sturgeon and her team.
Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have faced calls to resign. Picture: AFP/Getty ImagesBoris Johnson and Priti Patel have faced calls to resign. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have faced calls to resign. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

However, they’ll be sustained by the irony that the victorious side from 2014 and their flag carriers in Westminster’s Unionist parties have never appeared more diminished. That was pointed out by Alex Salmond at the Scottish Independence Convention last week and he’s right.

Great Britain does not appear so great and the old certainties that sustained Unionists through the referendum campaign – stability, currency and EU membership – are disappearing, along with the value of the sterling. The liberal democracy that epitomised decency and moderation for many is being supplanted by a harsher and more brutal society. For sure, it’s still for those who seek independence to make the case and so far on several issues, from currency to the EU, they’ve been found wanting. However, assumptions that ‘peak Nat’ has been reached or that independence is dead and buried for a generation, if not ever, are mistaken.

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The UK’s current plight is perhaps most visible in the current fiasco that is the British Cabinet under the hapless Theresa May. Long gone are the days of patrician grandeur when Secretaries of State were big beasts not just in British terms but on a global stage. Now, the Prime Minister appears lonely and isolated at international events, whilst her Cabinet is a nest of vipers in which she appears to retain people not for what they can contribute, but to share the blame for the coming catastrophe.

That’s evidenced by her retention of the buffoon that is Boris Johnson who forgets that the first job of Government is to keep its citizens safe and secure. His inanities and lack of tact, nevermind diplomacy, have made him the ambassadorial equivalent of a Brit lager lout. Meanwhile, Priti Patel freelances policy with a foreign government during her vacation. Long gone, it seems, are the days when Harold Wilson went on holiday to the Scilly Isles.

When I first entered politics, its British figures were big in stature and nationalist ones were few or limited in profile. My first UK election foray as a young SNP candidate was against Robin Cook and it was very much man against boy. However, the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the increased political power of the SNP changed things. My first trip to Westminster as Justice Secretary to meet with the Home Secretary, then Jacqui Smith, confirmed that. It was the early days of the minority SNP Government and I went with some curiosity and a little trepidation. My only previous venture there had been as part of a demonstration. Going down to London I recalled the biography of Michael Collins who, when going to negotiate the Free State Treaty, had been required to walk down a corridor adorned by a bust of every Prime Minister since Pitt the Elder and a painting of every monarch since the Plantagenets – all designed to make him feel small before the grand door opened where, behind a huge table, sat Lloyd George and Joseph Chamberlain.

However, I went supported by civil servants and found both the room and my counterpart more underwhelming than intimidating. In the years since the election of an SNP Government, Scottish Ministers have risen in profile as UK ones have declined. Nicola Sturgeon can now comfortably grace an international stage while the UK is being pushed to the side-lines of it.

In 2014 David Cameron appeared capable and confident, as well as being supported by Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown over the Union. That contrasts with May’s incompetency and hesitancy, nevermind the disarray not just in her Cabinet but in British politics. The previous unity within her government and across the British political spectrum is unlikely to be recreated anytime soon. So, despite some recent misjudgements and a hogging of the spotlight by the First Minister, the gap in profile and prestige between Holyrood and Westminster Ministers has shrunk.

And the certainties which prompted some to vote No have gone. The pound is crashing and Britain is exiting the EU. Those issues were critical for many. Moreover, the decency that the country was famed for and its image of security have been blown asunder. Many are now questioning whether this is the country they voted to remain in.

The perception, if not the reality, is both internal and external. Of course, the decline of the UK’s international influence could be said to apply to the Western world as a whole, as the political power of Asia begins to rise to match its economic might. The biggest losers in prestige and power though are the UK and USA – partly because they’ve furthest to fall but mostly because the policies of “Make America Great Again” and “Brexit” have isolated them and made even allies reconsider their actions and attitudes.

However, it’s Great Britain that has suffered most of all, almost becoming a figure of fun, as articles in the New York Times and leading German papers havedemonstrated. Far from setting a course to become some offshore European Singapore, it’s heading for catastrophe as both friends and foes – from Bloomberg to China – are pointing out.

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Its strength and saleability was in being the go-to destination for investment within the EU because of its liberal tax laws and use of the English language. Without that not only are the Chinese reviewing their investment plans but tragically many, many more are now considering leaving. Since September 2014, the Scottish Government and the SNP have suffered some rebuffs and recent defeats. But, the UK Government and British establishment have even more so. The revival of the Scottish Tories masks the continued decline of the United Kingdom. It’s still for those who seek independence to make the case and that has recently faltered, but Britain doesn’t look so great anymore.