‘Stands Scotland where it did?” asked Macduff in Macbeth. The answer from Ross: “Alas, poor country, almost afraid to know itself” make Shakespeare’s words seem almost prescient, albeit centuries on. For amidst all the turmoil and intrigue at Westminster, Scotland sits on the sidelines, marginal and almost moribund.
The Independent Group formed by the breakaway Labour MPs, yesterday joined by three Conservative MPs, has neither interest nor relevance to Scotland. If the suggestion that they considered Ruth Davidson as a potential leader’s true, then it shows just how out of touch they are and the political positioning of the defectors, if not foresworn, then left unsaid. Meanwhile, the Scottish constitutional issue didn’t even rate a mention.
Of course, interest is on whether Scottish Blairites, Centrists or whatever you call them, might follow in another wave of defections. That would certainly spice up the story in Scotland but they still remain on the margins. Ian Murray and Kezia Dugdale are on the fringes of what has in reality become a fringe party here, though much of the blame for that lies at their door with the catastrophic positioning during the referendum. In Scotland it’s not the Independent Group but a reformed Independent Labour Party that many yearn for, radical on social and economic policy, as well as the constitution.
But it’s the SNP’s position that’s most surprising, after the leadership moving from lighting the fiery cross to an almost interminable delay on a second referendum. Two weeks has passed and no further comment has come from the First Minister. A week’s a long time in politics, as they say, and it’s now many more than that and within which the British political parties are beginning to fall apart. Labour has seen the eight go and others may follow. Three Conservative defectors have now joined them. As a “No Deal” Brexit looms, the possibility of further fragmentation within the Tories grows, with even Cabinet Ministers rumoured to be willing to jump ship.
British politics, if not melting down, is in serious trouble and on the point of potentially significant change. The old adage in Ireland was always “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. Indeed that still applies as not just Sinn Fein but others, including unionists, are now talking of a Border Poll, the constitutional issue having been kick-started, ironically, by ardent Brexiteers whether Tory or DUP.
Meanwhile in Scotland, though, there’s almost complete silence. Here it’s not another poll that’s talked about by the SNP, but internal polling. Nicola Sturgeon has gone from gung-ho for IndyRef2 to tweeting her endorsement of a private polling company. It’s a helluva long way from even a strategy for another poll, let alone her strident call in 2017.
Now, I’ve no objection to polling – all parties and campaigns do it. But three questions spring to mind: Firstly, why hasn’t it been done already, it was certainly done in the run up to 2014? She’s been leader of the SNP for over four years and reviewing what was pivotal in costing defeat back then is long overdue. If it hasn’t been done then questions need to be asked. Did she really make the call back in 2017 without that information base? Though, to be fair, the shambolic Westminster campaign that so dearly cost the party may answer that.
Secondly, if it now needs to be done then why endorse one private company rather than have it carried out commercially? Surely something as critical and costly as this should go out to competitive tender. Angus Robertson’s a party stalwart and all things being equal most members would be delighted if he benefited. His business partner Mark Diffley is also a very able and personable individual, but he’s running a business and doing it commercially. I know he polled for the other side in the last independence referendum, as he told me so. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t get the business this time, just that it’s a commercial deal and there should be openness and transparency. They may not have been ordained by the SNP but they’ve been anointed by the leadership.
But the real question is why is the SNP leadership so moribund? Of course, the fog hasn’t cleared from Brexit but it hadn’t in 2017 when many were urging caution and yet the call was made. Now as the UK faces going over the cliff edge and as the economy and social wellbeing are threatened it’s not just a British difficulty but a British crisis.
Answers should have been forthcoming on currency and other issues, and questions need to be asked why that work hasn’t been done. They can, though, still be provided but a wider crisis is looming and one where the old certainties of the union no longer apply. It’s not just leaving the EU, but the stability of sterling, never mind fundamental economic wellbeing that’s threatened. The British state is approaching an unparalleled crisis, one not experienced since wartime, with even Suez looking a minor affair in comparison. So there comes a time when people want leadership and may be prepared to take a potential leap into the unknown, as they’re aware of the catastrophe that beckons.
In 2014 and even in 2017, the British parties were largely united within and certainly united without against the nationalist threat. Now, they’re hopelessly divided within and at daggers drawn without against each other. Never has the British political front been so weak. Yet, the First Minister seeks some polling information that should have been obtained longago, rather than seeking to push against that front by ramping up the calls for IndyRef2.
If a century ago Irish Nationalist MPs had carried out polling, rather than establishing the Dail Eirann, we probably wouldn’t be discussing the Irish backstop. Stands Scotland where it did? Sadly it appears it’s still “a country almost afraid to know itself”.