SNP must respond to the contempt it is being treated with at Westminster – Kenny MacAskill
SNP should not follow Sinn Fein and refuse to sit in UK Parliament, but it should focus on campaigning in Scotland, writes Kenny MacAskill
Last week saw a contrast between two governments. Not the usual comparison of the PM and the FM, instead between the UK and Irish administrations. In both countries, coronavirus has seen guidance and laws issued limiting behaviour, but shamefully not always been adhered to by leading figures.
The fledgling Dublin coalition was rocked by a parliamentary golf dinner held whilst restrictions were in place. A Fianna Fail Minister resigned, and other party deputies lost the whip, the Fine Gael deputy leader of the Senate relinquished his post and was suspended along with two colleagues; and it even reverberated into Europe with the Irish EU Trade Commissioner required to apologise profusely. Rightly so, all will say, both here and in Ireland. But, of course, that contrasts with Dominic Cummings, who could do as he wished and was shamelessly defended by Boris Johnson.
For this Tory Government, as with Trump, doesn’t abide by the usual rules of office or adhere to the normal standards expected. It’s not the kleptocracy of the American counterpart but it’s cronyism and veering that way – shamelessly refusing to accept responsibility for anything, whether personal behaviour as with Cummings or ministerial actions such as Robert Jenryck’s planning decision in favour of a Tory donor. Abject policy failures are routinely ignored, and appointments made predicated on who they are not what they know. The ground rules have changed under Johnson and this is how it’s going to be for quite a while to come.
So, as Parliament prepares to return, it’s been a chance for me to reflect on my first term. I was only elected to Westminster in December 2019 but that has proven to be a watershed election not simply in the majority it’s afforded Johnson, but in the manner in which he has chosen to run the country. I can’t help thinking that the tactics being deployed as an opposition party will require to change.
Over these past months, I’ve seen colleagues work hard, make admirable speeches, ask pointed and difficult questions and seek to both challenge and hold the Tory Government to account. But it’s been to no avail and in each and every vote we’ve been defeated. It’s not as if the issues didn’t matter, as they’ve included Brexit with the dangers that brings, the threats to agriculture and trade, and immigration, with the nastiness of the powerful and the tragedies endured by the powerless.
Every vote cast, whether in the arcane lobby system or electronically, has seen defeat by 70 or 80 votes. And so it will continue to be.
At the same time, there’s been no magnanimity shown in victory or understanding of sensitivities in Scotland, where after all they were defeated comprehensively. Instead of showing any willingness to defuse fear or anger, they’ve doubled down on their trenchant unionism. As with Cummings, there’s neither recognition of how it’s perceived nor care at what others might think, including the majority of the electorate.
English Votes for English Laws has proceeded apace, and Scots MPs are marginalised. The Scottish Affairs Committee has been crammed with English MPs and one has even been appointed a Minister for Scotland. Back under Margaret Thatcher, Malcolm Rifkind could be described as the Governor General for Scotland. But he had greater legitimacy than exists now, given the absence of Holyrood and the modest SNP vote then. He also had more credibility, given a higher profile than his successor today, with even me struggling to recall just who it currently is. Compounding all that, the proposed internal UK market threatens to strip Holyrood of even limited powers to mitigate the harm.
Surely, it’s now time to change tactics, as the ground’s changed under our feet. The election outcome changed the game, and Johnson has decided to abandon the rules and even any semblance of fair play. Enforced absence from Westminster of many has shown the futility of being a permanent fixture on the green benches or being stuck in committees addressing matters, with no relevance to our country.
Work can be done remotely, questions asked electronically, and both more parliamentary and constituency work done, without hours of travelling to London to pay homage. It doesn’t mean that there’s not times to be there, as opportunities to challenge ministers should be taken and votes must also be cast, even when defeat’s inevitable.
But Westminster isn’t Scotland’s Parliament, as the imposition of despised policy and the treatment of elected representatives shows. Independence is now the issue and the Holyrood election beckons. The focus must therefore be in Scotland not Westminster and reacting to attacks on Scottish democracy, not supinely accepting them’s required.
Abstentionism practiced by Sinn Fein isn’t acceptable to Scottish voters. But challenging more and accepting less, in an innately hostile institution, certainly is. It’s time for the SNP in Westminster to respond to the contempt being shown.
Kenny MacAskill is the SNP MP for East Lothian
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