I’ve been reading John Redmond’s biography, a character largely forgotten but vilified in Ireland when recalled. He was the Irish Parliamentary Party’s leader in Westminster until they were blown away by the country’s reaction to the First World War and the Easter Rising.
A rather tragic tale, detailing a highly able and thoroughly honourable man overwhelmed by circumstances. Unable to resolve unionist intransigence, he was haunted by the spectre of partition but equally badly let down by the British.
It’s a long time ago, in another country and a significantly different context. But as the SNP debates strategy and tactics it was still interesting on the parliamentary versus extra-parliamentary balance in campaigning.
Redmond was a hugely talented parliamentarian not just in his oratory but especially in his knowledge of parliamentary procedure. Some at times even described him as the unofficial leader of the opposition, such was the respect for his abilities. But neither he nor Ireland could win there then, and Scotland’s no different now.
In fact, the Irish Party was in an even stronger position than the SNP. Both numerically and as a percentage, they were bigger at Westminster than the SNP is or can ever be. Moreover, for many years they held the balance of power though with diehard unionists on both sides, the ability to play one off against the other was limited. Labour’s intransigence on Indyref2, simply replicates what was faced then with Liberal Unionists.
Ireland then wanted its Home Rule Bill that it had decisively voted for with Redmond. Scotland now wants its referendum that’s been given a mandate at several elections now. But Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George were as intransigent a century ago as Johnson is today. As a result, campaigning moved from Westminster to Ireland and so must it now in Scotland.
Tactics must change as the political landscape has been altered not by war but by the election in December 2019. Before then, there was always the possibility of forging alliances and defeating the Government. Seeking to become the real opposition was always frankly ludicrous but at least there was some opportunity to inflict a defeat, especially as Brexit divided the Tories. But not now.
A comfortable Tory majority has seen them press on with their right-wing zealotry, leaving the EU and now seeking to reposition the UK somewhere between the mid-Atlantic and the South China Seas. The threat to Scottish interests is great and speed is therefore of the essence, added to by the huge demands caused by coronavirus that will require swift and decisive action. To avoid further austerity and increased inequality, the power to borrow and set economic policy’s essential; in other words, independence. Added to that is EVEL, or English Votes for English Laws, that simply confirms where control lies and, despite their election setback in Scotland, the imposition of English Tory MPs on the Scottish Affairs Committee. The game’s a bogey down there and they’re arrogantly flaunting their power.
No amount of pleading at Westminster or even highly effective opposition’s going to work. Instead the campaign must move back to Scotland. That doesn’t preclude challenging and questioning ministers as and when, or doing good work in committee or wherever. But it does mean focus must be in Scotland and the campaigning primarily extra-parliamentary.
So, what does that mean? Well, the Constitutional Convention bringing together Scotland’s elected representatives – that should have been held within weeks of the last election – must be held as soon as social distancing and lockdown easing allows. Discussion must take place and as broad an agreement as is possible reached.
Preparations must be made not just for the 2021 Holyrood election but its aftermath. Achieving a majority is essential despite existing mandates. Every vote and every seat will matter and rather than rubbishing sections of the wider movement threatening to stand on the list, engaging constructively would be better.
As campaigning moves out of parliament and into communities, activists will be required. Many of those most discontented now were those most active in 2014; and indeed, in the areas of greatest support. A rapprochement is required.
Post coronavirus will see also political campaigning change with door knocking, if not a thing of the past, certainly much less prevalent. Both online and street campaigning will become ever more important. I’ve previously preferred door knocking to marching. But the latter’s time has come, not just big demonstrations when health restrictions allow, but smaller ones in our communities.
Most importantly of all, there can be no acceptance of a British veto on a referendum. Those huffing and puffing and threatening to blow Westminster down are mistaken. Scotland needs to take charge of its own destiny. It’s from Scotland not London that change will come and political campaigning, not parliamentarianism, that’s needed.
Kenny MacAskill is SNP MP for East Lothian
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