Why SNP deputy leader Keith Brown is wrong about nationalist MPs abandoning Westminster parliament – Stewart McDonald

As one Conservative MP recently warned his party, politicians must ‘work with the bell curve' of public opinion ‘or become the bell ends’

“Abstentionism”, SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn told Messrs Sunak and Starmer last week, “is not leadership”. I hope Keith Brown was watching. I’ve known Keith for a long time and consider him a friend who has an admirable record of service to party and country.

But his comments last week – that the SNP should “re-examine its participation in the proceedings of the UK Parliament” – were not only wrong and unhelpful but, if fulfilled, would be a total abdication of our party’s responsibility to Scotland. The Speaker’s procedural stunts before the Gaza ceasefire debate were not an argument for abstention, but the exact opposite. It was a crystal-clear example of how eager Westminster politicians are to disregard Scotland’s elected representatives and a reminder that only the SNP can provide an alternative to the cosy consensus so often cooked up between Labour and the Conservatives.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The comments were so concerning because they were not impromptu, off-the-cuff remarks made in the politically charged heat of the moment. They were published in a national newspaper in a general election year. The attack adverts write themselves, and they did.

SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn is right to say that 'abstentionism is not leadership' (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn is right to say that 'abstentionism is not leadership' (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn is right to say that 'abstentionism is not leadership' (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Questioning Westminster democracy

One Scottish Labour prospective parliamentary candidate soon outlined the choice that Scottish voters would face if the SNP were to embrace abstentionism. “Elect a Labour MP who will do their job,” he wrote, “or elect an SNP MP who won’t turn up for work.” Like all my colleagues, I choose to work.

However, more concerning was the worldview that abstentionism represents and the path it would inevitably lead Scotland down. I could scarcely believe that newspaper readers were being invited to consider “whether it is right to confer any legitimacy on an institution determined to deny democracy in Scotland". I want to see Scotland exit the Westminster parliament on the back of a legitimate and lawful vote for independence, but to question its legitimacy is a Rubicon I would urge my colleagues to think very carefully before crossing.

I am no fan of the Palace of Westminster. It is a crumbling building that more often feels like a school reunion for the old boys of Eton, Harrow and Westminster than the seat of government of a modern state. Its procedures – from the codified inability to call out Boris Johnson's lies to the unwritten rules which decide what matters may be spoken about in the Chamber – demonstrate that the UK Parliament is not in any way a model exemplar of a functioning legislature where power can be held to account. It is a shadow of a truly representative body, and I will be glad when the sovereignty of the Scottish Parliament is restored.

But the Palace of Westminster, in all its gilded decay, is the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Scotland is, for now, part of the United Kingdom. It will be until the Act of Union is unwound. These are simple and inescapable facts that should not have to be repeated, especially to senior colleagues.

Trap that has destroyed Tories

The movement for Scottish independence has enjoyed popular and sustained support because we speak for mainstream Scotland, who will only back a lawful and negotiated route to self-determination when they choose. Until then, the people of Scotland want their voices heard in Westminster. That is why I reject the idea of abstentionism in its entirety – because I know that it is so out of step with mainstream Scotland.

Abstentionism is, to be polite, completely crackers. If we allow ourselves to be deluded into thinking this is a desirable – or even viable – political strategy, we will be allowing ourselves to fall into the same trap that has destroyed the Conservative party: of speaking to our core vote and confusing positive feedback from them with having the support of the country.

One Conservative MP wrote a blog last week, where he talked about the rabbit hole his party has fallen into after losing its ability to speak to the centre-ground of the country or, as he put it, the people who sit at the top of the political bell curve. “Political parties can work with the bell curve", he wrote, “or become the bell ends.” Those backing abstentionism would do well to consider his warning.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Calls for abstentionism represent a woad-smeared face of Scottish nationalism that should have been left in the last century. It is an outdated worldview that, in the words of the old folk song, The Scottish Breakaway, wants to “dig a trench along the border from the Solway to the Tweed".

Holding the centre-ground

This brand of parochial politics, in wilful denial of modern political and social reality, has nothing to say about the deep, intimate and enduring ties that we, across this North Atlantic archipelago, have and will share after a positive vote for independence. It looks backwards instead of forwards and would reduce the party of great SNP parliamentarians, such as Winnie Ewing, Billy Wolfe and Neil MacCormick, to fatal impotence. This is no vision for our party – which is why SNP parliamentarians, activists and members reject it. We are not a party of protest. We are a modern, social-democratic, European party of government or we are nothing.

My party’s extraordinary success over the past 17 years in government was built on a coalition in the centre-ground of Scottish politics. It was that cross-country coalition that delivered the 2014 independence referendum, and that same type of coalition that will deliver independence in the future. Parliamentary abstentionism – a turn away from our party’s long tradition of speaking up for Scotland – would see voters abandon us in their droves. Some might call it a strategy; I call it an emotional spasm.

To embrace that proposal would be a betrayal of our promise to the Scottish people, would impede our ability to shape Scotland's future at such a crucial geopolitical moment, and would damage our cause in the long term. Abstentionism is not leadership.

Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.