With all the Independent Group’s MPs from England, Scotland should perhaps consider a warning from the first US president, George Washington, about the dangers of unthinking loyalty to political parties, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.
There’s a group of disruptive, mould-breaking MPs on the opposition benches, shaking up Westminster and banging on about independence – and for once, it isn’t the SNP.
In fact, this week’s drama has had little, if anything, to do with Scotland. The Tory defectors who joined this week talked about the one-nation Tory ideal, but so far, the Independent Group only represents one nation: England.
All its MPs are from English constituencies – although the ex-Labour member for Stockport, Ann Coffey, was born in Inverness – and when you ask its members, breathless from endlessly talking about themselves, they don’t have much to say about Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Fair enough: they aren’t a political party, they don’t have any policies, and they haven’t been around for a week yet.
But if the MPs quitting their parties are tapping into something real – a yearning for that cliché of a “different kind of politics” – should Scotland be left out?
Let’s take the Independent Group at face value: part of the motivation for the breakaway is MPs saying “enough” to unrestrained, extreme views in their parties.
On that basis, Scotland could do with an Independent Group – according to its own parliamentarians. Many SNP MPs are privately scathing about “zoomers” in their own party, “some of whom have letters after their name”, as one put it. Another suggested they would welcome an early Scottish election as a chance to take on those demanding an immediate independence referendum, and “get them out of the party”. It’s easy to imagine, in the first months of an independent Scotland, a parallel centrist breakaway from the SNP – and the ‘Gang of Seven’ who would lead it.
Scottish Labour isn’t a happy political family, either. Some of its most senior figures – Kezia Dugdale, Ian Murray, Anas Sarwar and Jackie Baillie – are shut out. Listen to the Scottish Tory Paul Masterton talk about a no-deal Brexit and it’s clear he’s as fed up with the ERG, too.
Let’s be clear: it isn’t going to happen. At least not right away. Constitutional politics and tribalism go hand in hand; Scotland knew this before the UK even joined the EU. Both are forces that generally keep people wearing the colours they already have pinned on – and when they do change, the falling out is only bigger.
Murray and Sarwar were brought up in Labour, and would only consider leaving in the direst of circumstances. At Westminster, the Scottish Tories are almost all just in the door and several are on track for ministerial jobs. At Holyrood, divisions and uneven quality are smoothed over by Ruth Davidson’s brand and the possibility of power.
The collapse of Scottish Labour means that for many, the beneficiaries in the Tories and particularly the SNP already fill the role of the insurgent ‘TIG’, as people are calling The Independent Group. Tellingly, ex-Tory MP Heidi Allen said: “I didn’t leave the party, it left me.” Identical to Mhairi Black’s words about Labour.
Contrary to what outraged Corbyn outriders claim on social media, there has been scrutiny of the contradictions in the Independent Group – we know Anna Soubry thinks George Osborne’s economic policy was “absolutely necessary” because a journalist asked her. And if there’s a sense of energy, optimism and timeliness around it, it’s inherent in what they’re doing.
Listen to Allen and Luciana Berger speak and you can hear repressed anger, hurt and alienation finally being given a voice. Imagine quitting a rubbish job with lots of abusive clients and a senior management that hate you. It’s liberating to escape that kind of unhappiness.
Whether they succeed or fail on whatever terms they eventually set themselves, the Independent Group have tapped into something essential about politics today. Voters are less loyal and more sceptical towards establishment politicians and parties – part of the reason why Corbyn is Labour leader at all.
In unstable times, people want greater diversity and independence of thought, something reflected in the fragmentation of political groupings across the Western world – a trend that the UK still lags behind in. Part of that is down to the UK’s voting system and constitution; on the continent, there is far more experience of coalition-building and cross-party working, which is why the UK’s Brexit deadlock looks so weird viewed from Brussels.
Political parties are all coalitions to some extent. Is it really more difficult to imagine a party that unites Anna Soubry and Chris Leslie than one that includes Soubry and Jacob Rees-Mogg? If the Independent Group ends up as a new party, I suspect it will be easier than many predict to develop a policy platform that satisfies two branches of continuity Blairism: the former front benches of Ed Miliband and David Cameron.
Question their motives, political backgrounds and effectiveness, but the basic principles of the Independent Group are venerable and sound. No less an architect of modern democracy than George Washington warned in his 1796 presidential farewell address that party loyalty would “distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration” and “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection”.
Look at the state of debate in the country he helped found and the one it split from, and it’s hard to argue.
Scotland’s political landscape is already crowded – but it used to be even more so, with room for the Scottish Socialists (plus offshoots) and even the Senior Citizens’ Party. In Dennis Canavan and the late, irreplaceable Margo MacDonald, it has also had some of the UK’s most effective independent parliamentarians. When the time comes, Scotland ought to take a good look at independents.