I am not at all averse to gesture politics. Political gestures can be very effective. Given that they are intended only to attract attention or create an impression, it is difficult for them to fail. And it is perfectly possible for the political gesture to have an impact far greater than the minimum intended. If you doubt me, consider that we are right now celebrating the outcome of arguably the biggest political gesture ever. Neil Armstrong’s small step onto the surface of the moon was the culmination of a political gesture of almost unimaginable magnitude.
On 25 May 1961 when President John F Kennedy made that historic speech in which he committed the USA to a manned moon landing within the decade he was responding to the Soviet Union’s successes in the area of space exploration with a bit of willy-waving on a grand scale. Look at the numbers. By 1967 the Apollo employed more than 400,000 people who spent $200bn in today’s money – 4% of the entire federal budget.
The willy they built – better known as the Saturn V – stood 111 metres tall and weighed over 3,000 tonnes. Waving this particular willy required 6.35 million kilograms of thrust.
As a political gestures go, the Apollo programme is unlikely to ever be surpassed. Fifty years on, the world is still in awe of the Apollo 11 mission’s achievement. So, let’s not dismiss gesture politics.
The SNP Westminster group’s commitment to sit with their arms folded when Theresa May makes her final Prime Ministerial appearance in the House of Commons isn’t quite on the same scale. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t important. But it isn’t. The gesture pales into insignificance, not next to the Apollo space programme, but in comparison to those same MPs’ walkout during Prime Minister’s Questions a little over a year ago.
That’s the problem with political gestures. You’ve always got to top the last one. Unless, like Apollo, it’s one that cannot ever be topped. When a political gesture falls flat its like you wave your willy only to have it drop off and roll down a drain. At which point the willy-waving metaphor just got distinctly uncomfortable.
But a political gesture doesn’t only have to be impressive in relative terms. In absolute terms, it must also meet the expectations of whichever constituency you are seeking to impress. Or satisfy their hopes. Given what Scotland’s independence movement expects from the SNP, declining to applaud Theresa May cannot but look utterly pathetic. If your audience is hoping for the moon, don’t expect them to get exited by being presented with some tawdry bauble.
Right now, a large and growing part of the Yes movement is expecting the SNP to stand up to the bullying British political elite. They hope to see the SNP defying the asserted authority of the British state. They want the SNP to do something bold and decisive.
We’re not asking the SNP to send a man to the Moon. But we are looking for a lot more than them thumbing their nose at some silly convention.
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