Ian Blackford portentously declares that the next UK general election will be “one of the most important in Scotland’s history”. If we are to take him at his word, we must know what makes it so. What is it about this election that makes it so significant for Scotland? How might the election impact Scotland? In what way will the outcome of the election determine Scotland’s future?
What are Ian Blackford’s – and, we must assume, the SNP’s – priorities in this election? What do he and they hope to get out of it?
Of course, as Mr Blackford speaks, there is no election. Under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the next UK general election isn’t due until 5 May 2022. Few people, however, expect the current regime to last that long. The smart money isn’t betting on anything right now. But there is talk of opposition scheming to bring down the government and force an election in December. Spare a thought for the canvassers and leafleters who will have winter weather to contend with.
What you may have noted is that this date is beyond the most recent Brexit deadline. So it’s not at all clear what the point might be in “putting Scotland’s opposition to Brexit” at the heart of the election campaign, as Ian Blackford states is the SNP’s intention. Whatever else might be achieved, there is no way for an election to turn back the clock or alter the past. By December, Brexit will be a fait accompli. Scotland will have been wrenched from the EU against the will of the Scottish voters. By December, the deluge of Mad Brexiteer triumphalism provoked by a no-deal Brexit may just be starting to abate. The harsh realities of Brexit may even be beginning to bite despite the British government’s efforts to bury them under a pile of money and propaganda.
Is Ian Blackford suggesting that the SNP will be asking people to vote for them as a protest against Brexit and/or the contempt shown for Scotland’s democratic will by the British establishment? It’s a strategy of a sort, I suppose. But ‘Vote SNP as a futile gesture’ is hardly the most compelling campaign slogan ever devised.
Maybe the SNP is hoping for a further extension in the further hope that there may yet be hope of stopping Brexit. Some hope! It is true that the British parliament has passed legislation which will force the British Prime Minister to request another Article 50 extension if, by October 19, he hasn’t managed to persuade MPs to vote for either the ‘deal’ that they’ve already repeatedly rejected or a ‘new deal’ which currently exists only in Boris Johnson’s roiling imagination. Commentators are busy speculating about the possibility that the malignant child-clown might simply ignore this legal requirement.
There is little reason to suppose Boris Johnson might be prevented from breaking the law by a personal moral code evidently even less substantial than the ‘new deal’ which hasn’t actually been proposed and which the EU isn’t actually prepared to negotiate even if it actually had been proposed. But Boris probably won’t have to risk whatever penalty he might incur by defying the law and refusing to ask for more time. There’s a very good chance that the EU will not grant this request; especially if there are no fresh proposals – not involving wishful thinking and magic – which might break the deadlock. Johnson need only deploy the dithering and bluster which are his political stock in trade and the UK leaves the EU at 23:00 on 31 October by default.
The hope of stopping Brexit is looking rather forlorn. Opposition after the fact is a decidedly hollow basis for an election campaign. Indeed, the SNP might be well-advised to avoid any mention of Brexit, lest they remind voters of just how ineffectual their opposition has been. What else might they say about Brexit other than that they failed to prevent it being imposed on Scotland. Perhaps the campaign slogan might be ‘At least we tried!’.
Fortunately, Ian Blackford isn’t suggesting a campaign which relies entirely on a combination of credit for effort and post hoc protest. Alongside that “opposition to Brexit” at the heart of the SNP campaign will be a demand that Scotland’s people be given “our right to choose our own future with independence”. Which immediately prompted me to wonder why we are asking for this right if it is already ours. If it’s a right it requires no permission. If it’s ours we have no need to seek that permission. Already this second prong of the SNP’s election campaign strategy is starting to look as wobbly as the first.
What Ian Blackford is referring to is, needless to say, the Section 30 order that our First Minister has declared essential for a ‘legal’ independence referendum. On the matter of the process which must be followed to make the referendum legitimate, Nicola Sturgeon is in full agreement with those who are determined to ensure that a referendum doesn’t happen. You may count me among those who find this a curious position for the First Minister to have contrived for herself. She has committed to a process which is fraught with problems and pitfalls and, in doing so, she has ruled out all other options by effectively branding them illegal. You may count me among those who find this squandering of options totally incomprehensible.
But let us set aside, for the moment, the fact that the Section 30 process is undoubtedly toxic. Let us consider only the demand for a Section 30 order as a plank in the SNP’s platform come the next UK general election. Various questions may be asked of such a demand. Is it reasonable? How you answer that will depend on whether you recognise the toxic nature of the Section 30 process. And whether the question relates to the reasonableness of the requesting or the granting. A better question might ask if it is reasonable to be required to ask for permission to exercise a right which you already have the right to exercise. However, we’ve already covered that ground.
Another question that might be asked of a demand made as part of an election campaign is whether it is realistic. Is it possible for the demand to be met? How likely is it to be met? Is there any point to it?
The answer to these questions depends on the outcome of the election. Whether the demand is realistic or attainable or meaningful is all down to the make-up of the House of Commons in the wake of the election. Rather helpfully, Stu Campbell on Wings Over Scotland has done the arithmetic for us. He has modelled various scenarios ranging from the highly probable to ludicrously fantastical. In none of these scenarios does the SNP Westminster group end up in a position to secure that Section 30 order. Even winning 51 of Scotland’s 59 seats, the SNP simply wouldn’t have the necessary numbers.
None of Stu Campbell’s scenarios had the SNP win all the seats. But I suspect the end result would be the same. Whatever the weight of public support for independence it will always be outweighed in the British parliament by the overwhelming majority of Unionist MPs. The obvious conclusion being that it is utterly pointless to suppose Scotland’s independence might be restored via Westminster. It will only be restored by the Scottish Government acting through the Scottish Parliament in a way that breaks the British state’s rules but with the support of the Scottish people.
In summarising, let’s look at what Ian Blackford said,
The SNP will be putting Scotland’s opposition to Brexit and our right to choose our own future with independence at the heart of the contest…Scots urged to register to vote ahead of ‘crucial’ General Election
In the next UK general election, it looks like the SNP will be campaigning to stop something that’s already happened and to get something we already have by demanding something they can’t get and which they shouldn’t be asking for because asking for it does harm and getting it does even more harm.
You may count me among those who are not at all impressed. Not for the first time, Ian Blackford offers fine words which leave the parsnips quite devoid of butter.
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