Westminster Syndrome

For the record, I don’t think our SNP MPs need any reminding that they were sent to Westminster to settle up. not settle in. I fully understand the frustration which drives people to say such things. But I just don’t think the accusation is justified. The SNP group at Westminster works hard for Scotland and for the cause of independence. If it sometimes seems otherwise then bear in mind that they are but a small group within a largely hostile parliament, and that they are severely constrained by the arcane procedures and archaic customs of that benighted place. But I simply don’t accept that there is any danger of them forgetting why they are there. They, more than anyone, are subject to constant reminders of how alien and uncongenial the parliament of England-as-Britain is for those who come to it from the periphery of the British state and a very different political culture.

This is not to say that SNP MPs remain unaffected by the experience of being in the festering heart of British politics. Everything about Westminster is designed to impress and intimidate. The pomp and ceremony; the outlandish costumes; the anachronistic language, is all contrived to make the individual feel small and insignificant. The exaggerated theatrics are intended to invest the place and all its doings with a mighty, majestic irresistible authority. The message comes across loud and clear; submit to the system, or be irrelevant. Allow yourself to be absorbed into the system, or prepare to be crushed by it.

Remember your first day at ‘big’ school? Remember that feeling of being overwhelmed by everything? That is the feeling that Westminster is supposed to engender constantly in those sent there by voters. The great edifices and ceremonials of religion and the temples of industrial and commercial power are designed to have the same impact. They are designed to make mere people seem small.

It would be naive to think our MPs might be immune to the effect of being inside a machine built and organised to induce simpering deference. Even if that machine has lost some of its potency as a result of people having become accustomed to built environments and civil institutions on a non-human scale, the wholed Westminster thing has to make some kind of impression.

We might call it the ‘Westminster Syndrome’. A range of symptomatic attitudes and behaviours associated with being swallowed up by the British political system, particularly while not being – or resisting being – part of that culture. As with any such syndrome, the symptoms vary both in form and degree. At one extreme there is complete absorption – becoming as one with the system. These are the MPs who have taken the myth of British exceptionalism entirely to heart. The ones for whom the facade and charade of Westminster is reality. At the other end of the spectrum there is total defiance, best exemplified by the Sinn Féin MPs who refuse to take their seats. In between there varying degrees of resistance to Westminster’s influence. Some of it more for show that for any other purpose. The tolerated rebels and beloved eccentrics are part of Westminster’s mythology.

What we see in SNP MPs is, not an inclination to ‘settle in’, but a susceptibility to Westminster’s malign influence. To a varying extent, they exhibit symptoms of ‘Westminster Syndrome’. Most notably – and most disturbingly – a tendency to suppose that they may rely on the goodwill, good grace and good faith of the British establishment. A disposition to accept that part of the Westminster myth which borrows on the associations of an ancient institution and ‘old-fashioned’ values to convey the notion that the British establishment can be trusted.

There’s more than a bit of doublethink about this, of course. In one breath SNP politicians such as Ian Blackford and Pete Wishart tell us how erratic, unreliable and untrustworthy the British political elite is. In the next breath they urge us to be patient and trust that the same elite will,.in time, make good on its promises and keep faith with those who enter into electoral or parliamentary ‘arrangements’ with British political parties.

Ian Blackford strongly hints at a possible ‘deal’ with British Labour. Something short of actual coalition, but presumably some sort of confidence and supply agreement contingent on British Labour granting a Section 30 order. Mr Blackford seems to suppose that British Labour can be trusted to deliver. He appears convinced that British Labour will not to renege on any deal with the SNP group at the very first opportunity. He is evidently suffering from ‘Westminster Syndrome’.

To many – perhaps most – people in the independence movement the term ‘British Labour’ is synonymous with betrayal. Not being subject to the pernicious influence of Westminster, we are not easily persuaded to trust the party which colluded with the Tories in Project Fear. Not being prey to the effects of proximity to Westminster we are not at all inclined to rely on the goodwill, good grace and good faith of any of the British establishment parties.

We have no illusions about British politicians. We know what Ian Blackford and his colleagues seem to have forgotten – that British Nationalists will do absolutely anything to preserve their ‘precious Union’. We know, from bitter experience, that they consider dishonesty, deceit, defamation and treachery to be perfectly justifiable in the name of defending the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state.

We expect nothing from British politicians but perfidy. We anticipate that they will renege on any deal. We assume that, even now, British Labour is planning how to wriggle out of its end of any bargain struck with the SNP. We realise that, in political and electoral terms, British Labour has nothing to lose by ‘doing the dirty’ on the SNP. In fact, few things would better enhance their credibility with those whose votes they are chasing than being seen to have ‘outwitted’ the hated SNP.

Perhaps the worst effect of ‘Westminster Syndrome’ is the way those afflicted get drawn into playing the British political game. There are troubling signs that some SNP MPs are being sucked into the politics of England-as-Britain to the detriment of their responsibilities to the people of Scotland. To those of us who see Westminster as already irrelevant to Scotland’s politics, this is hard to swallow.

Scotland’s interests, needs, priorities and aspirations can only be served by Scotland’s Parliament. Wheeling and dealing at Westminster is the old way. Our SNP MPs must shake off that ‘Westminster Syndrome’ and adopt a fresh mindset which puts the Scottish Parliament and Scotland’s distinctive political culture back at the centre of their thinking. Such a ‘Scotland-centred’ mindset precludes putting trust in British Labour or any part of the British establishment.

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4 thoughts on “Westminster Syndrome

  1. “Perhaps the worst effect of ‘Westminster Syndrome’ is the way those afflicted get drawn into playing the British political game. There are troubling signs that some SNP MPs are being sucked into the politics of England-as-Britain” Any examples?


    1. I suppose Brexit is the most obvious example. Also the whole thing about deposing the Prime Minister and forcing an election seems very much part of the kind of excessively adversarial politics that I had assumed we were trying to get away from. Why should we care who is the British Prime Minister? Is there some possibility of one whose attitude to Scotland and to democracy is any better that previously? Boris Johnson isn’t some sport of nature. Like Donald Trump, he is a product of the system. So long as Scotland’s politicians are in that system, they are bound to risk appearing as if they are of that system.

      Listening to Ian Blackford peak sometimes I have to remind myself that he is ‘one of ours’. One person bawling at Ministers from the opposition benches looks much like another. Pete Wishart is another one. He speaks almost entirely in the language of the British political elite. He’s been there so long he’s started to sound like them.

      The impression is exaggerated, of course, because all of British politics seems so alien now. Anybody who is involved in it is going to be tainted.


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