The trouble with saying that this isn’t what it looks like is that it induces people to think about what it looks like rather than what it’s being presented as. A bit like telling someone not to think about a pink elephant. Deferring the spring conference looks very like a pink elephant.
The problem wouldn’t arise, of course, if there weren’t reasons for supposing the SNP might wish to postpone the conference that have nothing to do with whatever it is that isn’t a pink elephant. If there weren’t widespread concern within the party and beyond about Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional question then people would not be able to ascribe ulterior motives to those responsible for putting conference off for three months.
People tend to think the worst of politicians and party managers. I wonder why.
Let’s deny them the benefit of the doubt for the moment. Let’s suppose the worst. Let’s assume the conference has been delayed to save the platform-sitters from having to face awkward questions from delegates who are less than enamoured with elements of their leadership’s performance. Will a two or three month delay solve the problem? Let’s think!
If the party hierarchy thinks a conference in March or April would be marked (marred?) by scenes of discontent and even dissent then they must reckon there to be cause for that discontent/dissent. And if they think it’s safe to have the conference in June, they must be calculating that the aforementioned cause of discontent and/or dissent will be eliminated before then. Which in turn suggests that something significant is going to happen in the interim.
What might that be?
Speculation is rife. Well, it is in my head. Thing is, there’s not that much to speculate about. It’s that old thing about imperatives and options again. The key to some kind of understanding of the ebb, flow and swirl of the political tides. Or at least, the key to turning idle speculation into informed analysis.
In terms of the constitutional issue, the British state’s overarching imperative – what drives its behaviour – is the need to preserve the Union at quite literally any cost. Their options all derive from the Union and the power relationship that it creates and perpetuates whereby the British state – or England-as-Britain or Borissia – is in all respects and at all times around eight times more powerful than Scotland. As if every voter in England-as-Britain had eight votes to every one vote for individuals in Scotland. (This, incidentally, is a major factor in the increasing number of English people in Scotland supporting independence. They are better placed to see the imbalance than ‘native’ Scots who have only ever lived in Scotland.)
What this means is that the British state has, if not unlimited options, certainly uncountable options. Effectively, the British political elite can do as it pleases with and to Scotland. The Union was intended to solve the ‘Scottish problem’. It was meant to remove Scotland as a threat to England. To achieve this, a grotesquely asymmetric political union was devised and imposed on Scotland. Even three hundred years ago the people detested the Union. But Scotland’s ruling elites were assured that they would be protected from the effects of this imbalance of power.
That constitutional arrangement; that grotesque imbalance of power, remains fundamentally unchanged to this day. Society has changed beyond recognition since 1707. But the Union has not changed accordingly. Such changes as there have been – notably devolution – were intended to reinforce and preserve the imbalance rather than to reform and rectify it.
In the UK, people in Scotland are second-class citizens at best. The Union makes it so. We have a second-class parliament. The Union so stipulates. We have a second-class government. The Union allows no more. Not second-class in the sense of qualitatively inferior. Certainly second-class in terms of political power. Our Scottish Parliament may have immeasurably greater democratic legitimacy than Westminster. But it must always be subordinate. Our Scottish Government may be considerably more effective in addressing the needs, priorities and aspirations of the nation’s people. But it must always be subordinate to even the worst of administrations in London. Our people may be little different from the resident of Borissia. But we do not have the same right to choose the government that best suits our needs. The Union underpins this inequity.
This is the reality of the Union. A reality that is abhorred by many who appreciate the true nature of Scotland’s predicament; tolerated by those whose fear or apathy outweighs their self-respect and sense of justice; embraced by those whose conceit of themselves is that they are, or can hope to become, part of the cossetted elite.
But to our speculation. The foregoing has, I hope, served to explain why the British state has so many options. Or, to put it another way, so few constraints on how it acts towards Scotland. This is why restoring Scotland’s independence will require an exceptional effort on the part of boldly imaginative and utterly determined people.
Which brings me to the Scottish Government. No! really! Settle down!
What is the Scottish Government’s imperative? What drives the SNP administration? There can be no doubt that in relation to the day-to-day governance of the nation, the SNP administration seeks to serve the interests of Scotland’s people. And does so with quiet competence. Perhaps too quiet. Everybody will have their pet gripes, of course. But overall, the SNP administration has done a truly remarkable job considering the daunting constraints of devolution and an increasingly hostile British state.
All of which may well be part of the problem. The SNP is not only supposed to provide good government. It is also the de facto political arm of the independence movement. A role which bestows upon the party duties and responsibilities quite distinct from the duties and responsibilities of government. In relation to its role as a party of government the SNP’s imperative must be to stay in office. To win elections. To conduct itself in such a way as will enable it to win elections.
In relation to its role as the political arm of the independence movement, however, the driving imperative must be the restoration of Scotland’s independence. But to the considerable extent that options for action are related to power, the SNP is relatively powerless against the British state and its uncountable options. This we know. This we understand. What may be less well recognised or appreciated is the conflict between the two imperatives driving the SNP. On the one hand, its role as the governing party means it must conform to and comply with the unjust conditions imposed by the Union. On the other, its imperative in relation to its role as the party of independence obliges it to behave contrary to those conditions.
Basically, the SNP can’t do its job as a government if it fulfils its role as the party of independence.
Which imperative wins? Ultimately, the party must choose. It may well be that this choice was on the cards for the SNP’s spring conference. Whispers are growing daily about grassroots pressure on the party leadership for a change of approach to the constitutional question. It would, from a pragmatic point of view, be understandable if the leadership preferred to postpone this confrontation. Much as they’ve avoided the confrontation with the British state which will come at some point if the shackles of the Union are to be broken.
If the postponement is to allow the party bosses time to prepare for the coming contest of priorities – or imperatives – I’m fine with that. It’s a crucial issue. It deserves and requires preparation. If the postponement is for the purpose of preempting the confrontation by taking some kind of extraordinary action, I’ll be even better pleased. But if the postponement turns out to be nothing more than kicking the can down the road from reluctance to face up to the issue, I will not be well pleased.
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