The SNP group at Westminster has three choices. They could vote for the Brexit deal. They could vote against the deal. They could decline to participate in the vote, or abstain. Only one of these causes the party serious problems. And that is the one they have chosen. For no good reason. Professor Curtice may be correct that voting against will please some Remain voters. But not voting at all wouldn’t displease them. Which matters at least as much.
Even voting for the deal is a better option than voting against. At least it could be argued that this was consistent with the party’s position on no deal. I’m not sure to what extent consistency is important in politics these days. But if it was consistency the SNP was after then not voting or abstaining (they’re not quite the same) at Westminster would have been the most consistent with denial of a legislative consent motion at Holyrood. And it would have had the advantage of matching up with a decision supported by the whole Scottish Parliament with the exception of the Tories. The SNP Westminster group could be portrayed as as being as one with Holyrood on this issue.
Therein, I think, lies a clue to the ‘reasoning’ behind the puzzling decision to vote against the deal and open themselves up to accusations of favouring a no deal scenario which the party has said would be disastrous for Scotland. Or at least part of the explanation. I suspect the SNP’s priority in this was to differentiate themselves from British Labour to the greatest possible extent. The decision is, if not exactly a knee-jerk response to Starmer opting to vote for the deal, then evidently an ill-considered one.
Underlying this is the SNP’s obsession with winning elections. Of course, it would be strange if a political party was not thinking in terms of electoral success. But there really should be space for other considerations. I see in this decision to vote against the Brexit deal rather than taking the politically sensible course of not voting or abstaining echoes of the kind of restricted thinking behind so many of the British parties’ attacks on the SNP. Particularly in the case of British Labour in Scotland (BLiS) there has been a continuing failure to think things through. They think as far as the first anti-SNP sound-bite that comes to mind, then just stop thinking altogether. Gird your loins, grit your teeth and watch any of Richard Leonard’s performances at FMQ and you’ll see what I mean.
It looks to me very much as if the SNP thought things through only as far as the first point-scoring opportunity and failed to properly consider the implications.
I hate to say it but there’s also a definite whiff of the Bain Principle coming off the SNP’s decision to vote against the Brexit deal. That is to say, the ‘principle’ named for the former BLiS MP for Glasgow North East who first – or most explicitly – enunciated the ‘rule’ that BLiS would by default oppose anything proposed by the SNP regardless of the merits of the proposal. The other British parties squatting in Scotland’s Parliament operate under a similar stricture and there is often quite strenuous competition among them as to who who can be most virulent and vicious in expressing their hatred of the SNP.
Something a bit like the Bain Principle seems to have been involved in the SNP’s decision to vote against Johnson’s pathetic Brexit deal. It’s not just a matter of being on the opposite side from British Labour. The imperative is to be as much on the other side as possible. If British Labour is voting with the Tories on an issue then it is not enough for the SNP merely to not vote or abstain. That may be too subtle a distinction for voters to appreciate. They have to vote against so that nobody can miss the contrast.
It’s a bad decision taken for bad reasons. Or through bad reasoning.
What was the best option? What option might the SNP have gone with had they not been so intent on getting the biggest stick possible with which to beat BLiS in the Holyrood election next year? It has to be either absaining or not voting. By which I mean putting their abstention on record or declaring that they were declining to participate in the process even to the extent of ‘formally’ abstaining.
This is what was suggested by Dr Tim Rideout, convener of the Scottish Currency Group and one of the ‘new brooms’ recently elected to the SNP’s National Executive Committee. In a courteous and respectful email sent to the party’s MPs he argued that the best option would be simply to not attend for the vote – and perhaps organise some kind of event to happen simultaneously with the vote at Westminster so as to underline the group’s non-attendance. This eminently reasonable suggestion was rejected by Pete Wishart MP in an email response which was anything but courteous and respectful. In fact, it was downright rude in a sickeningly arrogant way. An absolutely shameful act by a politician clearly well past his use-by date.
Wishart’s condescending and contemptuous reply to Dr Rideout is further evidence of the paucity of political nous in the upper echelons of the SNP. Not to mention a pathological dearth of self-awareness in Pete Wishart as he channels his inner Jacob Rees-Mogg. Although I’m fairly sure the Tory would at least know when and how to use an apostrophe. Something that “doing this for about 20 years” hasn’t taught Mr Wishart.
All of this political ineptitude is very worrying given that the SNP remains the only viable party of government in Scotland and the only party capable of providing the independence cause with the effective political power that it needs. Something has gone very, very wrong with the party I first joined 58 years ago. Whoever can stop the incipient rot will be doing Scotland a great service.