Dutiful Losers?

Did you catch, last week, Nicola Sturgeon in the US alongside the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi?  Not on BBC Scotland.  They couldn’t be arsed showing our country’s First Minister starting a major international trip; they were too busy covering ounces of trivia around Rangers’ trip to Seville. 

Who knew BBC Scotland was such a nest of bluenoses?   We already know how many brown noses there are from the coverage of the upcoming Platinum Jubbly, but the Beeb’s examination of every insignificant detail of the Europa Cup final – to the exclusion of other important stories – was excruciating. 

Watching Sturgeon and Pelosi, it struck me how polite and slightly old-fashioned it all seemed.  Sure, it’s great to see such leading women being so proficient, compared to bumbling BoJo and stumbling SloJo.  Unscripted, no missed words, not an um or an er,nor a fluffed line.

I suppose such opening exchanges are bound to seem platitudinous – later, Nicola got down to brass tacks in her speech to the Brookings Institute in Washington.  Ukraine, NATO, energy and, especially, the environmental crisis post COP26 – all featured in another class-act delivery. 

Thank goodness we’ve got a smart, coherent and finger-on-the-pulse leader to represent Scotland abroad.  But, like those articulate greetings with Pelosi, does this approach actually cut much political ice these days?

Of course, it’s a big step up from Boris & co.  And, though conventional, it doesn’t suffer from the craven conformism of Keir Mr. Rules Starmer.  So concerned to be seen – in stark contrast to Boris – to obey regulations, the Labour leader forgets to put any substance into his message.

At least the SNP have some policy lead in their carefully sharpened pencil.  Yet, whenever Ian Blackford, SNP leader in the House of Commons, tells the PM that Scotland will not stand by while one more democratic outrage is inflicted, or some further havoc wreaked, we can see that Boris is really thinking: I think you’re confusing me with someone who gives a fuck…

Pelosi was deeply concerned that the UK’s plans to discard the Northern Ireland Protocol and urged constructive, collaborative and good-faith negotiations.  Nancy – this is the UK government, in full Trump mode, you’re talking to.

A couple of days later, meeting Michelle O’Neill – would-be first minister at Stormont and Sinn Fein deputy president – Nicola said: We’ve got to be careful about drawing parallels between Sinn Fein’s success in Northern Ireland and the case for Scottish independence. 

Careful?  Why?  The parallels are clear. Both countries voted against Brexit, both now question the future of the UK.  Aren’t these a further spur towards a referendum – or two referenda, even – either side of the Irish Sea?

Johnson, Patel, Cummings, Farage et al have, like Trump, trashed mutual norms.  Negotiation, compromise and consensus have all but vanished from the UK’s lexicon of political discourse.

All the more reason, you might think, for Scotland to stick to the traditional codes.  But in 2022 does anyone get very far politically by honouring inherited customs. formalities and manners?  In the teeth of crises and disruption, is respect for the rule of law – that overworked phrase – still apt, distinctive, and effective enough to cut through and change anything?

And, when it comes to negotiating with Westminster over independence, how can we expect the kind of respectful reciprocity we used to take for granted?

I’m not saying for one moment that we should sink to the level of dirty, fake and rogue tactics practised by the populist right.  But it’s beginning to feel as though our time-honoured and benign political currency needs a more trenchant additive to break through and actually win.  Otherwise, we might remain dutiful losers, noble but impotent when it comes to getting shot of our rotten rulers.

Other than a change of style, I’m not sure what that would mean exactly.  Maybe we saw, also last week, a hint of more potent messaging in Mhairi Black’s brilliant, if scary, speech in the House of Commons.

Forensically listing the Tories’ recent record – crushing protest, ditching human rights, trafficking asylum seekers to Rwanda, cutting pay and pensions – she demonstrated how, economically and culturally, Westminster policies are leading us slowly towards the f-word.  This, she said, is Little England elites, drunk on the memory of a British Empire that no longer exists.  And she added: Fascism happens subtly.  It arrives through the othering of people, the normalisation of human cruelty.

She didna miss and hit the wa’! 

Paul Bassett


May 2022

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