One of the most notable things about the recent diatribes against the SNP and Scots in general that we are witnessing in the mainstream UK press as a result of polls showing increased support for the SNP, is the complete absence of any respect for the democratic implications. Of course, many right-wing politicians and media representatives pretend to stand up for democracy, but their current discourse simply highlights the disdain they actually have for it. What is astonishing to me is that they don’t seem to notice or care that this is so apparent.
For example, here is Conservative MP Anna Soubry speaking of how ‘terrifying’ it would be if Scots vote for lots of SNP MPs on 7.5. and Alex Salmond ends up ‘controlling’ the country (never mind that Nicola Sturgeon would be leading any post-election negotiations as she is, you know, the leader of the SNP – Westminster is still fixated on Salmond…).
Right-wing columnist Bruce Anderson is also at it in the Telegraph of 21.3.: “whatever the outcome in the rest of the UK, the next Parliament is bound to be disrupted by around 30 Scot Nats, intent on perpetual trouble-making” – when he says ‘trouble-making’ I think he means doing things like acting for what they see as their constituent’s interests. Bizarrely for a unionist, he proposes breaking Scotland up to preserve the union (I think – read it yourself if you must, but it’s mostly incoherent and malicious bile).
Now I’m a member of the Greens and not the SNP, but I find all this confusing – and SNP members will perhaps find it even more confusing. After all, wasn’t the argument of the British nationalist/unionist campaign that Scotland was a valued part of the United Kingdom and that it would be better to exercise its democratic rights within the political spaces offered by the UK, rather than going it alone? Now lots of Scots have joined political parties and become politically active, but Soubry, Anderson and the rest don’t seem to want us any more. Surely it would be incumbent upon those who wanted Scots to continue participating in the union to welcome the new levels of engagement that we see in Scotland?
The problem is that we troublesome Scots appear to be playing the game by the written and not the unwritten rules. The written rules say that you can vote for anyone you like to go to Westminster and represent you and that choice will be respected. The unwritten rules appear to be that you can vote for anyone you like to go to Westminster and represent you – as long as they are in An Approved Party, meaning the Conservatives, the Labour Party, and sometimes the Liberal Democrats. Substantial numbers of other MPs are clearly not wanted.
Soubry, Anderson and many representatives of these parties and various media hangers-on – all of whom, as it happens, subscribe to a broad right-wing neo-liberal understanding of society! – are clearly appalled that we troublesome Scots appear to be ignoring the unwritten rules. But that, of course, is the problem with unwritten rules! We were told by the British nationalists/unionists that we were wanted, that the UK would be diminished without us, that our voices mattered – and so a majority of Scots voted to stay in the UK. I was one of 1.6 million who voted for independence, but nearly 384,000 more voted to stay. That’s fine: I and most of the 1.6 million respect that vote and so we are playing by the written rules and continuing to engage in UK politics.
That, however, irks the Westminster establishment. For a long time now, the British Parliamentary system has not been a great fan of real democracy – were it to be otherwise then there would be greater participation from the left, but the left has, to all intents and purposes, been excluded from any kind of meaningful participation in the political system. The title of Ken Livingstone’s first autobiography from 1987 is emblematic of this: If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it (Paul Foot’s review in the LRB is worth reading). The evisceration of the left by Tony Blair and his right-wing followers – even a left of the fairly weak kind embodied by the late John Smith – has put paid to a meaningful left in the two/three-party system at Westminster, at least for the time being. The SNP is a broadly centre-left party, and yet even that is threatening to all the others, partly perhaps because none of them are to the left of it – but many Labour people, at least, wish they were.
What is interesting about the reactions of Soubry, Anderson et al is that as soon as the comfortably right-wing status quo of Tory/Labour/LibDems is threatened by voters who indicate they might vote in substantial numbers for a party that is not part of the perceived establishment mainstream, then they see a problem with democracy, rather than a problem with the other parties.
The only reasonable response from Scottish voters is to say loudly and clearly: