Alba and Abstentionism. Discuss.

A fascination for the grotesque can be an asset in journalism. Probably that is what drew me to interview Enoch Powell at his grand but gloomy flat in Belgravia. Most of the time throughout our brief encounter the brilliant classical scholar’s oversized brain was, like the Tiber, foaming with much blood. At points I thought his fish eyes were going to pop out of his skull as he reflected in his reedy voice on his various incendiary interventions regarding immigration, Ulster and Europe. All while his wife, whom he constantly called ‘dear’, served up traditional English breakfast tea in the finest Wedgwood crockery. Then suddenly the mad demagogue in the dark pinstripe suit leaned across and said something I have never forgotten: “I’ll start taking Scottish nationalism seriously when the SNP stop coming down to Westminster.” 

I almost dropped my chintzy cup and saucer in a mix of startlement and delight. I’d managed to extract a great pullquote from the old racist reptile and could hang a kilt on this story when I got back to Edinburgh (always a very important consideration when writing for The Scotsman). More than that, a thought was implanted in my mind, where it has gnawed away intermittently for more than three decades now – should Scottish nationalists (like their northern Irish counterparts) abstain from turning up at Westminster? Indeed, should they avoid the Mother of Parliaments altogether like the plague? 

I raise this question because Alba’s only two MPs Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey took it upon themselves earlier this week to co-author a blog on the newly deceased Wings over Scotland website, in which they declared:

Alba isn’t an abstentionist party. Westminster isn’t our parliament but, having been elected there, it’s up to us to use it and maximise its benefit for our cause (as well as of course representing our constituents to the very best of our abilities).

This pair of defectors from the SNP did end their statement by saying they’ll stick around in SW1 “unless and until directed otherwise by conference.” But, make no mistake delegates, they’ll be hoping and praying that you don’t instruct them to give Westminster a complete body swerve. They’re already being attacked in the press for defying Ian Blackford’s demand that they face by-elections. Furthermore, Mr MacAskill’s comment that he won’t pay “routine sojourns” to the U.K. capital is calling into question why taxpayers are still paying rent for him there. He and Mr Hanvey would be universally damned as the dishonourable members for Kirkcaldy and East Lothian if they withdrew their presence entirely from the Palace of Westminster. They simply must fulfil their contracts with their constituents for the duration of this Parliament. But what about thereafter? Should what they call the “membership-based party where it’s the rank and file who decide policy and strategy” permanently rule out adopting an abstentionist position? If so, how different really is this new breakaway party to the one from which it broke away?

Rather like Enoch Powell, I come at this from an Irish angle (albeit from a polar opposite stance on partition). He found sanctuary among Ulster Unionists after he was ostracised by even fellow right-wing Tories. For him, Sinn Féin was a deadly serious nationalist party. Not just because its military wing might have wanted him dead but because its detestation of the British state and all its bonding institutions – Parliament, the Monarchy, the BBC – was sincere and deep-seated. 

Sinn Féin has never conferred any legitimacy on the British Parliament

Not long before I shared a brew with old Enoch in his white stucco terrace flat in Eaton Square, the Shinners had made a momentous political advance by getting their leader elected to Westminster. Gerry Adams had made it abundantly clear, however, during his successful campaign that he would always abstain from attending the House of Commons. Voters in West Belfast, and other republic ghettoes, were not at all bothered by this. In fact, they would have been absolutely outraged had it been otherwise, not least because the first candidate Sinn Féin had managed to get into the Commons (through a by-election held in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 1981) was Bobby Sands. He was definitely never going to take up his seat in the House of Commons since he was destined to die as a hunger striker in the Maze Prison. In the momentous fury surrounding his political martyrdom, Catholics in Northern Ireland rejected the moderate nationalist SDLP and cast their ballots for what was effectively the political wing of the Provisional IRA.

I know today’s Scotland is nowhere near like Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Ulster itself has become considerably (though not completely) different from what it was back then. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and more importantly the failed battle to stop Brexit, support for abstentionism among Sinn Féin voters has ceased to be unanimous. But it still stands at around 75%. Even relaxing the rule that all MPs must swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown is unlikey ever to win over a majority of Irish republicans. For them, the only legitimate national legislature is in Dublin and called the Dáil. They’re not at all enchanted by the mystique surrounding the Palace of Westminster – in stark contrast to all those SNP trough hogs who evidently believe they were sent to the House of Commons to settle in rather than settle up.

Scotland’s situation is now similar to Ireland’s just over a century ago

Scotland is in a very similar situation to where the whole of Ireland was just over a century ago. Alex Salmond’s political career has been savagely destroyed, like that of his Irish idol Charles Stewart Parnell, and our independence movement has been equally impoverished by the loss of a genuinely committed and charismatic leader. Yet, despite all to which he was subjected by his ice cold successor, Mr Salmond was anxious not to be seen as ambushing the SNP juggernaut in last week’s Holyrood election. I think he made a major strategic error there. Instead of backing Nicola Sturgeon’s bid to stay on as First Minister, he should have lambasted the SNP as James Joyce ripped into the IPP: “The Irish Parliamentary Party is bankrupt. For twenty-seven years it has been agitating and talking.” The SNP should be renamed the SPP – the Scottish Parliamentary Party – and denounced with equal acidity as bankrupt (not just in relation to its dubious financial accounts).

From his journalistic writings in recent years, I can tell Kenny MacAskill has become a fellow Hibernophile. I’m sure it would have been him rather than Neale Hanvey who penned the passage in their co-authored blog in which they clearly identify the current useless predicament facing all nationalist MPs at Westminster: 

Room for manoeuvre is limited, as the days of Charles Stewart Parnell and the ability of Irish Nationalists to disrupt has passed. Powers have been centralised and the government dictates the agenda more than ever. 

Absolutely, Kenny. But, even if there were some scope to disrupt proceedings in the Commons, that will never be sufficient. Once they have fulfilled their contracts with their constituents, Messrs MacAskill and Hanvey might be better coming back home for good and helping to build the sort of people power across Scotland that will have the whole world watching if Britannia waves the rules.

Doesn’t the struggle for Scottish independence require some serious game changer?

Doesn’t the struggle for Scottish independence require some such serious game changer? Don’t we need to do something drastic and dramatic (though always non-violent, of course) to delegitimise the Anglo-British state north of the Border? As part of that strategy, shouldn’t a new, authentically pro-indy party abstain even from contesting Westminster elections in the first place? All of these questions need to be carefully considered and fully debated if Alba is to carve out a distinct identity and galvanising agenda.

If its members do choose to make it an abstentionist party, that wouldn’t affect in any major sense the current governance of Scotland. Under devolution Holyrood holds sway over most of the policy making spheres that impact on people’s day-to-day lives, such as health, education, transport and the Scottish justice system. As for those reserved by Westminster – such as stewardship of the economy, immigration, defence and foreign policy – well, we don’t have any say over any of those anyway. 

The point we desperately need to drive home to Scottish voters is that being a Scottish MP is pointless. The UK Parliament is essentially the English Parliament. Given that clear fact, should we really want to continue to play any part in it? Or are we happy to keep letting the ideological descendants of Enoch Powell grin and sneer at us?

14 thoughts on “Alba and Abstentionism. Discuss.

  1. There are benefits in winning seats – cash to fund campaigning , publicity around the election itself, for constituents(assuming the winning candidate is a worker SNP MP rather than a poser SNP MP). What are the wider political benefits of turning up? If the gov of the day has a majority you have no leverage over anything, Even if a situation arose that Scottish Nationalist votes could make the difference I doubt whether any situation exists where the English/British gov would even consider making a deal and would probably renege on it anyway.

    The parliament is just a of show. I suspect its full of cynical, contemptuous human beings who are just the extras. The more ambitious amongst them compete for airtime and try and get their wan coupons associated with whatever they feel will build an image.

    I like it as a statement aside from that turning up is pointless politically. Stay at home work on the things we need as an independent country, campaign, work on constituency issues.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That said a really able, honest and focused Scottish nationalist MP can make a difference down there occasionally. Joanna Cherry springs to mind but mainly its people seeking publicity for themselves not winning recognition for the good work they do. I.e if you parrot the British line on this we’ll help build your profile in the Telegraph

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You’ve worked high up in the media. You will know how things work in Scotland – how the bent fit together in our politics, law, public appointments, social organisations etc. media. Why no spill the beans? We the punters should know how it works. We should not be left to guess

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Good show. Its a daft man in this Scotland that doesnae try and balance information they get. No Offence.

        Do you know much about the Crown Office and Procurator fiscal Service? How it works, what political influences are there? Is that the kind of subject that gets left alone for reasons of self preservation or do folk on the outside (and inside as well probably) not know why there has been so much disquiet surrounding our legal system since Lockerbie/devolution?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. As I’ve observed in several blogs, the political influences upon the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service become pretty obvious when you learn that the head of COPFS, the Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC, isn’t just Scotland’s top law officer but legal adviser to the Scottish Government and, indeed, a member of the Scottish Cabinet. He holds unprecedented power – a dual role containing inherent conflicts of interest – and it all stems from Nicola Sturgeon, who appointed him to all of these positions for reasons only she can explain.

        Liked by 4 people

  4. I think abstentionism is an awkward issue, personally I see Westminster as the English parliament and no point in us being there even with 56/59 MP’s we achieved nothing, I suppose theoretically with that number of MP’s we could hold the balance of power but what good would that do us against the sheer number of English Unionist MP’s in the house.

    Isn’t it the case that any elected candidate is duty bound to represent his/her constituents in that parliament he/she was elected for and would therefore be failing in their duty if they didn’t, unless Alba pushed the narrative that they see Westminster as the English parliament and does not represent Scotland

    We could also justify non attendance on the basis of being unable to swear allegiance to the Queen on the basis that according to Scottish monarchical convention the people are sovereign not the monarch

    Like I said at the beginning it’s an awkward issue but I see no point in us being there and by attending we are accepting English domination over us, so personally I’m all for abstention but we need to clearly set out our reasons and get the people onside, that’s the problem as I see it

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Sinn Fein MPs and their voters believe, as James Connolly said, “The British Government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland”.

      Consequently, Irish republicans have no right or duty to be in any British Government when voted in as MPs

      Unlike Scotland, issues like number of MPs or managing “to do something” just don’t come into it

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I’d suggest that the political influence over the PFS has been there for some time. Around about 2000 I was informed by a journalist that they were pushing the police to start an investigation of and/or arrest me for something. I was also told that the police had pushed back, and told the PFS to act on their own if they wished to. Nothing came of that.

    So what may well be different now is the police themselves. At the time it was the Lothian and Borders Police who pushed back. Maybe in merging the various Constabularies there is now greater control by the SG, and the police are now less willing (or able) to act independently?

    Certainly the Salmond persecution, and subsequent witch hunt against Hirst, Murray, etc would seem to support that. Should we be try to reverse that amalgamation of forces back in to the separate constabularies?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. For me abstentionism should be the policy. It’s principled.

    Stand for election by all means so as to maximise publicity … but don’t take the seats if you win.Thereby double-maximising the publicity if successful.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I personally am incined to the abstentionist position. Scotland already has a Parliament, even though it is based on an Act from Westminster, and cannot be said to be Sovereign as it stands.

    Theoretically, at least, the Scottish Parliament could threaten to approach the UN for recognition that it is entitled to self determintion with a large enough Pro Independence majority, and it follows that a manifesto for ALBA, ISP, etc could include this as a policy which would therefore lend legitimacy to the abstentionist position.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. If Alba wants to represent the grassroots of the independence movement it needs to reflect it. My opinion would be that the majority of the grassroots wants to build a much more radical party more in line with Sinn Fein than the SNP. A radical abstentionist left of centre socialist republican party that takes the SNP to task for it’s failure on independence under Sturgeon and projects an vision of a new nation. Not a rebadged clone of Westminster.

    The Alba MP’s could consider standing down and then contest the by elections on an abstentionist platform pointing out the limitations of sitting in Westminster. Get the ball rolling. Standing against the SNP will be a watershed moment in Scottish politics. It will be very interesting to see how the independence voters split on the issue especially with sitting MP’s as candidates.

    For various reasons the tactical list vote strategy didn’t get through to enough of the SNP voters. The media made sure that negative Alba press and media coverage was all that the public were allowed to hear. Sturgeon’s constant carping against Salmond’s suitability as a candidate was front and centre. The juxtaposition of Salmond’s reluctance to criticise Sturgeon after all the recent acrimony was strange and the public must have wondered why.

    The fallout from that could have risked an independence majority. A risk he was unwilling to take. The pro Alba bloggers had to attempt to curtail their long standing enmity against the SNP in a vain attempt to broker an electoral pact. Wings didn’t buy into it and others had a great deal of difficulty sticking to script. The toxic social media atmosphere between Alba and SNP was like trench warfare and remains so now.

    Without Salmond Alba would have struggled for publicity. With Salmond though it was all bad publicity. I suspect he may stand down and assume a more presidential role rather than seek candidacy.

    The election proved that the establishment including the SNP are going to make it as difficult as possible for Alba to gain momentum.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I see 3 advantages of abstentionism:
    – a clear statement that authority lies with Holyrood not Westminster.
    – a clear distinguishing feature from the SNP.
    – a defence against the temptation of short money, high salaries, lavish expenses, and the well-beaten path to London in search of gold. A route trodden by Scots since 1707.

    The Disadvantages are:
    – the financial loss to party funds of that short money and of party levies from MPs’ wages.
    – the difficulty of persuading the electorate that they are being MORE effectively represented. Bearing in mind how many struggle to accept non-FPTP voting systems.
    – a blackout in MSM. Though this could hardly be worse than at present.

    There has certainly been a case for this since 1999. And it could be argued that we Scots won’t really focus on building Scotland until we stop trying to get ahead in England.

    Efforts by Westminster to bypass Holyrood may shift the focus of nationalism to Council level anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’d rather formed the impression that, rather than being subject to the ‘sway’ of Holyrood, the Scottish Justice system had been hijacked by the First Minister and her cabal.

    Liked by 1 person

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