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.
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 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 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?