Nationalists at War: the Scottish Disruption of 2023

Nationalists at War: the Scottish Disruption of 2023

by Tom Gallagher
article from Wednesday 16, January, 2019

…or a glimpse at our debatable future

BRITAIN’S PROTRACTED DEPARTURE from the European Union had led to a decade of upheaval in central politics. By 2031, new parties  were replacing what quickly came to be seen as the previous fossilised party system.  In one camp were those who expected the elites, based on corporate power and international ties, to make decisions with only a passing glance towards the electorate. Their rivals quickly saw the advantage in asserting that the priority for those in politics must be strengthening Britain in a time of renewed international tension and asserting the primacy of the ballot box. 

What initially had been seen as a  calamity for Britain turned out to be an opportunity to tackle neglected areas of public policy such as health, education, and policing and gradually new approaches for the issues that mattered most to citizens began to be rolled out.  

It was amazing that Scotland, long known for its volatility, was the  only place where continuity prevailed.  The same people were still running the show at the end of what became known as the era of British Rebalance.

Fergus Peacock the sly, bombastic  orator who had seduced previously down-to-earth Scots with his rhetoric promising national greatness, was still a power in the land. So was Janey Snodgrass (pictured), approaching her 16th year as First Minister and confounding everyone  by clinging to power despite an often dreary performance. 

The second tier nationalists had hardly changed. Jake Bissett, the minister for European relations was still trying to anchor Scotland to a new Europe even with the European Union fast going the way of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Haroun Sayeed now occupied his seventh ministerial post in none of which he had distinguished himself. (Many concluded he was only kept on because he knew too many secrets about Snodgrass’s exercise of power). As for the bosomy and bossy minister of education and culture Catriona Dewlipp, she insisted on going nowhere until her plan to create a university in which broad Scots was the chief language of instruction finally came off the drawing board.

The years had not been kind to most of them. They were onto their second or even third divorces, grizzled, stooped and rather more corpulent than in times past. But in truth the business of government was hardly taxing. Public services had been progressively run down. But fewer people seemed to care. The reason was not far to see. Many of those who placed a premium on good health, getting to work on time by train, or keeping their property safe, had packed up and left. The government had not exactly said these were absurd expectations but they ruled as if they were.   

Almost taxed out of existence, the Scottish middle-class was a sad remnant of its former self. Even more aspirational workers had left and it was proving difficult to entice foreigners to fill their places, at least if they had skills. 

What preoccupied the few journalists still covering Scottish politics was the volcanic and never-ending personal feud that had torn apart the Action for Scotland Party (ASP). Half a generation earlier, the drive for Scottish independence had appeared unstoppable. ASP appeared formidable on so many fronts. Public relations, use of social media, ability to extract money from distracted Scots, and of course its flair in instilling numerous grievances in the minds of people that they previously never knew they had, enabled it to show that Scotland was punching above its weight in this era of political turbulence. 

But all that was before the split that turned the founder of ASP and his hitherto faithful understudy into implacable enemies.  The details of the falling out are now lost in the mists of time. When pressed by bemused foreigner visitors, wondering what had happened to the land of James Watt and David Livingstone, helpful  Scots usually quickly found a way of changing the subject.

But it appeared to be the old story. The political cause was  too frail to contain personal insecurities and jealousies. First Minister Snodgrass had quickly grown tired of Peacock trying to hog the limelight and be a backseat driver after he had opted to have a sabbatical from the grind of daily administration.

He found himself subject to internal disciplinary charges. Ever the fighter, even when the odds were stacked against him, he fought back with the help of supporters who preferred his earthy approach to political warfare to Snodgrass’s Machiavellian methods.

But the damage had been done. Rival factions quickly assembled behind the two vengeful figures who only a short time before had appeared to be joined at the hip in their commitment to Scottish independence. A weakened Snodgrass dug in. She relied on a compliant state media and on the third sector groups who were receiving one-quarter of the Scottish budget in order to alter how Scots thought as well as how many calories they consumed and units of alcohol they swallowed.  

The party was unable to stay together after bitter fighting between the two camps had brought an end to five years of uneasy peace. The Great Disruption of 2023, as it was called, is traced back to the  premature closure of ASP’s conference in Dundee in the autumn of that year.  Fighting spilled out into the streets and, at one stage,  it seemed there would be no alternative but to  rush police units from the north of England, to keep things under control. 

The reason for the clash now seems trite.  Snodgrass had sought conference’s backing for a plan to unify the two publicly funded systems of education in Scotland. For over a century, there had been one largely secular system and another catering mainly for Catholics and, later, others with a religious outlook, mainly Muslims. Her advisers had described it as a win-win situation. Not only would there be huge savings but Catholics and others could be won round if the new model was seen as carrying over the ethos of the religious schools. But instead of the teachings of the Bible or the Koran, it would be multi-cultural, global and Green values that would be the doctrinal core of the new educational curriculum. Once again, Scotland could be seen as a global leader, this time in the field of ‘progressive’ education. 

But if her will for power wad undiminished, Snodgrass was too tarnished to be able to sell this crafty policy.  Too many people smelled a rat. Fergus Peacock saw his chance to get back at his disloyal former pupil. He was still nimble and, in a brilliant tactical manoeuvre, he united many secularists along with Christians from previously warring sectarian camps, to try and defeat it. A disputed conference vote on the issue was what finally tore them apart. As the fighting subsided, Peacock marched his supporters away from the hall and announced the formation of the People’s Front of Scotland. Soon the ASP title had become such a liability that Janey Snodgrass was obliged to follow suit. Her new formation collared ASP’s finances  and had the backing of the sprawling state apparatus into which she had placed many of her college-educated supporters, backers of a range of alternative causes generously endowed with state money. Thus was the Scottish Progressive Alliance born.

Many assumed that this fratricide would quickly force the nationalists from power. But, remarkably, it was not to be. Nationalism had become such an all-consuming cause for the latest generation of Scots (especially for those who relied on the state to map their voyage through life) that it soon proved there was still space for two parties. The continuing meltdown in politics at Westminster meant that squabbling unionists were unable to capitalise on the misfortunes of their rivals.  

Like a phoenix arising from the flames, the split nationalist movement remained energetic. Soon, bowling groups and darts clubs, trade unions, football supporters groups and community associations had their own PFS or SPA wings. Resourceful lieutenants in both parties  quietly arranged electoral pacts to provide a lifeline at election time. While the two rival chieftains spat and snarled, their crafty understudies manipulated the electoral system to ensure that although hopelessly divided at the top, the nationalists would continue to control the Holyrood parliament. The ever-obliging Greens and a new pro-EU Labour party quietly subsidised by Peacock and Snodgrass, enabled their rule to drag on.

Ruling Scotland in fact proved easier than ever. In a tightly controlled political world nearly everyone, from the media to the bloated quangos, adjusted to the new tribalism.  Once the Holy Grail of the movement, Independence now only had lip-service paid to it.  Instead whether you were a follower of Janey or a partisan of Fergus was ultimately all that mattered. 

It seemed a throwback to the fierce conflicts that had torn apart the previously united Presbyterian Church 180 years earlier. Indeed the term for this religious schism, ‘the Great Disruption’, became the one  used by Scots to describe the immense fissure in nationalist ranks. However, grassroots supporters were less restrained than those in charge of the rival party machines. Soon the  police needed to cancel all leave in the week of the Bannockburn celebrations each June.

Tragic for some,  the split was in a strange way a relief for many other activists.  With oil revenue plunging and the EU no longer the great Sugar Daddy over the horizon, it was increasingly harder to  make the economic case for independence when out campaigning. Some activists did not know where to turn when angry members of the public told them that but for the continued subsidy from the rest of Britain, worth by now over £2,000 per head for each Scot, they would be unable to govern and wage war against each other at the same time.

But this strangest of eras was not destined to carry on indefinitely. London finally ran out of patience with their Scottish subalterns. This happened when a Shires and City coalition emerged under Jacob Rees-Mogg and Sadiq Khan. One of the surprising number of things that they could agree on was the need to put an end to the 50-year arrangement whereby Scotland enjoyed a far superior level of financing than most of the rest of the United Kingdom.

The second-level people in the PFS and SPA grew nervous when news reached them that the magic money tree from the south might finally be shedding its leaves. They decided it was time to end the split. Of course, this could only be accomplished if the rival titans were removed from the equation. Word reached Peacock and Snodgrass  of the plotting within their entourages. Both decided to leave their heavily fortified compounds in Aberdeenshire and the West End of Glasgow to  try and bury the hatchet. A long week of talks enabled the two ageing  figures to work out a plan to reunite the party, allowing them important spheres of influence. 

It was decided that a whistle-stop tour of Scotland by train, from Ayr to Aberdeen with stops along the way to reassure supporters that all was well (and once again the English were the chief enemy) was needed. The crowds were thinner than expected. Outside Falkirk, the peace tour came to a premature end when the train slid of the rails and plunged into a ravine. 

The bodies of both leaders were eventually recovered from the tangled wreckage. An investigation, held in record time, found that the cause was a broken rail. Faulty maintenance resulting from years of cuts had brought to an end the careers of two leaders for whom the politics of emotion had meant far more than good governance. Rail commuters who had faced years of disruption on a miserable transport service took to twitter to openly proclaim through black humour that poetic justice had been served. But those still remaining in Scotland  decided to bring forward their own departure plans when the new leadership decided it was time to think big once again in Scotland. 

A new independence referendum would be the first order of business from 2031 onwards. Thus thenational family would finally be re-united and once again Scotland could hold its head high in the world. 

NOTE:  The characters in this short story first appeared in Tom Gallagher’s 2018 novel, Flight of Evil,(a sequel being due for publication by 2020). Any similarity between real life characters is only coincidental (as with so much else in Scottish politics these days).  

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