Labour and the SNP plot amidst Downing Street’s titanic struggle

Labour and the SNP plot amidst Downing Street’s titanic struggle

by Tom Gallagher
article from Tuesday 19, May, 2020

THE EASY VICTORY in the Labour leadership contest obtained by 58-year-old Keir Starmer on 4 April was only really noticed by the media classes. They are easily the noisiest and most visible branch of the clerisy, a term coined by the poet Samuel Coleridge in the 1830s for a segment of society whose purpose is to enlighten and direct the masses. However, in common with the greater part of humanity, most Britons are fixated on the deadly progress of the Covid-19 virus. Few have much time for the aggressive and often incoherent way in which television journalists especially have sought to trip up and humiliate a hard-pressed government.  

From Prime Minister Boris Johnson down several of its members have fallen ill. The enormities of the challenge leaves most citizens unconcerned with the alleged failings laid at the door of ministers by shrill and self-absorbed journalists who rarely rise to the occasion in the daily Downing Street press briefings.

Nearly all citizens rely on the government and health and emergency services to get them through this nightmarish health challenge. Keir Starmer’s elevation has produced no poll boost for the opposition

He has sought to benefit from the sense of fear by demanding that the government set out an exit strategy. It was very much what he did during the Brexit wars when the ruling Conservatives were confined not by a global health pandemic but by a parliament that refused to allow it to govern.

Starmer’s back story is that of a dutiful and ambitious member of the administrative state committed to the firmly middle-class preoccupations of diversity and multiculturalism. As Director of Public Prosecutions from 2008 to 2013, he showed general indifference to the grooming scandal involving largely defenceless teenage girls being preyed uponby men predominantly of South Asian origin up and down the country. 

His shadow cabinet pick reflects the preoccupations of the liberal middle-class establishment. This warrior dedicated to the continuing anti-Brexit struggle sees  his mission as hauling the masses away from their infatuation with the Tories; the left may have a secure grip on institutions that, until recently have shaped opinion, from the media and education to corporate business and the civil service, but the working-class, still its key to power, now votes mainly Tory (London and Scotland excepted.)

The people of course have no right to be wrong. They must cast aside their heretical attachment to the Tory oppressor and once again grasp that people like Starmer, his shadow justice spokesman David Lammy and Communities spokeswomen Naz Shah are the best hopes for a sunlit tomorrow.

If Starmer intends to restore Labour’s hegemony rather than coast along as leader until he retires before reaching the end of his sixties, he must look with understandable envy and frustration at Scotland.

There, a separatist party has captured the allegiances of a huge segment of lower-income Scots and has now ruled longer than Labour has ever managed at UK level. It has shown how to wield identity politics in order to get people to vote against their own economic well-being by embracing an independence goal which would leave most considerably poorer.

Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have also made an impressive show of force so far in the pandemic emergency. While original ideas, cash and organization for combating this scourge have come from London, the nationalists have insisted that it is a Scottish effort forged by them which is leading their part of the UK out of the crisis. Brazenly, Sturgeon has interpreted in a highly questionable way how the £3.5 billion crisis funding which Chancellor Sunak has allocated to Scotland is to be distributed. Her finance minister Kate Forbes has made it difficult for business to apply and restricted those eligible. Multi-site businesses will only receive a fraction of what their counterparts in the rest of Britain are due to get.

While struggling small and medium-sized business people are being cold-shouldered, Sturgeon has assured the universities and charities they will not lose out. Scottish businesses faces a blizzard of closures which will decimate the private sector while Sturgeon seems to be ensuring that the vast para-state which has been a cheerleader for her often confrontational stance, will survive unscathed.

Faced by an accommodating opposition led the new Scots Tory leader, Jackson Carlaw, and knowing how stretched the government under Boris Johnson is who may have narrowly missed death when rushed to St Thomas’s hospital, London on 6 April, Sturgeon has looked for opportunities to advance her cause by arbitrary power grabs.  She is also constantly on the look out for the publicity fixes that she undoubtedly craves.

On the evening of 10 April she made the unnecessary journey across central Scotland to the site of the new Nightingale hospital in Glasgow which she has renamed after an obscure World War I nurse.  A short film was placed online which showed her  touring the site dressed in white. ‘NHS Scotland’ was the key motif and it was the kind of propaganda straight out of a Borat movie or more ominously what German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl produced in Germany during the 1930s.

Perhaps the somewhat humdrum Starmer is nevertheless inspired by her ‘shock and awe’ performance and believes Scotland offers a workable model for the British future (at least in Labour hands).  A series of regional semi-states across Britain with Westminster drained of power might enable left-wing domination to take root as in Scotland. Thus, his first major policy announcement was to embrace a radical form of territorial politics for the UK

Meanwhile, his political elders, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and his confederate in the anti-Brexit struggle John Major, have sought to erode the British state from a different direction.  They issued a letter urging world leaders to create a temporary form of global government to tackle the twin medical and economic crises caused by Covid-19. 

Brown evangelised about a crisis-busting global task-force, resolutely ignoring the disgrace which the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) has fallen into as it concealed the scale of the pandemic to favour China which now exercises a guardianship over the body. 

One of the remarkable features of the pandemic in the UK has been the extreme reluctance of  the British clerisy to respond to mounting evidence of how Chinese state behaviour magnified the destructive power of the pandemic. The BBC, which articulates the bland paternalistic world view of the British establishment, has ignored the Chinese dimension in its coverage, focusing instead on what are seen as the shortcomings of the British government’s role.

In much of its crisis coverage, the BBC is very much in thrall to the administrative elite.  Former civil servant chiefs such as Lord O’Donnell have been given much airtime to promote technocratic solutions that invite enhanced cooperation using established international bodies. Lord Slacker has been presented as a benign retired mandarin even though he was a member of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign team in the 2019 election. He also played a role which enabled Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s predecessor as First Minister, to ride roughshod over Whitehall procedures and turn the Scottish branch of the UK civil service into a machine whose primary aim in 2014 was to accomplish Scottish independence

Edinburgh-based civil servants were enlisted in the freedom struggle, doing much of the work for a White Paper called Scotland’s Future which outlined a risibly low-cost transition to independence. The financial basis for independence, sketchy then, has vanished completely as the UK-wide measures to provide citizens and employers with money to exist on during the economic shutdown, leaves an Everest of debt to contend with.

Under a hard-headed and probing media, Sturgeon’s undiminished separatist hopes would be seen as fantasy proposals. Yet she is seen as ‘seriously impressive’  by London commentators like Dan Hodges. Her visibility and outspokenness make for good headlines even though few can actually point to a decision taken by her which has made a difference to the way Covid-19 is handled. The financial basis even for devolution may now look precarious but her omniscience on the Scottish  scene gives her a star appeal. Mark Smith, one journalist not hitherto regarded as a media camp follower, even wrote an article urging readers in a prominent Scottish newspaper to organize a ‘Clap for Nicola.’

Criticism of Sturgeon’s use of the crisis for her own career is not absent and the critic who obtained the most attention was a member of her own party,  Highland councillor Ron MacWilliam. He quickly found himself suspended when he criticised the slowness of the SNP’s response to the crisis. 

Ironically, it is within Sturgeon’s own party that her sway is probably at its weakest due to the bitter feud which has exploded with Alex Salmond and his supporters. I suspect she is seen as box office by much of the media because there is nobody at central level making trouble for the government. The London media is uninterested in the methods used to acquire her dominance in Scotland or in the mishandling of the £3.5bn crisis grant from the UK Exchequer. It is a low point in the story of a media, a sector which is likely to be a major casualty of the pandemic as sales plummet.

Nemesis, however, may take slightly longer to catch up with Scotland’s First Minister. 

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who divides his time between Cumbria and Scotland. His book on the SNP, Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published in 2016. His twitter account is @cultfree54



ThinkScotland exists thanks to readers' support - please donate in any currency and often

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter & like and share this article
To comment on this article please go to our facebook page