Is England’s difficulty Scotland’s opportunity?

Is England’s difficulty Scotland’s opportunity?

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 15, June, 2020

IT REMAINS TO BE SEEN if anyone will write a book about our recent discontents that is as compelling a read as one written by George Dangerfield in 1935 and called The Strange Death of Liberal England.

A centrist government with a majority in the House of Commons lost control of the country before World War I. It reeled before a set of militant challenges. They came from the trade-unions and suffragettes but perhaps the most destabilising ones erupted from within the elite. They centred on how far the decentralisation of power to Ireland should be allowed to go and whether Ulster merited an opt-out. The extent to which the ruling establishment in London should retreat before mass democracy was the key underlying issue. 

It is perhaps worth framing present discontents in a longer-term perspective while not losing sight of how much has changed even compared with the quite recent past. The composition of the ruling elite is very different from what it was a century ago. The hi tech industries now dominate the economic scene in the United States. The fact that they lean left is significant because they control much of the information which the planet consumes. While encouraging a range of radical lifestyle choices, global corporations in general have shown that they distrust mass democracy. A range of powerful companies threw their weight behind the determined bid to prevent Britain leaving the European Union. They are impatient with power being exercised at a national level and are unimpressed by the claim that rulers of nation-states ought to be accountable to those who elected them. 

Four years of agitation, orchestrated by elite elements, ensued after British voters decided to quit the EU in the 2016 referendum. The distinctive conditions produced by the Covid-19 pandemic have proved conducive for a fresh bout of unrest. Boris Johnson’s government has struggled to project authority due to the ongoing controversy about the wisdom of imposing an economic and social ‘lock down’ in a bid to halt the march of this virus. If there was a spirit of national unity, it barely lasted a month. Much of the media has been seeking to trip up a government which it already disliked despite the big electoral win obtained three months before the emergency began.

With few exceptions the British media projects the outlook of global progressives comfortable with a post-national, elite-led world. In a febrile atmosphere, the electronic media in particular was able to launch a backlash against a government seeking to cope with the fall-out from the pandemic while simultaneously finalising plans to end the EU’s sway over the British state and society.  For a week in late May there was frenzy over claims (never substantiated) that Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings had breached the lock down.  Soon violent unrest exploded in the United States following the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd on 25 May.

Black Lives Matter (BLM), a far-leftist organization fanned protests which led to widespread destruction of property in a string of US cities. Antifa, an even more extreme group, occupied large areas of several of them. 

BLM in Britain is part of an international campaign committed to dismantling state structures like the police that ‘disproportionately harm black people in Britain and around the world.’  Such objectives did not prevent a top police officer like London's counter-terrorism chief Neil Basu offering very public sympathy for the street protests it launched in Britain. 

Even the lucrative Premier League plans for players to wear the Black Lives Matter motif on their shirts in the first part of the league even though BLM is committed to dismantling capitalism. 

Supporters of the government were relieved when it remained aloof from extravagant displays of solidarity for an anti-racist cause which has been hi-jacked by the far-left both here and to a far greater extent in the US. But the government is widely seen to have failed to display authority as indignation over historical slavery statues linked with the practice has been used as a cover for disruption and far-left extremists. The BLM-directed protests have morphed into something wider. A statue-removal campaign quickly got going which in days escalated from the removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol to a repeat-attempt so far foiled to remove from public view in Poole the statue of the founder of the Scouts, Robert Baden Powell, to the covering up of the statue to Winston Churchill in central London.

Boris Johnson has seemed as daunted by the turbulence as Herbert Asquith, his pre-1914 predecessor as Prime Minister. Various explanations have been offered as to why the government seems so lacklustre. They range from the state of health of Johnson who in March contracted a severe form of Covid-19, the nature of his Downing Street team, the fact that the Conservatives often struggle these days to show any strong belief in conservatism, and the scale of the pressures arising from such an unprecedented medical challenge.

Britain seems badly divided along generational, occupational, cultural and territorial lines just as firm voices at the centre condemning intimidation and extremism are failing to be heard.  The visibility of the fracture may be due, in no small measure, to the momentum behind the agitation coming from sometimes well-connected people very often from middle-class backgrounds. They have grown disaffected for a variety of reasons. Many are angry at the difficulties they have in establishing a stable foothold in the housing and labour markets. Not a few have come under the influence of radical academics, protest movements erupting on social media, and trauma over Brexit. Historically, bourgeois revolts have been far more troubling for governments in the West than working-class unrest over jobs or prices. British industrial unrest from 1966 to 1985 was very much the exception to the rule and may have left conservatives unprepared for what has followed. 

In defence of the government, its low-key and seemingly insipid response may eventually be partially vindicated. Perhaps Johnson and his ministers know far more than they are prepared to divulge. They may have received intelligence that plans were afoot to stage rioting on an extensive scale. More somberly, they may have concluded that it would be hard to rely on the judgment and loyalty of the operational police commanders in London who seem very much under the sway of a declared enemy of the government, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan. Perhaps even the reliability of the civil-service in the midst of a crisis can no longer be relied upon given the huge unpopularity of Brexit at the heart of the state. 

Watching the progress of agitation in parts of England will have been the SNP rulers of Scotland who arguable have spent more time campaigning and agitating, in their last thirteen years of power, than seriously governing. A sense of schadenfreude about the weakness of the centre, with the far-left in the ascendant and Johnson powerless to do much, would be understandable. Some may even think that if the impression of a power vacuum in London hardens into fact, independence will fall into the hands of Scottish separatists like a ripe fruit. 

But what grounds do the nationalists have for being cheerful about disarray and violence in London? Could their cause suffer if lawlessness and political turmoil assume levels that dwarf any recent challenge to authority in Scotland?

The SNP has much invested in a certain image of Britain. It is dominated by unrepresentative power structures controlled by arrogant figures. They are unresponsive to Scotland’s true needs but they continue to bale it out financially because they fear the consequences of turning off the subsidy tap and telling the Scots to go fend for themselves.

There is a kind of stability in this Cold War between nationalists and English power-holders with both playing out pe-allotted roles of unruly supplicants and weary benefactors. But what if the play is cancelled due to an outburst of zealotry in England? What if street agitation becomes the norm, a ‘pull everything down’ mentality takes hold and a counter-reaction leads to far worse polarisation than has previously been glimpsed?

In my view many of the cooler heads in the SNP would be nervous rather than ecstatic by prolonged British instability. There are different reasons for thinking so. The SNP has long offered a smaller, more restrained version of the type of emotional, utopian politics being advanced with gusto by suddenly very influential radicals in England. It’s own version of ‘bring down’ capitalism was unfurled in past days with a universal minimum wage being partly subsidised by 85% tax rates for the wealthy. 

If anarchy in England gets out of control and radical gesture politics ends up being discredited, the SNP’s own implacable cause and aggressively self-righteous leader is unlikely to evade censure.  By the end of the year Scots are quite likely to be facing grim economic times. The downturn and accompanying closures and job losses are quite likely to be steeper than in much of the rest of Britain arguably due to the slowness in emerging from lockdown that Nicola Sturgeon prefers. 

In recessionary conditions, I suspect the appetite for virtue-signalling and moral absolutism may plummet, especially among working-class converts to the nationalist cause. People grappling with economic hardship are far less likely to be drawn to experimentation and bold new departures in such conditions. 

If the curtains are coming down on a long-running political production in England, it doesn’t mean that a new one will then automatically get going in Scotland. It is quite possible that among those who fear disorder in London spinning out of control are hardheaded SNP politicians who have made a dream career out of harvesting protest politics and shrink at the chance of having to run a country with the range and complexity of Scotland’s problems single-handedly.

Turbulence in southern England might actually turn out to be good for the unity of this island if far greater numbers of people than before have cause to see how vulnerable the modern world is to disruption and chaos and how simplistic solutions usually fail to offer any easy way forward. 

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University. He has written 16 single or main-authored books on European and British politics and contemporary history. 'Scotland Now: A Warning to the World' appeared in 2016. His latest is a biography of Portugal's Antonio Salazar which is appearing in July on the centenary of his birth.


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