2007 - 2020

Orphaned Centrism


As we wait for the Prime Minister’s choreographed trip to Scotland – and the panic continues amongst right-thinking politicians and their commentariat – the faithful scribes and gatekeepers are struggling. A number of political comfort blankets have gone leaving key writers and players toiling. The comfortable space of a Devolution That Does Very Little has gone, as has the sort of shiney New Labour world that so many adored. Gone too is the threat of independence as an abstract notion – or a past event. Also vanished now is the much-loved pet project of Ruth Davidson. Many are left bereft and confused.

Alex Massie writes in the Times (“Captain Britannia is no hero north of border”): “The team that restored the fortunes of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party no longer exists. One by one, many of the key players are departing the stage. Ruth Davidson is going. Eddie Barnes, the party’s former communications director, has already gone. So has Marek Zemanik, formerly the Scottish Tories’ head of policy development. Adam Tomkins is returning to the University of Glasgow, bored of intramural party skirmishes and, I think, bored of Holyrood too. An era has ended, to be replaced by, well, what exactly? A reversion to the mean or to type, perhaps. Mr Carlaw and Murdo Fraser and Liz Smith and Liam Kerr and all the other loyal Tories have their qualities but this is not a team to excite the country or one liable to present a fresh, confident version of either Tory or Unionist thought.”

It’s a nostalgic vision. How many will mourn the Golden Era of Davidson, Barnes and Tomkins? How will history remember this great period? What flagship policies and great speeches will this Dream Team be remembered for?

One can only wonder.

Without a trace of irony Massie continues: “Constitutional politics gave the Scottish Tories a song to sing and a ditch to fight in. Deprive them of this and you deprive them of almost everything. In truth, their fate is not in their own control. There is little the party can do about Brexit, little it can do about Covid-19 and little it can do about the prime minister. Individually, these are each debilitating weaknesses; put them together and you risk something crippling. They might wish it otherwise but that’s the way it is.”

Also looking for ditches to die in is Kenny Farquharson (also at The Times) where he is developing the truly barrel-scraping notion of ‘Ambivalent Unionism’: “Labour voters are not going to die in a ditch for the Union. That is not why they feel an affinity with Labour. And if Labour is prepared to die in that ditch it might need to do so in far fewer numbers.

Ambivalent Unionism is the extraordinary new proposition that Richard Leonard should strike out his own position of being a bit vague. Farquharson sets out his stall for this winning idea with some dodgy framing, arguing: “The closeness of the polls obscures substantial transfers of votes between Yes and No over the past six years, in both directions.

Er, I think more recent polls are a little clearer on momentum and direction?

Next up comes the F Bomb, Farquharson’s Go To constitutional misdirection: “UK Labour policy is that power structures within the UK will be reformed by a constitutional convention which will consider the question of federalism.”

Finally – in the Constitutional Land that Time Forgot he adds: “Scottish Labour should follow the precedent in its own history. It should decide what it wants for Scotland and persuade its UK colleagues — challenge them if need be — to legislate at Westminster to make it happen.

This is magical thinking. Kenny – like his fellow Orphaned Centrists – are still living in a time when Labour and Scottish Labour were a powerful political force capable of forming governments and exercising constitutional muscle. Now they can barely form an opposition.

The high priest of Orphaned Centrism – who provides a third node to this triumvirate of scribes is Chris Deerin, inexplicably the “New Statesman‘s contributing editor (Scotland).”

Back in 2018 Deerin fantasised that the Scottish Tories were about to back a Peoples Vote Referendum. Except they weren’t, at all, ever. But one of the running themes of the enthusiastic orphans is a complete misjudgement of the autonomy – or desire for autonomy – of the Scottish Labour or Conservative parties. In order to nurture their own fantasy about the Union as a functioning viable political project they have to indulge themselves with the idea that these parties are brimming-over with ideas and action, policies and a fervent desire for independent thinking. In the absence of any evidence at all of these traits they just manufacture them.

At the time Deerin was penning his nonsense about the Scottish Tories backing a a Peoples Vote Referendum he went further.

With un-named sources Deerin claimed that the Scottish party would back a second referendum and this, in turn, “could lead to a formal breach, with the Scottish party choosing to break the link with the UK party and become independent.”

Deerin wrote, in a fit of premature hagiography:

“If Ruth Davidson weren’t on maternity leave, it’s tempting to believe the former Territorial Army Signaller would by now have commandeered a tank and be rumbling down the M6 with the gun pointed firmly in the direction of the ERG. Davidson’s contempt for Boris Johnson and his cohorts is absolute and withering. Her no-nonsense, pragmatic Conservatism does not allow for the preening self-indulgence of the Tory far-right.”

But Deerin’s wildly imaginative take is part of a pattern.

Deerin (former political editor of the Daily Record and head of comment for The Daily Telegraph) and previous Director of External Relations at the Blavatnik School of Government, (founded following a £75 million donation from Leo Blavatnik, a Russian oligarch being investigated in the Mueller inquiry), has a track record of cultivating a distinct political “centrism”.

Over a period of six months Deerin wrote and re-wrote the same article making the case for a new political party. Who knows if he did this independently? It seems unlikely.

Deerin has described himself as an ‘orphaned centrist’ and seems to have difficulty adjusting to changing political realities. His relentless cause was a new party based on Macron’s success in France.

Here he is in the Herald arguing:

Dec 2017: “We in Britain desperately need a new political party in the Emmanuel Macron mould”.

“When you think about it, there will be a new party. Its lack is unsustainable. If you’re not sure whether it’s for you, here are the sort of people it should include: David Miliband, John Major, Ruth Davidson, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Yvette Cooper, Nick Clegg, Anna Soubry, George Osborne, Nicky Morgan, Ken Clarke, Peter Mandelson, Paddy Ashdown, Chuka Umunna, Jack McConnell, Alistair Darling, David Willetts, Dominic Grieve, Amber Rudd. If you look at this list, appreciate the connections, share the sensibility and the desire to pull our politics back from the edge, you’re in.”

I don’t think I’m in.

Here he is Unherd arguing for a new political party:

October 2017: “Is it time to break up the old political parties?”

“Anyone who’s dug around a little knows that the money is there to fund a new muscular, liberal, centrist movement. We know a large proportion of the electorate sits somewhere in the middle of politics, and that the younger generation tends towards a more liberal, internationalist outlook than its predecessors.”

Here he is in the New Statesman arguing for a new political party:

February 2018: “Andrew Adonis should ditch the pessimism and start a centrist party”.

“For all the naysaying, there are several untested arguments for a new party. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the centre must, one way or another, be represented. For all the votes cast last year for Labour and the Tories, voters may not behave in the same way if presented with different options (let’s set the Lib Dems aside as having little more than junk value). Meanwhile, 2018 is not 1981, and this Britain is not that Britain: our lives and our expectations are different now, the political tensions fresh, the demographics changed, the world of communication transformed. The possibility of the new is all around us at all times – so why not in politics?”

“And then there’s the SDP’s success, rather than its failure. New Labour emerged in its intellectual wake to become an extraordinary election-winning machine and a government that was given the space to modernise the country. A new centrist party might fail to displace the big two, but it would probably ensure that John McDonnell and Seumas Milne never get their grubby hands on the levers of power, and it would probably drag the debate back from the centre. It’s worth doing for those reasons alone. But who knows what might happen?”

“The thing is, the money’s there.”

These imaginary worlds created and sustained by the Scottish editors of big flagship media outlets like The Times, The Spectator and the New Statesman are mostly harmless, but they are becoming more ridiculous. As a majority in favour of independence becomes the “new normal” (or the “settled will” if you’d prefer), as Britain glides towards a No Deal economic catastrophe, as the venal character of Johnson’s reign replaces the crushing incompetence of May’s the gap between reality and fantasy widens. As Westminster executes a Brexit power grab Kenny Farquharson talks about Scottish Labour “… having a view on what new powers should be put in Holyrood’s hands”.  As Massie wistfully reminisces over the Golden Era of Davidson, Barnes and Tomkins and Kenny Farquharson talks bafflingly about “Asymmetrical federalism” and “Ambivalent Unionism”  Dominic Cummings’ plans to fundamentally change Whitehall.

These key titles act as a filter to Middle Scotland, a soothing balm that tells a tale to itself that everything is well and nothing is changing. These editors act to provide some “Scottish” content for UK titles – but they also seem increasingly detached and a little desperate as the world they are so heavily invested in disappears.

 

 

Comments (24)

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  1. James Mills says:

    Massie , Deerin , Farquharson … these are the court jesters to World King Johnson .

  2. Marnie Anderson says:

    Is it invited guests only? as per Tory usual..

    1. L. Campbell says:

      Marnie: I’d be looking at where he visited rather than with which companies he visited. The clue is in the areas themselves.

  3. kate macleod says:

    the SNP is centre-right at present, as Robin Macalpine points out recently in Source and Kerevan infers in Conter . So a Blairite type party (as in a fake progressive party, centrist socio-economically , environmentally, in international affairs) is already in govt in scotland. it’s not a fantasy, for scotland anyway.

    supposing pro indy support stays at c.55% that’s not a big majority and would leave huge divisions

    but even if there were a huge majority for independence built up in the 6 years since the last referundum the SNP intends to regard s30 as the only way to indy and westminister does not have to act on popular will in scotland by supplying it.
    as a macalpine points out there is no path outlined or attempted to independence by the SNP.
    there is also appears no way for members of the SNP to force change on the leadership elite, not that they seem to try hard.

    i can’t see any reasoning that backs up your optimism the current situation would lead inevitably to independence. it seems like denial (or magical thinking), which is is avoiding discussion of real problems and possible solutions – such as that the SNP is a highly undemocratic centre – right party impervious to any version of the grassroots and which also has no plan to achieve independence. Denial prevents the possibility of change. Which it is ok if you are fine with a centre right pro business govt whose decisions are made by a handful of people , whether there is independence or not.

    1. Hi Kate -well I dont share your (or Robins) pessimism at all. I’m not sure where I argue that “the current situation would lead inevitably to independence”? Can you point that out?

      I am imagining a huge pro indy majority next year on the basis of clear manifesto commitments – combined with NVDA, protest, assembly and action will exert massive pressure on Westminster. I dont agree at all that everything is hopeless and we have lost everything. I think its a kind of nihilism.

      1. Elaine Fraser says:

        Women are watching and nothing is “settled”

        1. Wul says:

          ” Women are watching and nothing is “settled” ” I’m intrigued Elaine. What do you mean?

          Re; Mike’s direct action and all that. I am certainly up for a lot of shouting and protesting “going forward”. I am thoroughly sick of shit politicians, shit policy and this shitty UK. Bring it on. If the SNP need a rocket up their arse, it’s our role as citizens to fire it. Honestly; what have we got to lose now?

          1. L. Campbell says:

            WUL: Elaine means that the treachery of the SNP towards women and their rights has been noted. They depend heavily on the women’s vote. It will be interesting to see whether they understand that.

        2. L. Campbell says:

          Elaine: indeed.

      2. Douglas Wilson says:

        Oh come on Mike, you’re kidding yourself on here. Robin is right, there is no plan A, B or C and a super majority in Scotland means zero to Johnson.

        But that’s not the only problem with the SNP, though it would be enough on its own to want to see the back of Sturgeon and Murrell, who have failed entirely in their chief objective and should go ASAP. Surgeon is a good health minixter. She’s never a leader.

        It’s a political movement which is totally sterile by now. It has lost any vigour or zest. It closes down debate, without offering any answers itself. It has become the SMP, the Scottish Managerial Party. It is run with an iron fist from above like the Communist Party, and it breeds a kind of self-perpetuating careerist politician and punishes those who speak out like Kenny Macaskill, totally ostracized by Sturgeon and Murrell. Not only that, but the party machine tried to crush Robin himself and disparaged his noteworthy work at CW which is simply unbelievable.

        The Salmond Affair it the nadir of a party top brass who think they can do what they want. it is their comeuppance and their downfall. Sturgeon is not above the law of the land and the basic principles of the rule of law by which we thankfully live. Her husband is the sower of chaos and discord I strongly suspect. Sturgeon’s actions in relation to the code of conduct are already arguably impeachable in US terms.

        Salmod should not keep us waiting. He should disclose the documents not admitted to court immediately to the press…

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @kate macleod, but the SNP seems much more doveish than hawkish Blairite Labour. I think there is a significant difference between parties of secession from the UK and parties of Empire (which Labour has been in power, despite some notable dissenters). However, there may be some in the absurd-centralist ditch-the-empire-keep-the-queen camp.

      1. lawrenceab says:

        I fear that whether SNP sits a little more or a little less dovish on the spectrum, the leadership’s one obsession (fulfilled unfortunately) is to ingratiate itself so thoroughly into the real – deep – British establishment that despite rhetorical argy-bargy from the No 10 pols, the party leadership’s managerial control and resultant perks remain assured for a long time to come.

        Why would any party truly committed to leaving the British State have a MP on the Intelligence and Security Committee?? Think about it. Everyone there must have the highest security clearance since they oversee the deepest darkest workings of the British State. Therefore every ISC member is thoroughly vetted by the most senior MI5/MI6/GCHQ/Palace/Armed Forces Chiefs/Civil Servant Chiefs and other key actors. Ergo, SNP under Sturgeon is considered ‘safe’. No need to Willie-Macrae anyone.

        It astounds me that Hosie, a senior SNP MP who should not be within a mile of ISC actually sits there as a voting member.
        But hey, we have Blackford sitting on the Select Committee that will oversee the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament. He was sent there to get out of the place not rebuild it! And we have Wishart openly mulling whether to throw his hat in the ring to become Speaker of the HoC. Again what the hell is he thinking of?

        There is virtually no daylight on foreign policy between Sturgeon and Westminster – she reflexively approves every act of aggression, every Russia-bashing gambit. Alex Salmond’s independence of thought is long gone from today’s SNP.

        And Mike Small has every confidence despite the evidence in front of his eyes!

        1. Douglas Wilson says:

          All you say is true, and that’s without touching on the Svengali like figure of Peter Murrell…

          …for all we know, the real Nicola Sturgeon is asleep / unconscious / comatose / in a large pod in a farm somewhere in the Scottish countryside ( Perthshire say) while Peter Murrell wreaks havoc on the independence movement with her double…

          What do the following public female figures have in common?

          1) Eva Braun
          2) Ivania Trump
          3) Carmen Polo Franco
          4) Evita Perón
          5)Nicola Sturgeon

          ?

          1. Douglas Wilson says:

            Or an alternative list of illustrious ladies / ferocious predators and the same question, what do they have in common?

            1) Elenita Ceausescu
            2) Barbarona Bush
            3) Nancy Reagan
            4) Imelda Romualdez Marcos

            5) Nicola Sturgeon

            ?

  4. Blair says:

    Perhaps independence is just not the way to go. Nothing wrong with the SNP except that they are not big enough to make any significant difference. Why not prepare now to fight the next UK General Election with a policy to join the European Union again. Scotland has much to offer the world but does not need to be hampered by likes of Boris & Trump. The SNP needs to have candidates standing in all the UK constituencies.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Oh, YES it is!

      (Are you writing a script fora panto, Tony?)

      1. Blair says:

        Alasdair,

        Not sure if it was me you were replying to but I certainly am not Tony.
        Scotland”s path to independence has been blocked to at least 2040 by virtue of losing Indyref1. It’s path to Europe is going to be blocked by virtue of the BREXIT vote falling Boris’s way. The SNP and Scotland have no alternative than to take on the Tories directly in a battle for Westminster. It needs to increase its size by increasing the number of MP’s and beat the Tories in the Union.
        The Tories have been unable to maintain a union between the UK & the EEC and are bereft of any working ideas other than a NO DEAL option (Boris’s BREXIT plan is unworkable): All bets are on a Trump deal without any real ideas what is at stake.
        The SNP have very little options open to them other than sending out a message to the UK Electorate that a BREXIT deal is still possible which permits the best of both to exist before the end of this year deadline.
        It was rUK who said Scotland could have the best of both worlds and is failing to deliver but why should Boris and his Tory government prevent Nicola Sturgeon and our SNP government from pitching an alternative BREXIT plan for the EEC to consider: The EEC won’t consider anything unless negotiators are authorised officially by our UK Parliament!
        Recent events have shown everyone how precarious things are locally, nationally and internationally, Covid-19 has just added to the wreckage and increased poverty.
        The SNP is big enough to complete a BREXIT deal within 5 working days to solve the issue, but unless it expands both in constituency seats and in its knowledge of systems we will be at the mercy a new world order.

        1. L. Campbell says:

          Blair: nah. This is coming to a head. It will reach the head before the end of this year. One way or another.

  5. Iain macphail says:

    It’s seemed to me for a long time now that the Tory & Labour Scots only know how to harrangue other Scots (ie attack indy);
    But they are incapable of influencing or even criticising the London cabal who are driving the No Deal Brexit & English nationalism agenda at Westminster.

    Better Together were “lent” a lot of votes in 2014 to give the UK structures “one last chance”;
    And those “vote lenders” consider that Showtime is now (not some date in the future).

    So I share your optimism Mike & I would say the international community have a helpful role to play in the next 12 months (they have seen & criticised UK mendacity enough for themselves over Brexit)

  6. Paddy Farrington says:

    Very interesting article. The lack of credibility of the arguments for a centrist renewal resonates in Scotland with the profound crisis at the heart of Unionism. Such poverty of thinking is a key element in Unionism’s loss of hegemony in Scotland; and it provides Scotland’s independence movement with the opportunity to assert our own. This is already happening in the wake of Brexit and Covid-19, and might explain why independence suddenly appears common sense to many who used not to see it that way. It is up to us to replace the increasingly vacuous discourse of Unionism with our own positive vision(s). But what we must avoid at all costs is match the poverty of thinking from the Unionist side with an equally threadbare and inward-looking discourse of our own.

  7. Douglas Wilson says:

    A few points for what really should be an article, but given Mike Small and his team are taking a well-deserved break, I will make them here which will do just the same:

    1) We have no way of knowing what Peter Murrell’s political tendencies are. For all we know, he could be a shade to the right of Dr Goebbels. The SNP are asking us to vote for a party which is opaque at the very top. This is a complete piss-take from a party which never stops bandying around the in vogue terms of our time like diversity and transparency. Anybody serious about Scottish democracy should be worried that a guy with nothing on the record at all on any of the big issues of our time should have got to the very top of the SNP. Not one article, not one interview, not one statement on anything… How does a politician make it to the top without doing politics? Somebody explain?

    2) Since Murrell and Sturgeon came to power, any opponents to the Monstrous Regiment of Nicola/Peter have been silenced, sidelined or crushed, most notably Salmond and Kenny Macaskil. Do I need to remind people that those two were absolutely key in achieving the 18S referendum of 2014 and that they deserve a basic respect for that? Other discrepant voices like Joanna Cherry invariably include a disclaimer in their opinion pieces in The National to the effect that having a different view on certain issues to the current leadership is not a challenge for the party leadership. You can smell the fear.

    3) The referendum that never happened: the referendum that never happened is the referendum on Scotland’s membership in the EU as an independent nation which we have a cast iron democratic case for, no ifs, no buts, no fobbing off and no further delays. The natural window – the only window that makes sense – for that referendum is the period from the day after the Brexit vote right up until the last day of the withdrawal period, which is to say, at the absolute latest, the end of this year. There is still time, not much, but some.

    4)The whole of Europe is waiting for this referendum to happen and, if you live in Europe as I have done for many years, frequently ask you when it is going to take place. They think it is a given. It’s difficult to explain to them that the current leadership passed up its chance of securing it from London and instead opted to hedge its bets back in May’s Brexit Parliament.

    5) By way of contrast, almost no one in Europe understood the 2014 referendum. They could not understand why two countries in a 300 Union within the EU area would need to go their separate ways. And now, just the opposite, they are scratching their heads that on such a crucial issue as EU membership, there is no referendum on the horizon and no sense of urgency for one to be held. What are these Scots all about? they say to themselves.

    6) You might want to call the 2014 referendum a purely “nationalist” referendum. The next referendum is the “European referendum”, or the EU referendum. It is the one which the country has expressly voted for again and again since and including the Brexit vote. It has a much stronger democratic mandate behind it than the 2014 one ever did – 63% of the Brexit vote and it should be held within the window outlined above. On January 1st 2021, we enter a whole new era of British politics, and the currents of change start flowing against us I fear.

    Either somebody must stand against Sturgeon within the SNP, or else a new party needs to be formed ASAP. What Sturgeon and Murrell are doing is totally outwith the accepted behaviour of party politics in a European democracy, and the good people in the SNP, should be asking themselves some serious questions about where we are today, and whether it might not be better to set up an alternative vehicle for change…

    1. Douglas Wilson says:

      As for the Scottish commentariat, who are paid to have the pulse of national politics and scrutinize and call into question and to doubt, they have been asleep at the wheel to a man,blindsided by the feverish witchhunt atmosphere of our times….

      Murrell, to get where he is today, has to be an operator of the highest order and a very able man.

      But for whose cause precisely? That we simply do not know…

      1. Douglas Wilson says:

        And if there’s one thing we don’t need it’s another mandate. We’ve got mandates galore. We’ve got the Brexit vote mandate, the Scottish Parliament mandate and the last Westminster elections mandate. Three fckin mandates though the first is by the far the most. important. Three!

        So why do need to wait till May? . If Sturgeon won’t call a referendum, then we should organize one ourselves for November. Europe will understand because we are out of the EU, the Catalans were not. It’s all the difference.

        Another mandate is just a total kop-out by the cowardly banker Blackford and co.

        The SNP just don’t have the cojones for it…they are a bunch of pathetic, wishy-washy idlers who are not up to the job….

        1. Douglas Wilson says:

          Robertson, Wishart, Smith and baaheid Blackford have been drawing a very nice salary for a good number of years now, espousing a cause which it is now time for them to demonstrate they actually believe in.

          They can hardly expect the people of Scotland to go and vote for them time after time and give them a mandate which they then do with nothing at all. They’re going to end up on the dole, like so many of us Euro Scots are, if we don’t get out of the Union of 1707 pronto.

          Ranks needs to break in the SNP, in the mid to top tier, and a clear call must be made for a Scottish independence referendum on St Andrews day 2020, while Holyrood still, has the legal power to call a non-binding referendum which it does today. So, please, let’s use that power before it is removed from us.

          Saint Andrews Day 2020: are you out for an independent Scotland in the EU, Aye or Nay?

          Let’s go and call it and let’s go and win it and then take it from there, an all out offensive against Johnson and the Tories instead of making vague empty threats in Westminster and sitting about doing nothing…

          Now is the time, we’ve got to act now…. by May next year, the UK could be in a full on trade war with the EU. We can’t sit back and do nothing…

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