Britain Isn’t Working

On Wednesday night the Home Office were run out of Edinburgh, escorted out of Nicholson Square by the city’s polis as a large crowd gathered to demand the release of immigration detainees. It was a significant moment of solidarity almost a year on from the Kenmure Street protest and plaudits go to the organisers. The hope must be now to organise and strengthen the networks in much the same way as the Poll Tax was resisted whenever Warrant Sales were threatened.

The authority of the British State is being regularly and publicly undermined, and in this case social media is both organising tool and broadcast medium, even if traditional media ignore these events. But if the protest was symbolic and powerful, the elections on Thursday bring more difficulties to the Union and the Conservatives. While results are still coming in as I write a few trends are certain: the SNP won the election and their electoral grip is still mighty; the Scottish Greens have surged and had their best ever local election; and Scottish Labour have probably leap-frogged over a discredited and rudderless Scottish Tory party. To be fair if the Conservatives didn’t take a massive kicking after the last two years there would be something deeply wrong, but there is more than mid-term protest going on.

Across the water our Irish cousins were causing shock as Michelle O’Neill was elected and Sinn Féin became the largest Northern Ireland Party and have the most seats in Stormont. That would mean O’Neill becoming the First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Alongside this constitutional earthquake its significant too that the Alliance party is the biggest party in east Belfast for the first time ever in an Assembly election. This is highly significant because alongside the rise of Sinn Féin (north and south) you also have the emergence of new configurations and the slow demise of the loyalist vote. This has huge consequences across these islands. As the journalist Neil Mackay wrote: “Something to consider as Sinn Fein prepares to take NI. A border poll is built into the Good Friday Agreement – *if* a majority wants one. If (and it’s a big if) that happens, then how could Johnson grant one in NI, and then refuse one in Scotland? The sun is setting on the union.”

It may be more complicated than that. As Adam Ramsay has pointed out Sinn Féin campaigned less on the constitution and more on the economy. As Ramsay points out the first section of the party’s manifesto – launched this week – reads: “Rising living costs and fuel and electricity price hikes are placing huge pressure on ordinary people.”

“Over a decade of Tory austerity has left workers, families, and public services less able to deal with crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and now the spiralling cost of living. Boris Johnson has done little to support people through this crisis and while people continue to struggle, big corporations and energy companies’ profits soar.”

The Union is dying, its true, but its dying because in the face of the worst social crisis in decades its ministers of state merely shrug. It’s ironic that the death-knell of the UK might be Elsie as much as Michelle.

If nationalists and republicans are in the ascendancy the election proved disastrous in Scotland for the Conservatives and for Alba. While the Tory blame-game can begin – with Douglas Ross trying very hard to pin all of the lost votes and voter-turnout on the shenanigans at No 10 – that doesn’t really wash when their most enthusiastic supporter is, er, Douglas Ross. He may survive this disaster purely by the lack of any credible alternative. The Tories attempt to hide Ross behind Baroness Davidson looks like having been a spectacular failure.

These elections were a disaster for Alex Salmond’s Alba party as Chris McEleny – who quit the SNP to join the party last year – failed to keep his seat on Inverclyde Council. In Aberdeenshire where they had hoped for a breakthrough but scored only 5.4%. Alba failed to win any MSPs via the regional list system in last year’s Holyrood election, even though it needed just 5 or 6 per cent of the vote to do so, polling just 1.7% nationally.

Unremarkably Salmond responded saying: “Alba is undaunted and will continue to press hard on the urgency of independence.”

He continued: “In a number of wards the Alba vote came in at over 5 per cent but the instruction from the SNP leadership not to use preferences to support other independence candidates now condemns most Scottish councils to control by unionists.”

“Alba is also focused primarily on the tactic of maximising the pro-independence votes at Holyrood and the next Holyrood poll is our number one target.”

This combination of blaming others, avoiding any self-reflection and the retread of failed cliches (‘max the pro indy vote’) is a terminal failure. The other combination of activating extreme hostility to the SNP while simultaneously demanding and expecting solidarity and support is not plausible. The gamble that they could represent a sort of socially conservative working-class nationalism doesn’t have any traction. This is a failed political experiment.

Chris McEleny, the former SNP group leader on Inverclyde Council, had been seen as Alba’s best prospect in the election. But he picked up just 126 votes in the Inverclyde West ward, the second lowest of the seven candidates standing. This is rapid descent for Salmond who in a quote that sums-up a pitiful lack of self-awareness said: “We will continue to make the positive case for the urgency and primacy of independence with launches of the Wee Alba book across the country.”

Such are the silos of modern life and algorithms and such is the level of hatred and loyalty that Alba may stagger on ‘undaunted’ but it is a failed political project and the Yes movement will be better without it.

These elections produced the best ever result for pro-independence parties and the Union is now under attack on three fronts. But the lessons from both Scotland and Ireland are that the forces driving resistance and rebellion are living standards and social conditions not flags and toilets. The culture wars may be good for toxic social media wars but they often don’t translate into everyday concerns.

Partygate may have provided the backdrop to the Tories disaster but the electoral success of the Greens, the SNP and Sinn Féin comes more from the emerging reality that Britain is a dysfunctional place where people are struggling to feed their kids and heat their homes. The Union is disintegrating before our eyes and the funny thing, the really funny thing is it is only Tory ideology that prevents them lifting a finger to help people out. We have moved quickly from “Now is not the time” to “our time has come.”

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Comments (26)

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  1. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Mike hints at something which I think is deeply significant – that the traditional tribal politics is disintegrating and new formations are picking up success. FPTP is holding this back for UK elections, but the success of the Greens in Scotland point to this as something political activists must watch. I suspect that this is going to affect a younger part of the electorate in future. The formation of coalitions and maybe electoral pacts could be the future. We need to stay aware of signs of these changes.

    1. 220508 says:

      From the point of view of democracy, the most significant thing about the Scottish local elections is that the election of councillors to represent multi-member wards using the single transferable vote method has again prevented any one party from capturing power and using that power to further its own private interests in all but a couple of jurisdictions. This means that decision-making requires the negotiation of a greater consensus among the competing parties, which in turn makes the decisions made in our local assemblies more closely expressive of the general will of the electorate and less expressive of any particular private interest.

      We could do with more of the same at the Scottish and UK levels of government.

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @Cathie Lloyd, I guess it depends on how we calibrate the success of the Greens in Scotland. By their previous very low success in Council elections, it is a great proportional increase (doubling seats). But by international comparisons, especially with the rest of Northern Europe, Green electoral performance across the UK is relatively poor. The Global Greens (of whom both the Scottish and England-and-Wales parties are members) produced an annual report last year (oddly published on Google drive) with an electoral map and figures, although unfortunately they don’t pick out Scotland:
      These figures will have changed for this year, and reprentation of Greens will also be negatively affected by the UK FPTP electoral system. But in terms of international comparisons, with climate emergencies, mass extinction, vast expanses of pollution and degraded environments, the highly predictable and predicted energy crises, consumerist extractivism rising as mental health appears to be falling, and disastrous old-style warmaking (and really crap electoral alternatives), surely the Greens should be doing a bit better here?

      (Poor auld Blaa. Their legacy may be their undemocratic licencing of an abject Unionist pact between Labour and Conservatives via their ‘max the pro Indy vote’ professional foul/own goal.)

      1. It’s true SleepingGod you can ask yourself (I do) – by any objective standard / given the state of the world / why isnt there an emergency Green Govt in every country / cooperating cosmo-locally on multi-level transformation?

        UK Greens are particularly constrained by the FPTP system. In Scotland I would rather the Greens were more radical and more popular, still they have made some gains and this is good IMHO.

        1. 220509 says:

          ‘UK Greens are particularly constrained by the FPTP system.’

          Surely, only in elections to the UK parliament. In elections to our national and local assemblies, the Greens don’t have that excuse.

          1. That’s why I said ‘UK Greens’.

  2. Kenny says:

    I wish I understood why you despise Salmond so much, even though Sturgeon is far, far more right wing than Salmond ever was, has done little else but break promises in her tenure as FM, is demonstrably corrupt, has illegally squandered over half a million pounds of indy supporters’ money, has destroyed democracy within the SNP, has undermined transparency legislation at Holyrood, has ruthlessly punished and sidelined any internal critics, has simply ignored other opposition, actively hates women, has defended and protected confirmed sexual abusers, tries to get innocent people jailed, and, above all, has done nothing to get us any closer to independence. Did you once get a selfie with her and she just seems awfy nice to you?

    1. I am just writing about the reality of the Abla electoral experience. This seems to have upset you. If there’s a factual error in the piece do let mw know.

      1. Robert says:

        Yes, there’s a factual error in the title — you should have called it “Alba is Shite” to more accurately reflect the content

        1. Robert says:

          Also, your contempt for the broader independence movement shines through when you keep repeating the “hilarious” misspelling of the name of the country’s third largest pro-Indy party. Shame on you.

  3. Welsh_Siôn says:

    Why does everyone forget about us?

    With Plaid Cymru gaining 3 councils and now running more than at any time in history, in negotiations with others to jointly-run at least one another (possibly, two), and no more Tory run councils in Wales, you’d think this was newsworthy enough to indicate the shoogly peg that the respective ‘precious unions’ that bind the ‘family of nations’ [sic. and tm.] these islands together are on.

    Don’t repeat the MSN approach of not considering other markers of the disintegration of this Disunited Kingdumb.

    1. Dougie Harrison says:

      You are of course correct on everything bar one point my Welsh friend. This is the disunited QUEENdom: our rulers are so stupid that they can’t even get the name of the country right.

      1. Welsh_Siôn says:

        Tip of the hat to DH … though I struggle to call this group of rocks in the North Atlantic, ‘a country’ … even less so, ‘the country’ or ‘my country’.

        Mind you, I got an indirect apology from the Observer today for referring to Scotland and Wales as ‘regions’ in last week’s newspaper. Result. 🙂

  4. Adrian Lea says:

    The reality is that in most places Alba were eliminated before any reallocated SNP votes came into play. If the SNP only votes had any impact on the pro-independence vote, it was more likely on the Green candidates.

  5. Niemand says:

    At the risk of pontificating about somewhere I have very limited knowledge of, you can’t help comparing Sinn Fein’s success in NI with the SNP. But not because there is a serious majority s desire for a united Ireland / independence (it would appear). Listening to a Sinn Fein politician this morning they did indeed talk about a border poll and the ‘inevitability’ not just of it but of a republican win, yet as the article says, their campaign was very much about economic matters. This was pointed out to the politician who agreed but nevertheless stood by her point, and if you vote for a party built on the desire for reuniting Ireland it would be very naive to think you are not endorsing that. A vote for SNP (or Scottish Green), ditto re independence. But I don’t think opinion polls in NI show any clear majority for joining the south.

    This leaves this weird limbo state – vote for a nationalist party but not necessarily for independence or a united Ireland. So the Union is most certainly creaking at the seams but voters are still struggling to really embrace its demise, despite sort of giving lip service to it. This is the real challenge for Republicans and independence supporters. Labour’s very strong showing in Wales (despite Plaid doing well) really does suggest sentiments are different there.

    1. 220508 says:

      Many of these apparent ‘votes for’ one thing maybe in fact ‘votes against’ something else. Both Sinn Féin and the SNP have been very adept at hitching their respective wagons to a kind of populist disaffection with the status quo – as did the Brexit Front down south.

    2. 220509 says:

      Apropos of this, I see that an analysis of the results of an opinion poll published yesterday has found that 60% of those surveyed said that there shouldn’t be a second referendum on leaving the UK next year. It also found that 58% of respondents said that, if such a vote was held, they’d vote to remain and 42% said they’d vote to leave.

      Independence doesn’t appear to be high on the Scottish electorate’s agenda. Only 10% of respondents put it in the top three of their priorities, behind the more bread-and-butter issues of health (91%), the economy (48%), education (26%), and housing (21%).

      Perhaps most worrying for the independentistas is that 28% of those who voted ‘Yes’ in the 2014 referendum said they’d now vote to remain in the UK, with 72% of these citing the stability of the UK economy as the reason for their mind-change, 70% citing the Scottish government’s poor performance in managing the aforementioned bread-and-butter issues, and 66% the importance of minimising the risk that independence (now, at this time) might pose to public services.

      And yet that same electorate continues to tend against the other parties in its voting.

      1. Niemand says:

        The obvious question is where to now then? There is only so much ‘SNP primarily as opposition to Westminster’ that is sustainable and healthy for the country. I know Alba bombed but it really does feel like a new movement / party is needed if actually achieving independence is the desire, really galvanise it again. It has been said that some vote SNP because they feel the party is the best for protecting Scotland’s interests regardless of whether they want to leave the UK, but is this really true any more?

        1. 220509 says:

          ‘The obvious question is where to now then?’

          Who knows what the future holds? I suspect we’ll continue to just hang on in there, as we’ve always done, responding to whatever exigencies life throws at us in whatever ways we think best, in affiliation with such kindred spirits as circumstances might offer us from time to time, and in the hope rather than the certainty that what we’re doing is right. Such is the human condition.

          The important thing is that we continue to hang on in there in good rather than bad faith, with perpetually open rather than closed minds, with scepticism rather than dogmatism.

          (Here endeth…!)

  6. Malcolm Kerr says:

    We can all agree, perhaps, that ‘Britain isn’t Working’, but this doesn’t mean it is going to fall apart spontaneously. A more likely outcome is the emergence of an increasingly virulent English nationalism, and a totalitarian British state. Obtaining Scottish self-government will become significantly more difficult in these circumstances. The prospect of the SNP being ‘granted’ a referendum and then winning it seems remote to me. Let’s not forget that the ‘seismic’ victory for the SNP on Thursday involved way less than half of the number of ‘yes’ votes in 2014. Pushing for another referendum at this time will be suicidal. The national movement needs a leadership which clearly understands the principle of political momentum, which will work cooperatively with all supporters of self-government, and which will seize opportunities if and when they arise.

    1. Thanks Malcolm. I certainly wouldn’t/didn’t suggest it would fall apart spontaneously.

      A more authoritarian British state is here right now, a more virulent English nationalism too, though this is by no means the full story about English political culture?

      “The national movement needs a leadership which clearly understands the principle of political momentum, which will work cooperatively with all supporters of self-government, and which will seize opportunities if and when they arise.” – I agree with you mostly, though I think there is a danger of ‘false unity’ in there too.

  7. Jay Solo says:

    “Britain Isn’t Working”

    Something isn’t working alright.

    1 paragraph about the Tories
    2 paragraphs about Sinn Fein
    7 paragraphs about Alba

    I’ve no love for Alba, or any party, but you need to take a look at yourself. I imagine it’s motivated by a desire to kill off Alba before they can provide an alternative to Yessers after 2023 comes and goes with zero progress made yet again.

    And the “right wing” and “conservative” framing really needs to stop. It’s garbage. Alba policies and membership are quite clearly more to the left than the SNP’s. The SNP are morphing into neo-Lib,neo-con Atlanticists in front of our eyes and I dare anyone who pays attention to deny it.

    That bogus framing all comes down to the GRA – re which Alba would prefer left feminist women’s views to be listened to and appreciated while the SNP would prefer left feminist women’s views to be ignored, invalidated and attacked. The former approach is apparently right/conservative and the latter left/progressive. What utter rubbish.

    1. Malcolm Kerr says:

      These points are well made, Jay. I also am not an Alba member, but Alba appears objectively to pitch well to the left of the SNP, now fully committed to the neo-liberal/conservative agenda. Low turnouts in working class wards in last week’s elections indicate that the ordinary people who were the backbone of the ‘yes’ vote in 2014 are largely disengaged with party politics. Why would they not be? The common factor which brings Alba members together is not ‘social conservatism’. The majority are scunnered ex-SNP activists, who have deep insights into how the Party has changed for the worse during the last decade.

    2. stiubhart says:

      it would be nice to see Mr Small’s answer to those points??

      1. “I imagine it’s motivated by a desire to kill off Alba before they can provide an alternative to Yessers”.

        I mean if you look at reality – Alba have killed themselves off. They are a failed political project because their leader is extremely unpopular in the general public. You might not like this, this might make you angry but this is simply true.

        “And the “right wing” and “conservative” framing really needs to stop.”

        Sorry no can do. Do you think I’m the only person who views them this way?

        Why do you think people view them as being right-wing and conservative? Why is this?

        What part of their programme makes you think of them as being left-wing?

    3. stiubhart says:

      it would be nice to see Mr Small’s answer to those points.

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