A Disaffection and a Paradox
In perhaps the least surprising turn of the summer Barra’s Angus MacNeil was expelled from the SNP last week stating (with a Kangaroo emoji attached): “The Summer of Member Expulsion, has indeed come to pass. As I have been expelled as a rank & file SNP member by a “member conduct committee.” I didn’t leave the SNP – the SNP have left me. I wish they were as bothered about independence as they are about me!”
Gaelic-speaking MacNeil was one of the SNP’s longest serving MPs, having first been elected to the House of Commons in 2005 but he was suspended from the party’s Westminster group in July after a confrontation with the party’s chief whip Brendan O’Hara.
His departure, while unsurprising, feeds the picture of a party engulfed in crisis and adds problems to the beleaguered leader Humza Yousaf. The Edinburgh Festival has provided a media feeding-frenzy for SNP-Bad stories as a conveyor belt of politicians line-up to disgorge themselves in public as the festering civil war within the party rages on. MacNeil has been very publicly critical of the SNP leadership for a very long time – and his departure has surprised nobody at all. But it does raise interesting questions about how this all plays out.
MacNeil has represented the Na h-Eileanan an Iar constituency, since 2005. Libby Brooks has written: “MacNeil, one of the SNP’s longest-serving MPs, has been an outspoken critic of the party leadership in recent years, in particular over what he considers its timid independence strategy, but also on gender recognition changes and the Bute House agreement with the Scottish Greens. He is known to be a close ally of the former first minister Alex Salmond.”
But not such an ally as to join Alba?
Why is this?
Despite Alex Salmond’s claim this week that Alba would win 24 seats at the next election, this seems, to be very generous, a stretch of the imagination. A poll by Redfield and Wilton on August 9 put Alba on 1% of the vote for Holyrood voting intention.
An unexplained paradox for supporters of Alba and Alex Salmond is that they want and demand independence NOW! but support a party that looks as if it will take a generation or more to get anywhere near office. So the disaffected MacNeil won’t be joining Alba anytime soon, nor will the other rebel SNP MPS. How do people reconcile the disparity between Alba’s aspirations and the apparent reality of polling over years? One response is to blame the polling companies, another is to blame the media, another is to contend that a huge surge will come around the election as mass desertion of the SNP swings votes across to Alba, or the ISP or one of the other pro-independence groups. This is a variation of the ‘storm is coming’ meme.
Much of this reasoning can only be sustained by people inhabiting silos of thinking that self-confirm their many views. Social media allows this to happen and solidifies ‘certainty’ around a range of topics. One of the other – darker – paradoxes about this community is the extent to which the constitutional question has been subsumed by culture wars. The disaffected SNP politicians and their wider allies in the independence movement have coalesced less around any coherent alternative for strategies for independence, than around a hatred of the Greens; vehemence against the gender recognition reforms; and a unity against environmental legislation. Whether its gas pumps or HPMAs or Just Transition the Greens and the Bute Agreement stands in the firing-line for most of this group.
Today we’ve seen the latest manifestation of this anti-ecological backlash as Labour drops its commitment to clean air zones in cities. As the environmental researcher Leo Murray remarked: “This won’t make any difference at all to Labour’s electoral prospects. But it will mean a generation of children continue to breathe toxic air that stunts the growth of their lungs. Spineless, clueless, heartless and just unspeakably demoralising.”
It’s everywhere. It’s relentless.
Last week Robin Harper was eulogised to demonise the Greens, the week before we were told Heat Pumps were a useless and stupid idea for Scotland (despite being widely popular across Northern Europe), today the Herald is enjoying weaponising Fergus Ewing in this fight. To be fair there isn’t a point of principle at stake here. The Herald and the wider Scottish media don’t really hate the climate or oppose clean air or sustainable seas or renewable energy or recycling, nor do they really think highly of Harper or Ewing or Salmond, these are just the tools to hand in a proxy war they’ve been waging for decades.
This is what Andy Becket has called ‘climate populism’: “In Britain and far beyond, anti-environmentalists have a new favourite argument. No longer able to claim the climate crisis isn’t happening, they have switched from denial to class warfare. They argue that green policies and innovations from electric cars to heat pumps, low emission zones to eco-taxes and levies, are all unaffordable for working-class and many middle-class people, yet are being imposed regardless by an out-of-touch elite of politicians, bureaucrats and wealthy “woke capitalists”.
“Most of the people making these arguments in the rightwing media were never previously much troubled by the financial struggles of what they now piously call “ordinary people”. But shamelessly shifting position is a familiar activity for the modern right. Meanwhile the cost of living crisis has given its anti-green message more force.”
It’s easy for people with a healthy distrust of the political elite facing increasing hardship to be consumed with anger against the incoherence of plans to navigate out of climate crisis or the decrepit Union. In this context its incumbent of a new left-green movement to articulate honestly the dramatic changes that are going to be required in the coming years, particularly as few if any of the political class seem able to do so. All the political parties are to a greater or lesser extent being fundamentally untruthful to their prospective voters, apart from, paradoxically, the Conservatives. This week saw Tory deputy chairman Lee Anderson saying to the Daily Express that critics of the (now diseased) hulk for migrants: “If they don’t like barges then they should fuck off back to France,” Anderson said. “These people come across the Channel in small boats … if they don’t like the conditions they are housed in here then they should go back to France, or better, not come at all in the first place.”
The Tories are if anything honest: they hate foreign people and are openly racist. Remember all that bullshit about Multicultural Britain?
If the Tories can weaponise racism, or climate-disastrous policies they will, and so too will Labour. As Zoe Williams has suggested we are facing the ‘stupidest election ever’. She noted when: “Sunak said he would issue 100 new oil and gas licences. It had nothing to do with bills or energy security or Putin or the cost of living; these projects wouldn’t even be operational for five to seven years at the earliest. From an energy perspective, the policy is nonsensical, since nobody in the oil and gas industries thinks for a second that Sunak will win the next election…”
“These licences had only one purpose, which was to back Starmer into a corner where he had to say whether or not he would revoke them – which sure enough, he wouldn’t, because respecting a contract is more important than the climate. So he marked himself out as a lukewarm technocrat without the passion or urgency that the battle for the planet needs, and then it got worse: criticised, perfectly legitimately, by Just Stop Oil, Starmer called them “contemptible” for beliefs that are indistinguishable from those of the UN secretary general.”
This where we are, a sort of political purgatory, with a failed political elite, in a failed political Union, with self-deceit all-around.