Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Joy of Sects

It was once observed, not entirely frivolously, that the Scottish Labour Party has got more factions than it has got members.

It can't be denied that the Leader of the Labour Group on Glasgow City Council is a man (or very occasionally woman) who survives at all only by virtue of sleeping with one eye open. Sinilarly, no sooner had we gained control of the first Scottish Parliament and with no inkling on anybody's part of the tragedy to follow, manoeuvring started as to would be best placed to be Donald's successor, even though that eventuality was, then, anticipated to be at least six years away. Then Henry won by virtue of being willing to stand and not being Jack; Henry fell as it quickly became apparent that his only qualification for the position was "not being Jack"; Jack took his revenge; then he fell; then Wendy did finally stand but was then brought down by a leak which could only have come from within the Labour Party itself; then Iain Gray did the decent thing and most recently we have had Johann, although even she is not immune from mutterings that she "Won't do" for May 2016. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

But there is something that I think was overlooked in the anticipation of the Independence referendum. When the chips are down, Scottish Labour knows, firstly, if not what it is for then certainly what it is against and secondly than when it's very existence is under threat then even the joy of sects must be put to one side (at least temporarily).

We've been there three times in my lifetime: with the first SNP surge of the seventies; with the SDP split and most recently since 2011. (No harm to the Nats but at the time 2007 was regarded very much as temporary aberration).

In each of these three potentially terminal situations the Party has rallied; the ground troops have actually got on the ground and the threat has been seen off.

Those who thought Scottish Labour would fight the referendum divided on tactics and unmotivated on effort must now surely concede that hope to have been unfounded. And that's not going to change in the next three weeks.

But that's not my main topic tonight.

The SNP themselves are no strangers to factionalism. Labour has never got to the point where we expelled a future Party leader or more recently deselected our most high profile and popular elected representative!

But it has to be conceded that since Salmond's return to the leadership the Party has shown a remarkable discipline. It is inconceivable that the numerous republicans in SNP ranks are all now content to be loyal subjects of the Queen; or that more than a few are truly convinced of Salmond's currency strategy; or indeed that intellectually many can truly reconcile "British unity bad" with "European Unity good".

But silence has prevailed for good reason. Firstly, Mr Salmond is entitled to their loyalty. On any view he has been electorally a  remarkably successful leader. Anyway, he is the best leader they've got. Secondly, whether they like it or not, the Salmond way is the only way. It is only his proposition which is on the ballot paper on 18th September. No point in arguing about things before then. On any view his Yes is still better than any conceivable No.

So recent developments are worth considering.

Firstly, the Nats have started to leak over internal disagreements on strategy, most recently in Fife. Eighteen months back it is inconceivable that no-one in the SNP was unconcerned as to how Bill Walker had become a candidate in light of what the leadership knew about him. But not a whisper appeared publicly. This week the fact that their leading remaining Fife MSP has fallen out with their local convenor over referendum tactics is suddenly all over the Dundee Courier.

Then we have the strange case of Mr Alex Bell and the serialisation of his diary in (of all places) the Daily Mail. For what it is worth I agree with much of his criticism of the Yes campaign, I have said as much on this blog. That's not the point. Patently the Nationalists can't change their pitch now, even more so as if it was seen to be in response to articles in..... the Daily Mail! So what is the point of publishing this book now? Mr Bell's views would surely be of as much interest on September 20th. Unless of course Yes win when he would be saved a considerable embarrassment by quietly binning the manuscript.

But most tellingly of all we have the activities of Mr Jim Sillars. I've spoken to a few people who have attended Mr Sillars evangelical events, some of them committed Yes voters. They have all expressed the same curiosity as to what transpires. Mr Sillars expends almost as much of his oratory attacking Mr Salmond than he does advocating Scottish Independence.

Now, let us for the moment assume that the purpose of these meetings is truly to persuade genuinely undecided voters of the virtues of a Yes vote. Does anybody really think that an undecided voter is likely to be persuaded to vote Yes by a Yes platform that proceeds on the basis that the leader of the Yes campaign is a man who doesn't have a clue what he is doing?

No. That's indeed why my Yes voting informants found the whole thing so curious.

Nor is it any more likely that Mr Bell truly thinks that he is offering last minute helpful guidance or indeed that the Fife SNP are truly fighting like cats in a sack over the best way to win.

The fight now taking place is not about September 18th. It is about framing the terms of the debate on September 19th. About who takes the blame for the defeat and, since it is clear that is to be Mr Salmond, more importantly who is to absolved of blame. For the prize at stake is not now Scottish Independence but rather the future leadership of the SNP.

So that's what is really going on at Mr Sillars "public" meetings. The important audience is not the unconverted. It is too late for them to exist in sufficient numbers for them to be important. Rather, the important people in the hall (the vast majority anyway) are the true believers seeking an explanation as to why they have lost and who might, at some future date, secure a different outcome. In that regard it is of interest to note who regularly sits next to Mr Sillars at these public meetings, demurring at no point from Sillars' rhetorical assault on the First Minister and his strategy.  I mean not the miscellaneous Trots or Greens rolled out to make up the numbers but rather the other reasonably well known face on the platform. The most prominent figure at the Cabinet table around whom the venn diagram of nationalist fundamentalism and infantile leftism intersects.

I mean Mr Alex Neil.

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