As plenty of people have already pointed out, the stand taken by Alba MPs at Prime Minister's Questions this week has provoked a knee-jerk reaction from certain leading SNP figures that is hypocritical to the point of being almost comical. What happened on Wednesday was, in fact, strikingly similar to the incident four years ago when Ian Blackford led the SNP group in a staged walkout from the Commons. Not identical, admittedly, but both were premeditated disruption tactics, and they both produced similar reactions from the Speaker of the day - John Bercow reacted to Blackford's stunt with a dismissive "oh fine, away you go" gesture, although the impish smile on his face suggested he was keeping a slightly better sense of perspective than Lindsay "Mr Angry" Hoyle will ever be capable of.
But it seems the key difference is that Nicola Sturgeon sanctioned the Blackford walkout. If the First Minister does not sanction a stunt, it's infantile gesture politics, but if she does sanction it, it instantly becomes a mature and principled stand. The "Nicola-washing" effect is truly miraculous. (See also Pete Wishart and Mhairi Hunter repeatedly insisting a plebiscite election would be an act of reckless and irresponsible folly until Nicola Sturgeon announced she supported a plebiscite election, at which point they suddenly decided it was a strategic masterstroke.)
Leaving aside the blatant hypocrisy, though, what concerns me is that the SNP may be boxing themselves into a corner where they insist that "gesture politics" is something that Alba do and that the SNP don't do. The reality is that if the plebiscite election tactic is going to work, it'll probably have to be backed up with something which could characterised as gesture politics. Suppose the SNP and other Yes parties win more than 50% of the vote at a plebiscite election, but the UK government refuse to acknowledge or accept the mandate for Scotland to become an independent country. They refuse even to negotiate on a possible compromise (most obviously a referendum to confirm or overturn the mandate). What do the SNP do then? As far as participation at Westminster is concerned, there are three basic options -
1) The SNP could take a leaf out of Sinn Féin's book by withdrawing from the House of Commons and following an abstentionist policy until such time as the UK Government agree to negotiate. Although the unionist media would undoubtedly try to dismiss this as a petulant act of irresponsibility, the chances are that it would actually be highly effective, because it would create an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy for London rule in Scotland. The UK is not yet the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, and it would be seen as a major problem if Scotland was essentially going unrepresented in the UK Parliament for a prolonged period. Now, let's be under no illusions - London might well try to find a 'unionist solution' to such a crisis, perhaps by contriving a way of legally unseating the SNP's MPs, but the point is that it would have to be resolved somehow. The situation wouldn't be regarded as sustainable in the long term.
2) The SNP could take their cue from Alba by staying at Westminster but engaging in a campaign of sustained parliamentary disruption until the UK Government agree to negotiate. There's quite a lot of havoc that a party with 50 or so MPs would be capable of wreaking. One obvious vulnerability of the Westminster system is the antiquated voting procedure, which takes up so much time that it effectively relies upon the goodwill of MPs in allowing non-contentious matters through on the nod. The SNP could clog up the schedule by forcing even the most trivial issues to a formal vote. Or SNP MPs could cause endless delays by raising repeated points of order. Again, this situation would not be regarded as sustainable - either there would have to be rule changes to thwart the SNP's tactics (and this would probably be resisted by Tory MPs who regard themselves as custodians of parliament's ancient rights and privileges), or there would have to be a negotiated settlement with the SNP to end the disruption.
3) The SNP could carry on with business as usual in the Commons, in which case they would be tacitly accepting that their mandate for independence is worthless and something that will become nothing more than a historical curiosity, very much like the 1979 mandate for devolution which was completely ignored and disregarded for the next two decades.
Now, I am categorically NOT raising this point to give people an excuse to say "a plebiscite election is a waste of time, it's just another way of kicking the can down the road". A plebiscite election is, in fact, our best opportunity of winning independence (assuming the Supreme Court strikes down a referendum), and it's absolutely vital that we pull out all the stops to secure a clear mandate. But we do also need to think about what would happen afterwards. Rank-and-file SNP members need to think about how they would pressure their parliamentarians to back up any mandate with credible action. We in Alba need to think about how we would apply external pressure with the same aim in mind. And individual SNP parliamentarians need to think about what they could do to press home the mandate in parliament if the party fails to act collectively.
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