The SNP has failed to make this ‘cri­sis’ res­onate on the streets


CRI­SIS? What cri­sis? These words were at­trib­uted to Jim Cal­laghan dur­ing the Win­ter of Dis­con­tent and were seen as show­ing com­pla­cency about the con­cerns of or­di­nary peo­ple, never mind the se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion grip­ping the land. They’re con­sid­ered symp­to­matic of his pre­mier­ship and could be in­scribed on his tomb­stone. Along with seem­ingly end­less strikes and rising un­em­ploy­ment his gov­ern­ment soon col­lapsed, herald­ing the ar­rival of Mar­garet Thatcher.

Yet he never said them and was ar­guably right that there was no cri­sis. For back in Jan­uary 1979 he flew back from a sum­mit in Guade­loupe and gave a press con­fer­ence at Heathrow Air­port. Harangued by a reporter about mount­ing chaos in the coun­try he re­sponded: “I don’t think that other peo­ple in the world would share the view there is mount­ing chaos.” The fol­low­ing day though the

Sun news­pa­per car­ried the ban­ner head­line “Cri­sis? What Cri­sis?” along with a sub­text of words and pictures paint­ing an em­bat­tled coun­try. A lorry strike had been on­go­ing and pre­vi­ous in­dus­trial dis­putes had run on through the win­ter. Grave dig­gers in some ar­eas had just gone out on strike but the waste col­lec­tors weren’t then out and it pre-dated the mem­o­ries and pictures that many have of bod­ies un­buried and sacks of waste piled high. So he didn’t say those words and there ac­tu­ally was no cri­sis. But it’s not how folk re­mem­ber it.

Con­sti­tu­tional crises do come arise though and I re­call be­ing in Es­to­nia for the 20th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions of the restora­tion of in­de­pen­dence. A video was shown of the Pres­i­dent mak­ing a pub­lic call for peo­ple to come and de­fend their par­lia­ment as Soviet power threat­ened the fledg­ling state. Footage showed aged grand­moth­ers in their aprons leav­ing their kitchens and hur­ry­ing to sur­round the build­ing as work­ers downed tools to join them.

Mean­while two po­lice of­fi­cers guard­ing the ubiq­ui­tous tall ra­dio mast ev­ery Soviet repub­lic pos­sessed re­fused de­mands from Soviet troops, driv­ing ar­moured ve­hi­cles and bristling with au­to­matic weapons, to al­low them en­try. Armed only with pis­tols they pre­pared for a mar­tyr’s grave but were spared that fate as the sol­diers were re­called to bar­racks and the So­vi­ets ceded power.

So po­lit­i­cal and con­sti­tu­tional crises hap­pen and we’re told that we’re liv­ing through one at the mo­ment as Holy­rood and West­min­ster face off over the EU With­drawal Bill. How­ever, it sure doesn’t feel that way.

There are no grannies rush­ing to pro­tect Holy­rood, nor troops threat­en­ing it. That most cer­tainly isn’t the Scottish or Bri­tish way and it is to the credit of all that it has and al­ways will re­main that way. For sure it’s a se­ri­ous con­sti­tu­tional is­sue but it’s cur­rently for the politi­cians and aca­demics and it’s pass­ing the pub­lic by. It’s get­ting acres of press and TV cov­er­age but frankly most folk would prob­a­bly rather watch paint dry and it’s bor­ing even those with a pass­ing in­ter­est. Of course, con­sti­tu­tional lawyers and aca­demics sali­vate over what hap­pens next with the Supreme Court or in the po­lit­i­cal tus­sle be­tween gov­ern­ments in Lon­don and Ed­in­burgh. How­ever, for most folk that holds as much in­ter­est as who’ll win the World Cup for those who don’t like the beau­ti­ful game.

More­over, though thou­sands have sur­rounded Par­lia­ment in a demon­stra­tion held months back and thou­sands more marched for in­de­pen­dence just weeks ago it’s still not the talk of the steamie, let alone the street cor­ner. It is still im­por­tant, how­ever, and it could yet take off amongst the pub­lic, so it can’t be ig­nored.

Why it hasn’t to date is hard to pin down and there are no doubt many fac­tors. Con­sti­tu­tional fa­tigue may well be one, along with what has been por­trayed as a highly tech­ni­cal is­sue. Its sur­pris­ing in many ways that the SNP hasn’t sought to pop­u­larise the is­sue, though to be fair it can be hard to do.

Many of the pow­ers cur­rently in Brus­sels re­late to fish­ing and agri­cul­ture, which of­ten don’t ig­nite the pas­sions in hous­ing schemes or even leafy es­tates. But, they are im­por­tant all the same with con­se­quences for many and there are also wider as­pects that im­pact on many other ar­eas, in­clud­ing jus­tice. The em­pha­sis though has been on the prin­ci­ple rather than the prac­ti­cal ef­fects, which may well ex­plain why it in­ter­ests the ex­perts and the par­ti­san but not the or­di­nary punter.

Talk of a power grab hardly ig­nites the pas­sions but chlo­ri­nated chicken and NHS pri­vati­sa­tion most cer­tainly do. Why more of that hasn’t be made at least in street cam­paign­ing beats me, though the SNP has lost its way there re­cently.

Of course, that’s all de­nied by the Tories, though no sooner do they is­sue a re­but­tal than an­other state­ment comes from the US about re­quire­ments for a trade deal that opens it all back up. If the SNP want to max­imise the ef­fect, it has to pop­u­larise not con­sti­tu­tion­alise the is­sue, take it to the doorstep in lan­guage folk un­der­stand, not just talk high prin­ci­ples in and about par­lia­ment.

The Tories deny a power grab but don’t play down the se­ri­ous­ness. Ac­tu­ally, I think gen­uinely that it wasn’t their in­ten­tion, as that would have re­quired them to have planned it, as op­posed to the lurch­ing from cri­sis to cri­sis that char­ac­terises the Brexit Gov­ern­ment. How­ever, the con­se­quences of their ac­tions do cre­ate a power grab and their prom­ises can no more be ac­cepted now than in past gen­er­a­tions. Be­fore Mr Cal­laghan’s ill-fated Scottish Assem­bly at­tempts there were calls for it to be re­jected and re­placed by some­thing bet­ter by Alec Dou­glas Home, never mind Dec­la­ra­tion of Perth by Ted Heath, all of which turned to dust in Tory hands. That no doubt helps ex­plain why the Scottish Par­lia­ment is united against it and folk aren’t minded to trust them.

It may all blow over and that might be Tory strat­egy. That’s pos­si­ble as the fail­ure to pop­u­larise the is­sue has left it dull as dish­wa­ter for most folk. But they’d be wrong to do so. Holy­rood’s now part of the Scottish po­lit­i­cal land­scape and there­fore be­rated by all, as with the weather or buses. But, it’ll also be de­fended te­na­ciously if Scots think it threat­ened, as it’s their par­lia­ment to crit­i­cise or de­cide on. Cri­sis, there may be, just not yet.

It’s still not the talk of the steamie, let alone the street cor­ner.

It is still im­por­tant, how­ever, and it could yet take off

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