On 19 August Michael Gove, that most opportunist of Conservative Party chancers, currently relegated to the post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, where Johnson presumably hopes he can do little harm with his reckless personal ambition, riled polite Tory opinion by commending a suggestion by George Galloway.
It was part of the latter’s crusade against the independence movement in Scotland, wherein he demanded a change to the franchise for any future referendum, securing votes for Scots living outside the country. He isn’t alone, and his campaign in Scotland has roused interest among a select group of quietly conferring political exiles.
This circle of ex-pat Scots including Gove, journalist and Press Holdings Group (Spectator) chairman Andrew Neil, former MP Galloway and former Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland Danny Alexander are apparently at the heart of a fast-moving but ramshackle and incoherent attempt to re-organise the defence of the union ahead of the 2021 Scottish elections, which looks set to deliver another stunning SNP victory. It’s a rather lazy observation that this is a strange and slightly comical alliance but, well, it is.
Galloway has said that Neil is “the greatest living Scotsman” after former football manager Alex Ferguson, and said he should be First Minister, and this against a backdrop where his ‘Alliance for Unity’ co-leader, high-Tory gentleman-farmer and writer Jamie Blackett has said a “national unity government” would be formed after an improbable Alliance victory, the potential composition of which remains obscure.
Neil, Galloway will remember, was one of the most outspoken and fanatical proponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (describing the left as “terrorist” and “Taliban” for refusing support), at a time when Galloway was one of the leaders of the anti-war movement.
The defence of the Union may make strange bedfellow, but in this chaotic world many causes do. What the British state has proved masterful in time and again is uniting sections of the political right and left to the work of reaction. No matter what one thinks about the constitutional question, this certainly has that tenor. Galloway has taken every opportunity to complain that foreigners, prisoners and the young (16 plus) may vote in any future independence referendum, but he, a venerable Scot, cannot.
The reason he seems to be achieving resonance in London (though not in Scotland – all three main unionist parties have so far rebuffed his approaches on creating an “alliance”) is apparent investment in his self-sculpted image as a Scot-whisperer, who won the 2014 referendum. In the real world that referendum was won for No by a combination of the sheer distance Yes had to travel between 2012 and 2014, and the weaknesses in the Yes case and strategy.
On the first count the new Unionists would have a mountain to climb, with polls consistently putting independence ahead. On the second, it must be said, they are in a strong position, and independence supporters are in weaker form than they were in 2014.
In a twitter spat on Sunday (23 August) Neil tweeted, in response to the SNP’s current post-independence currency position as outlined by Growth Commission chief Andrew Wilson: “By ‘retain sterling’ you mean sterlingisation. For an unspecified period. During which you would not be able to join the EU. Or set your own interest rates. Or have an independent monetary policy or central bank.”
Unfortunately – and so avoidably – for the independence movement he is right. Some of the policies of the SNP leadership have torn a breach in the economic flank of the independence case.
Right now the forces noticing it are a circus. But the British state will defend itself, and what these oddball outriders notice today, that state will be prepared exploit to the fullest tomorrow.
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