While the UK braces itself for a political earthquake in Scotland in May that could well determine whether Labour or the Conservatives form the next government, a curious paradox surrounds the man at the centre of it.
Alex Salmond is a 60-year-old who sat in the Commons for almost a quarter of a century and lost last year’s Scottish independence referendum. Yet he still manages to be a lightning conductor for many who have extremely negative feelings about institutions and life in general – the same mood that has also seen the rise of UKIP and the Greens in the UK.
But where those two latter parties will be lucky to boast ten MPs between them after the election, the Scottish National Party (SNP) could end up with more than 50 – compared to just six at present. Salmond will of course be leading the charge, having relinquished the first ministership of Scotland to Nicola Sturgeon after the referendum and resigned the leadership of the party at the same time.
As the prospect of a huge change to Scotland’s general election map looks ever more likely, many in Westminster are contemplating what Salmond and the nationalists will do if they succeed. Not for the first time, he has been compared lately to Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of the Home Rule movement for Ireland in the 1880s. Along with 80 or so Home Rule MPs, Parnell periodically brought the Commons to a standstill in a bid to prise Irish self-government from a reluctant Westminster parliament.
The Conservative Sir Bill Cash warned in a Commons debate earlier this month that if Alex Salmond was returned to Westminster, he could be “the new Parnell from Scotland”, who would use the platform of the Commons “relentlessly and ruthlessly to create as much chaos as possible, and thereby disrupt the United Kingdom.”
Salmond has certainly promised a “rumble” if a busload of SNP MPs is returned from Scottish seats. But it is unclear what would drive them to the unorthodox lengths taken by the Parnellites, who periodically obstructed the business of the Commons combined with rural agitation that produced a law-and-order crisis in large parts of rural Ireland.
The Parnellites wanted Dublin to have a parliament with control over most internal affairs on the island. Its mainly agricultural economy was different from its industrial neighbour which had ruled over Ireland for centuries, often with a heavy hand.
What drove the Irish parliamentary party to obstruct the Commons was rural misery. They feared another famine on top of the devastating one in the 1840s, which had led one million people to starve and was never far from the minds of nationalists.
Resistance from the House of Lords and many Protestants in Ulster meant that Parnell never saw Irish self-government in his own lifetime. But rural discontent was overcome: the great estates usually controlled by absentee landlords were broken up between the 1880s and early 1900s and numerous Catholic Irishmen became small landowners.
The difference with Scotland
Shortly after becoming Scotland’s first minister, Salmond stated in Dublin in 2008 that Parnell was a role model. He quoted his most famous saying that “no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation.”
But what concrete example of Parnell’s legacy does the redoubtable architect of the SNP’s electoral success want to emulate? For 15 years, Scotland has already had the devolution which spurred on Parnell and his followers. A transfer of fiscal and other powers is currently taking place which will leave Scotland with rather more autonomy than perhaps even the nationalist Irish were anticipating in the 1880s.
In January, Salmond called for all of Scotland’s taxes to be raised and spent in Scotland. This would mean scrapping the Barnett formula, the funding mechanism that channels expenditure to Scotland from the Treasury. Spending in Scotland per head of population is significantly higher than for many other parts of the UK.
So Scotland does well from the Barnett formula. If a phalanx of SNP MPs noisily demanded it be scrapped so that Scotland could be economically sovereign, I suspect not a few English MPs would team up with them to make it a reality.
Would it be aimed at ending any material disadvantage for Scots? Hardly. Scots are not exactly facing the destitution and hunger which was the lot of so many of the Irish at the end of the 1870s.
Some areas and social groups endure hardship and health and educational statistics are discouraging, but these problems may be due far more to global economic factors or even to lifestyle choices than to any conscious actions of the Westminster government: Westminster no longer controls the civil service in Edinburgh, which has one of the biggest spending budgets of any state bureaucracy anywhere in the world.
The conclusion that I’m beginning to come to is that Salmond sees Westminster as an arena for non-stop political campaigning between elections. Arguably it is what the SNP has done most of since it won office in 2007, leaving the government of the country to pliant civil servants. It is hard to identify legislative measures that will be remembered long into the future as having transformed Scotland, and few seem to be in the pipeline.
The SNP may think that Westminster is vulnerable to shock tactics like holding up government business, disrupting high-profile occasions and the like. Parliament has recently had a bad press. It is often characterised as a place with too many drones and opportunists who do not have the good of the nation at heart.
In a speech earlier this month, the chief whip, Michael Gove, offered statistical evidence to show that this image is a myth and showed how the opposition has enjoyed increasing power to scrutinise the executive and shape the timetable. He argued:
This parliament is working harder, sitting longer and has achieved more than any for years – and we are more relevant, more inclusive and more democratic than any parliament for generations.
I suspect that the SNP will not necessarily be calling for the methods of Holyrood in Edinburgh to be transported to the Thames. The previously much-vaunted committee system, meant to check the executive, is completely under the control of the ruling party. Its speaker does not always display the liberality towards the opposition felt to be a hallmark of Westminster Speaker John Bercow’s time on the woolsack.
The anti-politics man
For all his years at Westminster, Alex Salmond is at the helm of a brilliant protest movement. If it gets the chance, it may well turn Westminster into a platform where it can denounce all kinds of abuses and shortcomings whether real or imaginary.
The party’s taste for melodrama may also stem from the fact that most Scots are not with the SNP in its dream of a post-British future as the independence referendum showed last September.
Parnell had the bulk of the Irish outside Ulster on his side and parliamentary agitation was for a serious purpose. If SNP rowdiness is seen to be largely showmanship, then I suspect that even in such cynical times as these, many will grow tired of any SNP pyrotechnics in Westminster.