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By Jason Michael

MORE SCOTS THAN EVER are of the opinion that, so long as Scotland is a member of the British union state, pro-secessionist parties should follow a policy of abstentionism – having our elected MPs refuse to take up their seats in the House of Commons, until we have secured our independence. Yesterday on the blog I made my own position on the Westminster question clear; writing that “we cannot – as a nation – hope for democracy at Westminster.” The democratic deficit between Scotland and England – with England having a ratio of nine MPs to every one of Scotland’s – is of such a staggering magnitude that, for the purposes of representation, the presence of Scottish MPs from any political party is an exercise in pointlessness.

No one can dispute the numbers and the inequity of the balance of power in the Commons, a parliamentary arithmetic making Westminster the de facto parliament of the English state. There is, however, a significant difference in opinion across the independence movement over how we should address this serious problem. Some – like myself – advocate abstentionism similar to the position taken by Sinn Féin in the occupied six counties, while others – for a number of reasons – support keeping our elected representatives in London.

As far as can be gathered from discussion on social media there are four popular reasons why Westminster remainers think we should remain; to raise awareness of the issue, to prevent unionists using abstention as a weapon against us, to engage in a modern Parnellite-like agitation, and to cause mischief. Each of these approaches has its merits and weaknesses, and I would like to discuss them in more depth here.

Given the primacy of the Westminster parliament in the hierarchy of United Kingdom politics and its favoured status in the establishment media, there is no argument it provides parliamentarians with a platform like no other on the British political landscape. It affords Scottish MPs the opportunity to hold the London government to account, allowing the Scots to be seen as the ones standing up for the victims of Tory austerity all over the UK. When, as a consequence of the EU Withdrawal Bill power grab, the SNP MPs walked out of the house the media was unable to ignore it as they would have done had something like it happened in any of the devolved parliaments.

Of all the arguments to remain, in my estimation, this is the strongest. What we do at Westminster cannot but be in the spotlight, and so must be addressed by the media. It does, however, have a serious flaw; everything filtered through the British state and unionist media – which is the totality of the media in this country – is subject to spin. Only within the independence movement was the SNP walk out seen for what it was, a show of defiance in the face of the overt totalitarianism of the British government qua the English state. Everywhere else this was mitigated by the state media as the Scottish National Party “disrupting parliament.”

In an England hell-bent on regaining what it has been told is parliamentary sovereignty from the European Union and to Scotland’s unionists, who are being pulled along by the chains of British nationalist xenophobia and isolationism – patriotism, there can be no greater sin than disrupting the sacred drama of “the mother of all parliaments.” Having everything our MPs do and say at Westminster beamed out to the whole of the UK is not so much a blessing as it is a poison chalice. Whatever they do – good or ill – will be framed “SNP bad” to the detriment of the cause.

Others argue that by permanently leaving the Commons we will expose ourselves to the negative propaganda of loyalists and unionists at home, thereby running the risk of losing supporters. Again, this is a fair argument. It is logical to assume those against independence will use such a move to their advantage. But then, we must not forget that these same people have used the presence of the SNP in Westminster as a weapon against the independence cause. Whether we are there or not those who are ideologically aligned to the union will find fault with us and what we are trying to achieve.

In the north of Ireland there is the example of Sinn Féin, and so it is to this example we must turn. Aside from the violence of the recent conflict, Irish Republicanism is as divisive an issue in British occupied Ulster as Scottish independence in our own country. Yet support for a united Ireland – the goal of the republican movement – has only grown throughout and since the Troubles. The case for Scottish independence will be made and won irrespective of whether or not we have MPs in Westminster. Rather, on the face of it, it seems quite illogical – considering our objective is the permanent absence of Scottish MPs from the English parliament – that we continue to fight for independence with our MPs sitting in the very place we want to leave.

Staying with the Irish example, there are some who propose we keep our MPs at Westminster so as to agitate against the British political consensus as Charles Stewart Parnell did with his campaign for Irish Home Rule in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, this strategy would work – potentially making it the strongest argument, but it would require the SNP doing what Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party did; contesting seats in England – something the SNP is not willing to do. With nothing but a share of a measly 59 Scottish seats in a chamber dominated by 533 English seats this proposal is nothing but a pipe dream and must therefore be discounted out of hand.

The last idea – that we stay in Westminster for the sole purpose of wreaking havoc or causing mischief – is, quite frankly, offensive. Too long has this notion that the Scots in Westminster are there as the cheeky little brother – there only to undermine and menace the real business of grown-up politicians – been tolerated. If we are looking to win independence; to show the world that we are a mature democracy with serious political actors, then the time to embrace that political maturity is now. We are a grown-up democratic society and a politically well-adjusted people. Why then must we continue to buy into this stupid idea that we are scamps and fun-loving troublemakers?

On balance, while we can appreciate the thinking behind many of these Westminster remain positions, none of them provide the necessary counterbalance to the fact that Scots MPs at Westminster are powerless and serve no meaningful democratic purpose in the Commons. I am entirely open, of course, to other arguments on why we should keep our representatives in Westminster, but for the moment I remain thoroughly convinced that the best course of action would be to adopt an abstentionist policy towards the English parliament. This would be seen across the independence movement as a firm statement of intent, and it would more than likely galvanise a more militant approach to the whole independence cause.

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Pat Doherty MP outlines Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy


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2 thoughts on “Answering the Westminster Question

  1. Sinn Féin have seven MP’s while SNP have 35 currently with 56 previously. The big difference in numbers makes it hard to draw a comparison between the SNP and Sinn Féin as does the issue of the oath of allegiance which is not the same for the two parties.
    While I recognise the validity of the various opinions on this matter, it would certainly suit the Tories to see the SNP seats empty and their voices silent day after day, out of sight is out of mind, and that in itself is reason sufficient to keep the SNP MP’s where they are, though more assertive as they have been of late.
    It has to be said before closing that the Tories are struggling badly with Brexit so that no matter how much the SNP contingent at Westminster might be able to harass and disrupt England’s Parliament, it should do nothing to lessen or distract from the Tory Government’s discomfort.
    But nor do I register much by way of desire for a more militant approach to the Independence movement. The huge success of the AUOB Marches, I’ve been on both, and the spontaneous resurgence of SNP membership recently are evidence of the way forward, for the moment at least.
    One last point, the English political establishment is in major disarray with an animated but deeply divided political class and electorate on a number of issues with Brexit being potentially by far the most destructive. Therein, the phrase ‘divide and conquer’ takes on a whole new meaning for Scotland as the shoe is transferred to the other foot. Rarely has Scotland taken on the English in such advantageous circumstances.
    For now there’s Bannockburn on Saturday, as Scotland’s marching season continues.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agree with the above. Maybe there’s some halfwayhouse strategy, for SNP MPs to be mostly present to make their points, but to walk out now and again when clearly ignored or slighted?

      All in all I would trust our MPs to make the right judgments, they seem fully capable and deserve our trust.

      Liked by 1 person

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