HOW TO MANUFACTURE DIVISION

Writing a column is both a privilege and an occasional cause of panic as to what should be the most appropriate subject matter. I surmise no such head scratching much troubles Brian Wilson, the former Labour minister and journalist. His topic is never in doubt; whatever he can summon from the news with which to berate the SNP and all its works. His obsessional hatred of Scottish nationalism has been not so much a slow burning fuse, as a raging fire which sometimes seems to have consumed any sense of perspective.

We have known each other a little over the years, and we have several mutual friends. Both of us were close to the late Donald Dewar. I know that he has faced personal challenges in his life with which anyone might sympathise. Yet the man who founded and published the avowedly radical West Highland Free Press, who championed land reform amongst much else worthwhile, seems to have morphed down the years into a man with a one track prejudice.

As the chair of the Labour Vote No campaign in the first Independence Referendum, he broke ranks with his party’s policy. As part of an unlikely duo with the old Etonian Tam Dalyell, he travelled the length and breadth of Scotland urging all and sundry to set their face against what was, in retrospect, a pretty shilpit version of devolution. So his views on unionism are long standing and doubtless sincere, but over the years the way in which he has propounded these beliefs has become ever more rabid.

This is in contrast to many of his fellow Labourites who have come to the view that serial Conservative governments foisted on a nation which hasn’t helped put them in power for 65 years cannot be in Scotland’s interests. They haven’t abandoned a sense of solidarity with left wing sentiment in other parts of Britain, merely recognised that involuntarily facilitating Tory policies is not what left wing Scots signed up for.

I have no idea, for instance, how former Labour minister Malcolm Chisholm voted in the last election, but I glean from his utterances on social media that he is not in the hardline Wilsonian camp. And former First Minister Henry McLeish has leaned so far over the Yes side of the fence that he’s bound to topple if he hasn’t already.

A visceral hatred of the SNP and all its works is evident in many other columnists in Scotland; an unwavering belief that whatever policy the Scottish Government might adopt, it cannot be in any way, shape or form admirable. Not so long as that government supports Scottish independence. And, in truth, it has a mirror image in some SNP adherents who can barely disguise their contempt at the Labour Party and what they consider its traitorous stance on Scotland’s future. The linkage of several prominent Labour politicians to the Better Together campaign did little to dilute that view.

That segment of the SNP are similarly inclined to use kneejerk vitriol, perennially in transmit mode, where the odd spot of listening might be beneficial. You might consider that a bit rich coming from someone paid to broadcast their own views, but, honest injun, I strive for some kind of balance.

It is one of Scotland’s greatest political tragedies that its two left of centre parties have elements of their membership who loathe each other with the passion which passeth all understanding. Could they find common ground on which to stand – and, in truth there’s actually no shortage of that territory without looking too hard – it could transform this country’s prospects. For starters all that energy devoted to random insult might underpin innovation instead. We are a small country, but one with no shortage of talent which resides in people of all political persuasions and none.

Yet, perversely, the divisions in the SNP to which Mr Wilson has just devoted so many venomous inches, has parallels in all Scottish political organisations including his own. Trident anyone? If these last few weeks have taught us nothing else, it’s surely that we can’t afford to spurn help from any quarter.

If it’s true that the UK government failed to take up an offer of European co-operation on much needed ventilators for ideological reasons then that is little short of criminal. Party loyalty and strong convictions can be virtues but only when they don’t slide into the kind of tribalism which paralyses progress. We have an only too vivid illustration of that from across the pond. Working “across the aisle” has become little more than a fond memory in Congress as the American system rejects bipartisanship in favour of political trench warfare.

This slide into intransigence began when the fringe zealots of the Tea Party first infiltrated then essentially took over the Republicans, like some kind of virus; altering for all time the nature of what had once been a right of centre party prepared to do business with opponents in the national interest. Now they seem to have mislaid anything resembling a backbone as they kow tow to a President whom any rational assembly would disdain and defrock.

A not dissimilar process saw the loonier Brexiteers take the mainstream Tory Party prisoner with which devastating results we will all have to live. A Conservative Party which considers Dominic Grieve unacceptably left wing has comprehensively lost its former plot. It is a terrible accident of history which finds this new model Tory party in power at a time of greatest national need, with many cabinet ministers in post whom their own colleagues know to be unfit for the office they hold. Yet an administration with whom the devolved nations must endeavour to work in the best interests of all the nations living in these same, desperate times.

 

FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE NATIONAL 30.3.2020