If voting could change the system...
There was a knock on my door the other night. When I opened the door I was surprised to find Richard Arkless, SNP candidate for Dumfries and Galloway. If I had more presence of mind I would have invited him in for a chat, but I didn’t. Instead we spent ten minutes rapidly going through the implications of a cohort of SNP MPs arriving at Westminster after 7 May.
What I tried to explain very briefly was that having lived in England for 20 years, my hope is that the SNP MPs will shake up the UK in a constructive way, opening the way for progressive change. This was a difficult point to get across in a short conversation.
Part of the difficulty is that the radical politics and culture of the England I know has always been viewed as a threat by the UK establishment. From the anti-nuclear protest movement of the 1980s to the current anti-fracking movement, England’s ‘culture of resistance’ has been physical suppressed by the UK state and marginalised by the UK the media.
My late wife was a founder member of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp so I was very aware of the role of the mainstream media in manufacturing consent for the status quo. But I was still taken aback by the full spectrum hostility directed against the Yes side during the Scottish independence referendum campaign. There was no neutral position, no hint that possibly the UK was an archaic institution in need of major reform. Or rather there wasn’t until couple of late opinion polls suggested that Yes might win when suddenly Scotland was promised major reform of the UK if there was a No vote…
Observing the intensity of opposition to Scottish independence also made me realise how impossible the position of English radicalism has been. While English radicals have opposed the UK state, their opposition has always been fragmented and has never been able to cohere into an effective alternative. As the Labour party have moved to the right since the 1970s and without a proportional representation voting system, English radicalism has also had to operate outside of parliamentary politics. The right-wing bias of UK media has further marginalised English radicalism, giving Ukip the oxygen of publicity while denying it to the English Green party.
I joined the Dumfries and Galloway Radical Independence Campaign in March 2013. My hope then was that a Yes vote in September 2014 would rock the status quo in the rest of the UK to the benefit of English radicalism. A strong element of RIC’s contribution to the independence debates was the need to break with the UK as a neoliberal state. We also pointed out that by working with the Conservative party in the No campaign, the Labour party in Scotland were nailing their colours to the neoliberal mast. At the local/regional level I worked out that for Yes to win in Dumfries and Galloway, virtually every Labour voter would have to vote Yes. Many did, but not enough. The No vote was 65.6%, one of the highest in Scotland.
Eight months later and the Labour vote is melting away here. Unless a significant number of Labour voters shift to the Tories, Richard Arkless will become our SNP MP, following in the footsteps of George Thompson (1974-1979) and Alasdair Morgan (1997-2001).
Significantly, even if Richard and 40 or more other SNP MPs are elected on 7 May, another independence referendum is not going to happen any time soon. Yet their election is still going to shock the status quo of the UK. Ironically, as an unintended consequences of last year’s No vote, the presence of this group of Scottish MPs at Westminster may do more to change the rest of the UK than independence would have done.