Galloway has lit a fire in Scotland and jealous unionists won’t extinguish it

Galloway has lit a fire in Scotland and jealous unionists won’t extinguish it

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 22, March, 2021

IT WOULD BE deeply ironic if, in a Scottish spring that looks like being a momentous one, roles will be swopped by some of the contestants.  The blossoming of pluralism will be encouraged by growing numbers of nationalists affronted by what Nicola Sturgeon has turned their cause into – while possessive pro-Union parties try frantically to slap down any competitors with new ideas. 

The chief new force on the pro-British orientated political scene is Alliance4Unity which (due to registration procedures of the Electoral Commission) is standing for the regional list seats in the 6 May election as All for Unity.  It draws together candidates and backing from across the political spectrum. Many of its candidates have professional experience (such as in the field of medicine) that is in short supply at Holyrood, the home of the Scottish Parliament. It aims to be a repository of pro-UK votes in the list seats. It considers the anti-separation vote will be maximised if the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats cease competing against one another. The Alliance believes it is best placed to garner a tactical vote from a cross-section of opinion tired of nationalist misrule and alarmed by Sturgeon's abuse of power. 

True to its name, All for Unity has offered to stand down in any list seat where these parties choose to back a single candidate from their own ranks. It has also pleaded with party managers to join forces and put up a single candidate against Ms Sturgeon in Glasgow South or her potential successor, Angus Robertson in Edinburgh Central. Such a breakthrough would place their re-election bids in serious jeopardy. 

What could be described as the legacy parties have reacted first with scorn and recently with mounting aggression. The Conservatives have been alarmed to find a large part of their voting base favours the Alliance strategy. Centre-right voters have no hang-ups about voting for a man of the left like George Galloway who formed Alliance4Unity in mid-2020. Despite acquiring a controversial image due to his opposition to Tony Blair’s Middle East policies, leading to his suspension from Labour in 2003, he is seen as a heavyweight in Scottish politics. His ‘Just Say Naw’ speaking tours during the lengthy 2013-14 referendum period, prior to a vote on Scottish independence on 18 September 2014, energised a flabby and uncharismatic pro-Union campaign. 

You Gov poll this month showed Galloway to be the best-known opposition leader in Scotland.   In two areas, Lothians and South Scotland (in the latter of which he is standing along with ex-soldier and local farmer Jamie Blackett, to whom he has passed the leadership of his party), Galloway commands a high profile.  He is ahead of Douglas Ross, the new Scottish Conservative leader when respondents are asked  who is the strongest figure to oppose the SNP. 

Galloway is using his oratory and energy to persuade  every pro-UK voter to back the party most likely to defeat the SNP in the constituency vote and give their second vote to All for Unity. The Tories wish to stand candidates in both the constituency and regional list seats. So do Labour. The mixed electoral system in use dilutes the votes of parties which opt for this approach if they win constituency seats. Controversy rages online and in parts of the media about whether the intervention of the Alliance will benefit the pro-Union vote.  One thing is clear: if its call for close electoral cooperation was followed, the SNP would fall back and perhaps the best the SNP could hope for would be to remain the largest party but without any hope of forming an effective government. 

A further Unionist contender may cause an upset in a few places but there is not an enormous difference between a 4-way or a 3-way split. If the legacy parties were to support the Alliance in the List seats the chances are that they would be able to escape from eternal opposition and have the chance of running Scottish affairs for the first time in many years. 

When Sturgeon became First Minster in 2014, the SNP was a byword for granite discipline and conformity. But today political nationalism in Scotland is in growing disarray. Perhaps as many as 40,000 members have left the party, reducing it in size from over 125,000 to hardly any more than 80,000. Turmoil reigns because of the way the state investigation and prosecution of her predecessor Alex Salmond for serious crimes which he was cleared of in 2020, have proceeded. The role of Sturgeon and her inner circle has sapped the patience of many who previously idolised her. New parties have sprung up that will contest the election on 6 May, Action for Independence being the best known one. 

Jim Sillars, an SNP elder statesman who continues to enjoy a strong media profile at the age of 83, has vowed that he won’t vote for the SNP which he represented at Westminster in what is now Sturgeon’s seat. He has stated that the party has grown corrupt under her and he believes that Salmond has been a victim of harsh injustice from people he once trusted. His ally Kenny MacAskill, the MP for East Lothian, has said the leadership wanted Salmond’s ‘head on a platter.’ He was to be taken out as a credible rival to his successor.  

It is clear that many activists no longer view Westminster as the epicentre of political wickedness. For months, nationalists who have claimed that the Salmond affair is a plot masterminded in London by Downing Street and MI5 have received short shrift from other nationalists as the evidence of multiple abuses of power emerged into the open. On blogs like Stuart Campbell’s ‘Wings’ and Iain Lawson’s ‘Yours for Scotland’  those who disparaged the prominent Conservative politician David Davis for intervening at Westminster to reveal information about the Salmond affair damaging to Sturgeon and her team (which could not be aired at Holyrood) were outnumbered by past and present SNP supporters who praised his intervention.  

Uproar within an increasingly divided nationalist family has persisted because of the imperious way Sturgeon and her husband, chief executive Peter Murrell, manage the party internally, controlling any serious debate at conferences, neutering the National Executive Committee, and pushing through unpopular positions on gender recognition without any real mandate. 

A realisation is dawning among many independence backers that self-government without rigorous checks and balances is far from a panacea and that, in the hands of people with a track-record of chicanery and abuse of power, it could be a nightmare. 

This retreat of blind faith in the perfection of a cause is a much-needed boost for an endangered democratic culture but, for any kind of renaissance in democracy to occur, the renewal must be visible across the spectrum. Currently, I am not encouraged by what I see in much of the Unionist camp. The Labour party has just elected a leader, Anas Sarwar, who is a dynastic politician, his father Mohammed Sarwar currently being governor of the Punjab after a long career at Westminster. I hope Anas Sarwar defeats Sturgeon in her constituency but I note, with no little anxiety, that he helped secure the passage of the SNP’s anti-free speech ‘hate law’ bill earlier this month. 

On the Conservative side, I sense a desire to be the main opposition force in Scotland but no appetite for rolling back some of the most harmful SNP measures, such as  undoing the centralisation of the police which has proven vulnerable to political interference. At the start of the pandemic, the Conservatives exhibited a lack of seriousness by ceding emergency powers to Sturgeon for the duration of this medical emergency. Ever since she has used them shamelessly for political ends. In the unlikely event of the Tories playing a dominating role in the next Scottish government, I fear that many in the leadership would seek to rule on a meritocratic basis but be content to try and absorb the SNP’s client base rather than boldly dissolving this patronage empire covering the charity sector and NGOs.  

To compel the opposition parties to raise their game, I would like to see a strong contingent of All for Unity MSPs in Holyrood next time. It is clear Jamie Blackett’s party can represent a large swathe of working-class, small professional, and rural people who have been effectively disenfranchised by an SNP responsive largely to left-wing, urban Woke, and managerial lobbies. A trans-class formation ready to give overlooked and harassed Scots a voice for the first time in the era of devolution, is actually good for the legacy parties. It reduces the chances that that the Tories will slump into lethargy and self-congratulation if they obtain a taste of power. 

But if the established groupings display arrogance towards All for Unity rather than treating the new party as an asset with which it can strike up a fruitful partnership, I fear the Tories will be the main losers. They are likely to forfeit support from many non-voters (in 2016 the turnout at the Holyrood election was only 49 per cent) or politically unaffiliated whom the Alliance is seeking with some success to get involved in politics.   

Currently, the Alliance and George Galloway in particular, are facing a barrage of attacks from influential corners of Scottish life opposed to meaningful change, however badly run and undemocratic Scotland ends up.  The fiercest opposition currently emanates from parts of the media who have their own grounds for disliking the new party. 

All for Unity wants to see an end to the constitutional issue dominating politics and end the Scottish public sector falling further into disrepair through official neglect. By contrast, many journalists find that obsessions with devo max and constitutional conventions means lighter work for them. Some merely churn out the same article with minimum alterations. If this changes and social and economic matters displace arcane territorial issues, then the Fourth Estate would have to sharpen up its act and rediscover the real Scotland. 

Any success of All for Unity will also inevitably bring people from outside the political class into politics which means less opportunity for journalists (who often act as campaigners in their daily output) to jump aboard the Holyrood gravy train. 

All for Unity hopes to replace the cosy club atmosphere at Holyrood with that of a parliament working hard for people across Scotland.  Hit pieces like the one by Stephen Daisley published in the Spectator on 19 March are meant to deter voters from giving the new formation a close look.  He slammed Galloway for having disparaged justice minister Humza Yousaf after he insisted on his progressive Scottish outlook and strong links with the Celtic world. This was intolerance in Daisley’s eye, the journalist stating that he would prefer 124 Yousaf’s in the Scottish parliament to one Galloway.  

The trouble is that the parliament more than ever is dominated by figures from a narrow middle-class background like Yousaf who use their connections to promote an agenda of identity politics, passing  divisive laws that alienate them from large numbers of politically moderate Scots. Galloway was right to poke fun at the architect of Scotland’s hate law, now criticised the world-over.  

Daisley, closely linked with the liberal-left wing of the Scottish Conservatives which has flourished under Ruth Davidson, should give Galloway and Blackett’s party a chance to prove itself rather than trying to strangle it at birth. It will be ironic if it is in the nationalist camp that a range of choices proliferate in this political spring while career-minded politicians and pro-Union journalist allies try to sabotage new formations that may well be better placed than them to end the long SNP ascendancy in Scotland. 

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Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. He is the author of  Theft of a Nation: Romania Since Communism, Hurst publishers 2005. His latest book is Salazar, the Dictator Who Refused to Die, Hurst Publishers 2020 (available here) and his twitter account is @cultfree54 

George Galloway draws a crowd, by David Hunt - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1724592 

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