David Herdson says that the Battle of Skinner’s Seat is only the beginning

May 30th, 2015


Salmond: the new Parnell in Westminster

The House of Commons can be a pretty rowdy place at times but it does at least have rules and conventions to which its members are expected to adhere. At one time, it had far fewer rules and rather more conventions (as the Lords still does). The reason why the change came about can be credited to Charles Stewart Parnell, the dominating Irish politician in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He astutely recognised that a convention, unlike a formal rule, can be broken without sanction, and that where such conventions are necessary to business, those who cease to abide by them rapidly become thorns in the side of the government.

Parnell’s MPs did just that, filibustering and obstructing Gladstone’s government in the hope that the nuisance they caused would result in him promoting Home Rule to get them off his back. Although they failed with Gladstone, they placed the issue so firmly on the agenda that a third of a century later, the cabinet was still debating the parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone when they should have had their eyes on Sarajevo.

A century later, another nationalist leader is returned to Westminster with a clear intention of making a similar mark. The argy-bargy over who gets to sit in the corner seat on the front bench below the gangway is in some ways the sort of childish nonsense that does little to endear politicians to the public. On the other, it displays a very Parnellite attitude to parliamentary convention. We can expect a good deal more along the same lines, not least because as with most Scottish members, they don’t have a great deal to do – no government responsibilities and little casework with most domestic concerns handled at Holyrood. Indeed, Salmond has himself made the comparison with Parnell.

These tactics are nothing new for the former First Minister. To take one example, back in the early 1990s, the then handful of SNP managed to delay the start of a Budget Speech. With far more MPs and far less responsibility, an imaginative use of parliamentary procedure could cause a lot of difficulty whenever the SNP is so minded.

Some may object that Salmond is not in fact the SNP’s Westminster leader. This is untrue: he is the leader in fact; he is simply not the leader in name. His media profile, his political ability, his pugnacious political style and his unique position in his party define that. He did not go to Westminster to make up numbers (he has no need to: could make very good money outside parliament), so clearly still feels a sense of mission. And that can only propel him back to the front.

But here is where the politics gets cute. If the SNP does take a particularly belligerent attitude towards the government, where does that leave Labour? Indeed, against the Conservatives, the SNP has to take a belligerent attitude in order to keep all those ex-Labour voters on board. But does that mean Labour should respond by trying to outgun the SNP (risking looking irresponsible) or by making a virtue of not engaging in such tactics (risking looking weak).

The battle to be leader of the opposition is about a lot more than Labour’s internal election.

David Herdson

p.s. Successful democracies achieve a balance between the financial muscle of the wealthy few and the electoral power of the poorer many. Any system that becomes too lopsided becomes exploitative and corrupt as the side that gets the upper hand uses that advantage to live off the earnings of the other. FIFA demonstrated yesterday more than adequately that it’s reached that stage. What to do? Put simply, if the problem is money then so is the answer. It was no coincidence that the great majority of Associations that generate the great majority of football’s money voted against Blatter and the great majority of the rest voted for him – as they will continue to as long as the money’s there to go round. And most of that money comes from one source: the World Cup. Without World Cup income, the rest of the money-go-round falls apart.

Were those Associations who voted against him to boycott the World Cup unless meaningful anti-corruption reform takes place, and were they backed by pressure on and from sponsors, the Blattersphere could not survive. But the boycott would have to achieve a critical mass; one or two countries alone would do more harm than good by simply highlighting their own isolation.