First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
The oft-quoted words of Martin Niemöller stand as a powerful warning against apathy and complacency. As the surge in support for the Scottish National Party (SNP) prompts an ever more hysterical response from the British establishment, they may serve as a timely caution to the people of England.
Numerous journalists and commentators, from the thoughtful Lesley Riddoch to the hilariously angry Mark Steel, have written lately of the extraordinary vehemence of attacks on Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP coming from British politicians, the British media, and the antiquated cast of Spitting Image. The intemperate language in which these diatribes are couched is striking enough to warrant comment. But what is truly alarming is that the baby of democratic principle appears to have been thrown out with the bathwater of rhetorical moderation.
The language being deployed by British nationalists may have become distinctly more xenophobic as the British parties’ frustration increases in the face of an evidently unstoppable wave of democratic dissent rising in Scotland. But it would be a mistake to think of this as nothing more than ordinary bigotry – deeply unpleasant, but largely ineffectual. Vile as the hate-speak is, it is superficial. Beneath the offensive exterior lies a very real threat to democracy. And not only in Scotland. But there is more to it than that.
If it was no more than the customary rough-and-tumble of election-time politicking taken to new extremes, we might safely dismiss the name-calling; the portrayal of Nicola Sturgeon as some sort of comic-book super villain; and the representation of the SNP as an ominous alien force, as nothing more than symptomatic of the competitive sensationalism which leads to social media platforms such as Twitter repeatedly breaking out in a rash of mindlessly abusive messages.
If the SNP itself was pursuing a particularly radical agenda, rather than being, in European terms, a fairly run-of-the-mill social democratic party with a moderately progressive platform, then this might have explained – but not excused – the viciousness of the British establishment’s reaction to its rise. But that reaction is out of all proportion to the reality of the SNP and its potential impact on British politics.
We need to understand that, whatever the words used, it is not really Scotland or its people being attacked. Nor is it even Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. What has provoked the extreme reaction from the British establishment is the threat of the “C”-word – change!
Britain is not a country. In the words of author, James Kelman,
[Britain] is the name used by the ruling elite and its structures of authority to describe itself.
Britain is an edifice. All nations are political constructs. Britain is a political contrivance. It is a structure of power, privilege and patronage.
It is, moreover, a structure designed (or evolved), not to withstand challenge, but to prevent it. The two-party duopoly of the British political system, with its faux rivalries barely concealing a common agenda, represents the very epitome of entrenched power. So much so that, on the kind of close examination which is actively discouraged, the British state more closely resembles a one-party state than a functioning democracy.
Entrenched power defends itself primarily by making meaningful reform all but impossible. The more entrenched it becomes; the more successful it is in building barriers to change; the more its capacity to defend itself by the normal democratic means of persuasion atrophies.
Thus, entrenched power will ultimately resort to the extraordinary strategy of demonising those categorised as “the enemy” in order to justify “amendments” to the rules and procedures which effectively deny reforming influences access to political power. And that is what is happening in the case of the SNP. In response to the challenge of democratic dissent, the British state is in the process of instituting a form of “managed democracy” which ensures that only political parties approved by the ruling elites can participate fully and on an equal footing in the parliamentary process.
The people of England should take heed. Because entrenched power will defend itself against the threat of change wherever that threat comes from. Let no-one in the rest of the UK be under any illusions that the orchestrated onslaught on the SNP is specific to that party. Any progressive movement that might gather significant momentum in England will surely be subject to the same treatment. And the measures implemented to combat the “threat” posed by the SNP will be all the more readily deployed to thwart a democratic challenge to entrenched power wherever this might arise.