As all eyes in British politics are on an empty Westminster parliament, the action is all taking place in Scotland.
The symbolism of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s visit to Balmoral yesterday to ask the Queen to suspend that parliament should not be missed. Balmoral, an estate purchased by Prince Albert in the 1850s, has long been a key structural element in the construction of Caledonian-British identity. Albert’s acquisition reasserted the idea that the British ruling class in Scotland, despite our Anglo accents and Anglican churches, is also Scottish, with all of the accompanying kilts and kitsch.
This merging of ruling-class Scottishness and Britishness has been a key part of the invention of the modern Scotland as a British country, and so one of the pillars of the United Kingdom. The fact that the prorogation, which makes the dissolution of that union more likely, took place in the building which epitomises it is at the very least an entertaining historical moment.
But it’s not just symbolism. The first electoral test of the current political crisis will be in the UK’s most remote constituency. Since the 1832 Reform Act, the Liberals and their successor parties have only failed in the Northern Isles three times – 1835, 1935 and 1945. The question tonight will be, can the SNP swing it?
Speaking to me after a visit to the constituency, Scottish Greens campaign manager John Hardy described how the SNP and Lib Dem offices, opposite each other in Lerwick, offered contrasting images. While the SNP had an endless stream of activists, the Lib Dem HQ was shut the whole time he was there.
A leading Lib Dem activist admits that there is a swing to the SNP in Lerwick, but says smaller villages are going the other way, perhaps implying the office was closed because activists were elsewhere in the archipelago.
My Lib Dem friend predicted that the party would hold the seat by a narrowed 3%, though does hint that his party was outgunned, with large numbers of SNP activists ferried up from the mainland, while a Shetlander SNP activist reports that some elements of their campaign have been a little shambolic.
But all that was before Boris Johnson set UK politics on fire.
And so the question tonight is how prorogation has impacted a constituency usually more focused on local questions: an oil-rich island chain in the middle of the North Sea.
If the Lib Dems hold the seat, they will show that one of the oldest traditions in British politics persists, that one of the fortresses of British liberalism has held firm.
If the SNP takes the seat, it will mean that hundreds of former liberal unionists – another key pillar of unionism – have seen the current shower hundreds of miles to the south, and switched.
Similarly, Shetland is where Brent crude – the global standard for oil – comes ashore, and it has made a fortune from North Sea oil. As the Amazon burns, it will be interesting to see if the Scottish Greens, running in the constituency for the first time, can keep their deposit.
What of the big Westminster parties? Scottish Labour’s perma-crisis continues, and Ruth Davidson couldn’t even be bothered to wait a day for the by-election to conclude before announcing her retirement as Scottish Tory leader.
Davidson’s decision to step down also marks a significant moment in the unfolding crisis. In the 2016 Scottish parliamentary election, the former BBC journalist was able to monopolise the UK nationalist vote in Scotland by standing atop a hoard of dark money and exploiting her popularity among a particular class of Scottish journalist who had long been looking for an excuse to come out as Tories.
By effectively riding the polarisation of Scotland around the independence question, she was able to ride high, and even managed to capture the Edinburgh Central constituency with the idea that she is an urban liberal.
By avoiding talking about anything apart from her opposition to independence, she ensured that Scottish debate stayed focussed on constitutional questions, allowing her to continue to eat the votes of Scottish Labour and Lib Dem unionists, while the SNP hived off the 2014 Yes voters from the same parties.
Her collapse was, however, sewn into her success. The MSPs she pulled into parliament alongside her – and, in the following years, the MPs and councillors – struggled to keep up the pretence that they were a new, liberal Tory party.
Shortly after being elected, Aberdeenshire Tory MP Douglas Ross declared, in what was meant to be a fun ‘getting to know the new MPs’-type video, that, were he prime minister for a day, his top priority would be “tougher enforcement against Gypsies”. His comments were one salvo in a decades-long cultural war against Traveller communities in the north-east of Scotland, led by Conservative councillors, including, once, Ross himself.
Davidson’s refusal to act against the blatant racism of her MP didn’t stop journalists praising her. But it did mark the beginning of the end of any claim she had to represent a more reasonable form of Conservativism. And as the new politicians she managed to drag behind her and into office turned out to be a parade of bigots, fantasists and narcissists, her desperate insistence on talking about nothing apart from the SNP’s supposed obsession with independence began to wear thin.
Returning from maternity leave, and representing a Conservative Party increasingly mired in its own constitutional obsessions, she managed to lead the Scottish Tories to 11.6% in the European elections – an historic low – while, more than a decade into government, the SNP vote surged.
Since then, her leadership has limped on, inflated by the ignorance of Westminster commentators and a Scottish press that loves nothing more than a chance to promote one of its own. Her resignation, though I’m sure partly motivated by the family matters she discussed in her letter, was overdue.
Ghosts in the court
In the heart of her constituency, though, something else is taking place today.
At midday, Scotland’s Court of Session started hearing an emergency case, brought by the barrister and MP Joanna Cherry and the Good Law Project run by her fellow QC Jolyon Maugham, arguing that Johnson’s proroguing of the Westminster parliament is unlawful. I won’t pretend to be a legal expert, and have no idea how the case will go, but the Court of Session is another symbolic gem for this moment. The court meets in Parliament House, behind the High Kirk on the Royal Mile: the historic home of Scotland’s parliament until it was dissolved in 1707.
In the court today, lawyers are making arguments in a Scottish constitutional tradition which dates back before the act of the union – to a time when the parliament sat in the very building in which they now debate. As Michael Gray reports, counsel in the case argued this afternoon: “Let’s turn to Scotland’s constitutional traditions. First, the Claim of Right 1689: an act of the Scottish parliament. It states: we live in a legally limited monarchy. The regale power cannot be used in violation of the kingdom… The 1707 Union did not abolish or subordinate Scottish public law to that of England. There is a distinct Scottish legal tradition, as maintained.”
If the Scottish courts do assert Scotland’s distinct traditions of sovereignty, and strike down Johnson’s attempt to push through a hard Brexit, then it seems inevitable that the forms of English nationalism which have long driven Brexit will pull harder than ever against their unionist leash. English nationalists will attack Scotland in a way not seen since David Cameron’s 2015 election campaign and frame Scotland’s legal system and politicians as the obstruction to Brexit, driving Scottish voters back to the SNP just as Cameron did in 2015.
For three centuries, Scotland’s distinct legal system has been at the heart of unionism. When the Tories ran as an independent “Unionist” party in Scotland for most of the 20th century, they sought to represent and protect this distinct tradition, and part of the reason for the UK’s flexible and uncodified constitution is to allow the different legal systems of the different nations the room to breath. If the court rules today that Johnson and the Queen have clumsily asphyxiated Scots law as they prorogue parliament, then another pillar of the union will have crumbled some more.
Adam Smith, Gordon Brown, Jeremy Corbyn
Meanwhile, over the Firth of Forth, in Fife, stands another crumbling pillar of British unionism. Fife is, arguably, the birthplace of modern capitalism – where Adam Smith was born and some of the key technology of the industrial revolution was first developed. It is also one of the birthplaces of a kind of Labourism epitomised by Fife’s most prominent politician, Gordon Brown.
This brand of unionism was born when the first Labour MPs arrived at Westminster in the 1920s and were taken under the wings of some of the smarter Tories, indoctrinating them into the ways and wiles of the British state. It was built through British public services, paid for with the plunder of the empire, and theorised from the ideas of the Communist party of old, who argued for the unity of the British (but not Irish) working class, in their “British road to socialism”.
Speaking in Fife today, and largely ignored, Jeremy Corbyn promised a compromise position on the Scottish parliament’s right to hold an independence referendum. He said, as the British state burns down, that Labour would permit a referendum eventually, but not “in the formative years” of a new government.
Labourism is the one force that could reunite the United Kingdom. If the establishment really cared about keeping Scotland in the UK, then they would accept Corbyn’s proposals to end the extremities of British neoliberalism, and once more use the welfare state to patch together the British state. But Britain’s ruling class seems to prefer to lose Scotland than accept a marginally higher tax rate.
If Rees-Mogg in Balmoral represents the death of ruling class unionism as it's subsumed into Anglo-British nationalism, then Corbyn in Fife surely symbolises the decline of this kind of British Labourism.
Across the water
For those of us interested in the constitutional future of the UK, though, none of this is as significant as the news in Northern Ireland this morning.
Earlier today, the Northern Irish Electoral Commission published the latest round of donations to political parties in Northern Ireland. Listed among the usual small-beer contributions to the various parties came a somewhat surprising figure.
One William E. Hampton has died. And he has left Sinn Fein £1.5 million.
The breakup of the UK is not inevitable. But it’s increasingly plausible.
The author is a member of the Scottish Green Party and on the board of the pro-independence campaign group Voices for Scotland.