Nicola Biggerstaff – 9 June 2022
Having Confidence in Independence: why Westminster leadership matters
For the benefit of those who have been living under a rock for the majority of this year, faith in the leadership of Boris Johnson has been somewhat waning among his party in Westminster. While it’s safe to say his popularity north of the border has never been comparable, it is the reflection this places on our own governance and self-determination that matters. The idea of a picture-perfect politician is an impossible delusion, it’s about who can make themselves look the best at the best time. Too many false moves in a row and you’re out, or so we thought. But is this the best way to judge? Can we not make the legitimate political arguments for independence without resorting to such an easy target as the current Tory leadership?
On Monday morning, Sir Graham Brady announced the magic number of 54 letters had been reached, and a no confidence vote in the Prime Minister would take place between 6pm and 8pm that night, with the results announced at 9pm. The majority of us knew he would still survive, stumbling through this crisis like every other crisis during his leadership by what appeared to be the skin of his teeth but we all secretly knew was never the case, his roots in the institution firmly set. The question was the margin by which he would survive, thinking we could crunch the numbers of every other no confidence vote of the previous decades and somehow use these as a quantified measure of his incompetence. ‘See, we told you he was bad, look at the numbers!’ scream the opposition, forgetting they were not among those voting.
I watched on BBC News as the results were read out, as giddy as I would be on any other election night. The votes come in, disappointed but not surprised to hear of the 211 who still (somehow) have confidence in him, followed by a shriek of delight at the 148 who appeared to have grown a backbone in the space of a few hours. The Tories can spin this figure however they like, a higher number having confidence than voted him into office in the first place? A majority plus one is still a majority? No matter how you look at it, and how you compare it to previous leadership, it looks bad.
What does this mean for us? What lessons can we learn about the standards we hold for our own leadership in Scotland? Firstly we need to remember, above all, that politicians are all human, just like us, with imperfections and family secrets, freckles and mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, our politicians should absolutely be held to a higher standard than the people they serve, but we cannot risk dehumanising them over minor infractions which ultimately mean very little in the long term, otherwise the idea of being represented by people just like us becomes redundant. Yes, our First Minister was caught not wearing a mask on two occasions. Sir Keir Starmer had a beer and a takeaway with people outside his bubble, the footage of which captured by the son of far-right Breitbart writer James Dellingpole. While it is certainly not my intention to defend these actions, none of us were perfect at following the rules, I certainly wasn’t. But the actions of the Prime Minister were something different. This was a culture of superiority, a culture of believing one is untouchable when one is in charge, and this trickled down to the staff who bore the consequences despite being told it was okay by not just any authority, but by the leader of the country. Partygate rocked the very little trust we had left in establishment politics, but we have all been guilty of weaponizing it to meet our own ends, with whataboutism from all directions regarding conduct, forgetting that only one of the people accused holds the highest office in the land, a sacred position which has been outright abused while the country was at its most vulnerable, while we were all on our knees in grief, despair, terror, or a combination of the three, at a time when we needed leadership more than ever, probably more than we ever will, for generations to come.
It’s easy for us to use these crises to our advantage, to score political points and claim one person is better than the other for obeying the rules ‘better’ than everyone else did. It’s a dangerous game of morality in which no one wins, particularly if one player has no morals to speak of. Here in Scotland, we can so easily use this no-confidence outcome and the fallout from it to point the finger and laugh at how much better off we’d be without them. I’m guilty of it too, precisely because it’s one of the easiest arguments to make. It might be hilarious, but we need to think deeper. The Tory government make themselves too easy a target, it almost seems unfair. We have the better arguments for independence, and we have the pre- and post-vote framework ready to go. Let’s talk about these, about the positives of sovereignty, and not the negatives of a continued reliance on ineptitude.
Leadership changes over time. Yes, there could come a time once again when a future Prime Minister (of any party) takes a hard-line stance against independence and has the political sophistication to make convincing arguments against it. This isn’t something to be afraid of, this should be seen as the challenge more suited to our calibre. Who doesn’t love a good challenge? Plus, when the time comes, and voters head to the polls in a second referendum, a positive outcome will taste so much sweeter when it feels like we’ve fought hard for it, but we have a lot of work ahead.