CRISIS? What crisis? These words were attributed to Jim Callaghan during the Winter of Discontent and were seen as showing complacency about the concerns of ordinary people, never mind the serious situation gripping the land.
They’re considered symptomatic of his premiership and could be inscribed on his tombstone. Along with seemingly endless strikes and rising unemployment his government soon collapsed, heralding the arrival of Margaret Thatcher.
Yet he never said them and was arguably right that there was no crisis. For back in January 1979 he flew back from a summit in Guadeloupe and gave a press conference at Heathrow Airport. Harangued by a reporter about mounting chaos in the country he responded: “I don’t think that other people in the world would share the view there is mounting chaos.” The following day though the Sun newspaper carried the banner headline “Crisis? What Crisis?” along with a subtext of words and pictures painting an embattled country.
A lorry strike had been ongoing and previous industrial disputes had run on through the winter. Grave diggers in some areas had just gone out on strike but the waste collectors weren’t then out and it pre-dated the memories and pictures that many have of bodies unburied and sacks of waste piled high. So he didn’t say those words and there actually was no crisis. But it’s not how folk remember it.
Constitutional crises do come arise though and I recall being in Estonia for the 20th anniversary celebrations of the restoration of independence. A video was shown of the President making a public call for people to come and defend their parliament as Soviet power threatened the fledgling state. Footage showed aged grandmothers in their aprons leaving their kitchens and hurrying to surround the building as workers downed tools to join them.
Meanwhile two police officers guarding the ubiquitous tall radio mast every Soviet republic possessed refused demands from Soviet troops, driving armoured vehicles and bristling with automatic weapons, to allow them entry. Armed only with pistols they prepared for a martyr’s grave but were spared that fate as the soldiers were recalled to barracks and the Soviets ceded power.
So political and constitutional crises happen and we’re told that we’re living through one at the moment as Holyrood and Westminster face off over the EU Withdrawal Bill. However, it sure doesn’t feel that way.
There are no grannies rushing to protect Holyrood, nor troops threatening it. That most certainly isn’t the Scottish or British way and it is to the credit of all that it has and always will remain that way. For sure it’s a serious constitutional issue but it’s currently for the politicians and academics and it’s passing the public by.
It’s getting acres of press and TV coverage but frankly most folk would probably rather watch paint dry and it’s boring even those with a passing interest. Of course, constitutional lawyers and academics salivate over what happens next with the Supreme Court or in the political tussle between governments in London and Edinburgh. However, for most folk that holds as much interest as who’ll win the World Cup for those who don’t like the beautiful game.
Moreover, though thousands have surrounded Parliament in a demonstration held months back and thousands more marched for independence just weeks ago it’s still not the talk of the steamie, let alone the street corner. It is still important, however, and it could yet take off amongst the public, so it can’t be ignored.
Why it hasn’t to date is hard to pin down and there are no doubt many factors. Constitutional fatigue may well be one, along with what has been portrayed as a highly technical issue. Its surprising in many ways that the SNP hasn’t sought to popularise the issue, though to be fair it can be hard to do.
Many of the powers currently in Brussels relate to fishing and agriculture, which often don’t ignite the passions in housing schemes or even leafy estates. But, they are important all the same with consequences for many and there are also wider aspects that impact on many other areas, including justice. The emphasis though has been on the principle rather than the practical effects, which may well explain why it interests the experts and the partisan but not the ordinary punter.
Talk of a power grab hardly ignites the passions but chlorinated chicken and NHS privatisation most certainly do. Why more of that hasn’t be made at least in street campaigning beats me, though the SNP has lost its way there recently.
Of course, that’s all denied by the Tories, though no sooner do they issue a rebuttal than another statement comes from the US about requirements for a trade deal that opens it all back up. If the SNP want to maximise the effect, it has to popularise not constitutionalise the issue, take it to the doorstep in language folk understand, not just talk high principles in and about parliament.
The Tories deny a power grab but don’t play down the seriousness. Actually, I think genuinely that it wasn’t their intention, as that would have required them to have planned it, as opposed to the lurching from crisis to crisis that characterises the Brexit Government. However, the consequences of their actions do create a power grab and their promises can no more be accepted now than in past generations.
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Before Mr Callaghan’s ill-fated Scottish Assembly attempts there were calls for it to be rejected and replaced by something better by Alec Douglas Home, never mind Declaration of Perth by Ted Heath, all of which turned to dust in Tory hands. That no doubt helps explain why the Scottish Parliament is united against it and folk aren’t minded to trust them.
It may all blow over and that might be Tory strategy. That’s possible as the failure to popularise the issue has left it dull as dishwater for most folk. But they’d be wrong to do so. Holyrood’s now part of the Scottish political landscape and therefore berated by all, as with the weather or buses. But, it’ll also be defended tenaciously if Scots think it threatened, as it’s their parliament to criticise or decide on. Crisis, there may be, just not yet.