Impact of MPs going independent goes well beyond simple tally of numbers

Writing about the turbulent UK political landscape is tricky these days, given that almost anything could be out of date in a matter of hours. How many MPs will be sitting with the new Independent Group by the time this column goes to print?

As I write they have drawn level with the LibDems to become the joint fourth-largest group in the Commons. They could very easily have overtaken them by the weekend. While there seems little likelihood that they will knock the SNP out of third place in the days ahead, the meaning and potential impact of what’s happening goes well beyond a simple tally of numbers.

Some people find it tempting to compare this to the ‘Gang of Four’ which split from Labour in 1981 to form the SDP. But what’s happening today is more than a crisis within one party, indeed it’s not only about parties; it’s an existential crisis for the UK itself.

The leaderships of both Labour and the Tories are failing. If both parties end up tearing themselves apart, few people would think this was undeserved. But to see that as a reason to celebrate would be to echo the very failure they’re showing – putting party politics ahead of the public interest.

The new group of independents are giving clear indications that they want to form a new centrist force, and it’s true that even within the First Past the Post system which entrenches the dominance of two parties, there has always been space for some kind of third force.  Some people consider the centre ground as the only place to win from.

It remains to be seen whether that’s still possible; maybe politics is now so polarised that to win a party must be authentically one thing or the other. But perhaps the new group with its self-proclaimed ‘shared values’ but apparent lack of shared policies will be able to achieve what Macron did in France – appeal to just enough people to stand out as the best of a bad bunch.

I personally doubt that the centre ground still holds enough potential for a new party to win. But even if I’m wrong and cynical pragmatism is capable of gaining popular support, I’m still convinced that it offers none of the real answers that are needed to the political, economic and environmental crises our society is facing. Indeed, it was the political triangulation of New Labour and the Cameron era Tories (remember “hug a huskie”, followed swiftly by “cut the green crap”?) that brought those crises about. The middle of the road is not where we will find solutions.

If, however, this split does lead to a wider reconfiguration of the UK political landscape, it’s just about possible that it could force a shift toward the genuinely pluralist politics which is normal in so many other countries (including Scotland!).

That would mean space for all voices. On the right that would include hardline ERG types, representing the gammon tendency, as well as actual conservatives (the likes of Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve, who’ve made different decisions so far but share more with each other than they do with Jacob Rees Mogg). It would include middle of the road centrists; LibDems and moderate social democrats who have been at home in Labour but can’t abide the Corbynistas. It would also include representation for the many “change voters” who support Greens, socialists, and of course those who stand for a constitutional proposition like Scottish independence or devolution to the English regions.

A parliament that looked like that would reflect the true range of views in the public. All parties would have to accept pluralism and seek common ground with others, rather than the winner-takes-all approach which breeds such arrogance and entitlement.

It would have given legitimate expression in Parliament to those who opposed membership of the EU, without letting them hijack the whole political landscape by avoiding scrutiny for their real views. It would probably have prevented the whole crisis we’re living through today. Even if an EU referendum had eventually been held, and even if it had been lost, no Prime Minister would have been left trying to hold together an impossibly disunited party, and careering toward a No Deal cliff-edge as a result.

For those of us who look at UK politics and simply want Scotland to get out of this mess, maybe it’s tempting to say “a plague on all their houses”. But feeling smug about having a political system here that’s working better simply isn’t good enough. Change is coming; we should play a constructive role and show empathy for those down south who are scunnered with a failing political establishment. If we do, it could still foreshadow the change we wanted in 2014 when we went out to vote Yes.