An open letter to my MSP

While admiring Nicola Sturgeon’s exquisite timing in announcing her intention to call for a second IndyRef, and thrilled at the way Theresa May was forced to say it was madness to cut ties with your nearest neighbours (it reminded me of something, couldn’t quite put my finger on it), I felt moved to write this to my representative at Holyrood.

Ben MacPherson MSP
Holyrood, Edinburgh

Dear Ben,

I am writing to protest in the strongest possible terms at your party’s intention to call a second “independence” referendum. I am not going to vie with you about which of us deplores most the English-dominated Tories, Brexit, and their handling of it; probably we are somewhere around the same. That is irrelevant here.

We had a referendum in 2014 which your party undertook to respect; the answer was clear-cut rejection of separation. It renders your call for a separate deal for Scotland in Brexit irrelevant; obviously you are disappointed, but we are part of the UK. The insertion of a clause in your manifesto about “changing circumstances” to justify a second referendum is a post hoc device of your own making; the result of the referendum was for a generation, not dependant on “changing circumstances”. “Circumstances” are always changing. The price of oil changed, which was material. If the 2014 referendum had gone the other way, would your party have recognised it as a “material change of circumstance” and held another referendum? It is intolerable that your party regards defeat as a temporary setback but victory by 50%+1 is decisive and irreversible. You should beware: the logic that permits a second referendum is unable to resist demands for a third. Then where are we?

Nicola Sturgeon’s statement yesterday was couched in her own, narrowly defined logic which takes no account of other and larger factors. We do not govern by referendum as though we were in the medieval period when great constitutional matters were settled on a day on the battlefield (think of Bannockburn, for example). Contenders in a referendum seek to outmanoeuvre the enemy, to have greater firepower, and luck on the day. Please don’t pretend that the issues are seriously and soberly debated in a referendum campaign, or that the eventual outcome, with all its implications and complexities, have been properly negotiated and agreed. If you deplore the conduct, outcome and consequences of the 2016 EuroRef, as I do, then you are unable to extract a second IndyRef from the same problems. If you are seriously promoting a referendum you have to explain how it is sensible to make the big decision before negotiations. It’s not our form of government.

We govern by representative democracy. You know that Westminster is not representative. The SNP has well over 90% of Scottish representation from 50% of the Scottish vote; UKIP had more votes in the UK than the SNP and has one MP; and we have a majority government on the strength of 37% of the vote. Your party at Westminster should be putting its shoulder to the wheel not only to influence the Brexit negotiations but also, crucially, for electoral reform. Sadly, however, you have an interest in maintaining this Tory government to maintain your own grievance agenda and advance your opportunistic purposes. This is an abdication of your responsibility.

The timing of this demand for a referendum is disastrous, and no amount of speculation about the state of Brexit negotiations or speculative reassurance as to EU attitudes two years hence removes the fact that it is intended to take advantage of confusion and uncertainty. This is no way to govern, no time to make huge decisions. Your party is guilty of low-level gambling and opportunism in pursuit of your narrow interest, and you should be ashamed.

The SNP should be attending to bread-and-butter issues in this Holyrood parliament. It is perfectly entitled to put into its manifesto at the next election (as it could have in 2016) an undertaking that if it is in a position to do so it will make a unilateral declaration of independence after 2021. That would give you a fresh mandate with the effect of respecting the referendum result of 2014 and would make parliamentarians responsible for their own actions, which is what they are elected to do. This hiding behind “the peoples’ voice” in a referendum is cowardly, reducing parliamentarians to cheer-leaders and managers, and the cowardice is doubled when you don’t accept a result you don’t like.

You won’t often catch me agreeing with Theresa May, but she is no more than stating the obvious when she says the SNP has tunnel vision. It has no principle for government. My own party’s principles are collective action and solidarity, and I respect other parties’ principles; personal rights and freedoms, for example. Where is your intellectual integrity and moral purpose? You want to separate Scotland from the UK in any circumstances and at any price, and you call it “independence”. It is identity politics, and this never ends well. All I can say in favour of the SNP is that it is law-abiding and ostensibly generous in outlook, which has spared us from the more rabid end of the nationalist surge that is going round at the moment. But voters have no idea what they are voting for in an SNP candidate at local elections.

I don’t expect any dissension in the ranks of SNP MSPs when it comes to voting at Holyrood, it being the most rigidly controlled party in modern politics. However, we are entitled to expect that you will engage seriously with the issues and not restrict your discussion to speeches at Holyrood, press statements, and soundbites on the doorsteps. Please advise when you will be on a public platform (something other than an SNP meeting) and available for robust examination of this action.

I am cc-ing this to [various people including my local Green councillor who] I want to fully justify Green support for 1) a second referendum and 2) the SNP agenda of separating Scotland from the rest of the UK. I really don’t see how it furthers the Green cause. He may put some pressure on his Holyrood colleagues. I am also circulating this with some of my Labour Party colleagues.

Yours sincerely,

Tim Bell