Scotland – the state of play on the cusp of 2022
We’re in a poor state. The SNP, always wanting to say things would be better in an “independent” Scotland and in government unbroken since 2007, has no interest in making devolution work well. Beyond its single policy aim of “independence” for Scotland, it has no organising principles, leaving it with nothing much to offer and nowhere to go, and reducing Scottish politics to the level of Northern Ireland politics of the last century.
Holyrood is certainly more consensual than Westminster (it could hardly be less!), but a founding intention of the whole devolution project was to defend Scotland from Thatcherism and no party has a well worked-through idea of how to use it well or collaborate with other devolved governments. The UK is indeed very imbalanced and uneven, with 83% of the population in England, where there is no appetite for regional devolution and operates a piecemeal and pretty dysfunctional devolution by other means.
We urgently need a Constitutional Convention, to run outside any political cycle and not dominated by politicians. I would give the Republic of Ireland observer status, with a long-term view to getting this small archipelago of islands combining while maintaining distinctiveness in a creative way. For reasons of geography and with the weight of history, London and the south-east of England has always dominated these islands – with modern technologies it doesn’t need to be like that any more.
Heavy lies the Crown
Not to be omitted from the Convention is a serious discussion on the place of the monarchy. It has long been a taboo subject, partly out of deference to the present monarch, but she is well aware of her own mortality. We need to anticipate the succession – an excellent opportunity to make changes. Failure to anticipate it will be culpable negligence. We might agree to have a monarchy, but surely the hierarchy of which it is the pinnacle has to be swept away. This refers particularly but not only to the House of Lords. If we were to have a president, careful thought and planning has to go into what sort of president we want: one actively engaged in the political cycle? a figurehead? a peoples’ president? It matters.
And while I’m on, there should be no need for a Green Party. All principled parties could and should be green. Where’s the prescience, where’s the urgency, in our moribund body politic, which refers beyond Scotland and the UK, to the EU and to too many modern democracies.
Can this be sorted by a referendum?
I put it to my SNP MSP recently that a referendum is no way to deal with an important and serious matter that needs to be considered very carefully. He said he could see no other way of resolving the matter of Scottish “independence”. Astonished, I told him to put the intention to make a UDI from Holyrood into an election manifesto, which would be democracy in action; it would be sorted out in the parliaments and the courts.
The Brexit referendum and the ensuing imbroglio has not, as the SNP hoped it would, produced a “Brexit bounce”. They say, correctly, that a majority in Scotland did not vote for Brexit; but around one-third did. The reality of Brexit makes the SNP case harder to argue; they can’t please all the component parts of their voter base.
Referendums and blank cheques
Ahead of a referendum there can be no certainty on Scottish membership of the EU, not a time-frame and no idea of the requirements to align the economy. The SNP says it needs opinion polls to be consistently north of 60% in favour of “independence”, and they are nowhere near that. To the over-simplified question “are you in favour of independence?” it comes out around 50-50 AYE-NAW. The complexities are over-ridden – some say AYE, but we have to keep the monarchy, others say AYE but it has to be a republic. Some say AYE but we must not have a hard border with rUK – if we are not both in the EU or both out of it, a hard border is inevitable. Some say AYE but we must keep sterling, others say NO WAY. The answer to the question changes when they get into this stuff. I don’t sign blank cheques, which is what an AYE answer to a referendum amounts to.
The real picture
The real picture is that there is around one-third of the population who would sell their grannies for “independence”, one-third who would oppose it for ever, and one-third that doesn’t want to have to decide. These broad proportions don’t change much.
I wish they would study the history of Ireland and draw some lessons. Can they say that the border within the island of Ireland has been a happy thing that has worked well for a century? On the ground the England/Scotland border is as invisible as the border between the Six Counties and the Republic. This I know, from long personal experience.
The burden of office – how much longer?
The SNP is as frit of middle Scotland as ever Tony Blair was frit of middle England. But there is a real prospect of it all getting nasty. Alec Salmond has it in his power to blow up the whole “independence” project. Covid-19 is excellent cover for inaction, but the cease-fire can’t last much longer and internecine warfare will begin. In this period of the rise of populism and nationalism, they have some very unpleasant bed-fellows, at home and abroad.
Sturgeon certainly plays a better PR game than Johnson, and is better at showing leadership, but without noticeably better outcomes in the present pandemic (at least, possibly, until the very recent divergence over the Christmas period). The first-past-the-post voting system for Westminster is an outrage, but, Nicola Sturgeon’s acknowledgement that it is dysfunctional notwithstanding, I doubt that that her party would be progressive enough join any electoral pact to bring about its end. In 2019 on 45% of the Scottish vote they acquired 81% of Scottish seats. By a country mile they are bigger beneficiaries of fptp than the Tories! They need each other in a polarised political dynamic. Scotland deserves better. I call the SNP the toxic party of Scotland.
What is the SNP doing in local government?
They have no principled purpose in local government; councillors are ballast for their voter base and handy for acquiescing to SNP policies emanating from Holyrood. I am campaigning to get the Labour Party out of a coalition with the SNP on Edinburgh City Council – we take the blame and none of the credit. It’s time for them to take responsibility for the consequences of well over a decade at Holyrood and in the Council chambers.