THE SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT has long since stopped playing by the rules, and what is more, it will be allowed to continue to do so by those who should be scrutinizing them. For anyone in any doubt about this, we have the situation whereby the Scottish National Party are now raising funds by selling coronavirus masks at the height of an ongoing world pandemic that has claimed over 4,200 lives in Scotland and which may well claim more if or when it comes back.
There is too much infection in the world for this not to happen, and we have seen the First Minister’s confusion about what is safe and what is not. The SNP get a mild slap on the wrists about this being “in poor taste”. Can you imagine any other political party doing this, let alone getting away with it? For nationalists, difficulties like this have always presented an opportunity, but few have ever been quite so brazen about it.
The SNP has always been treated differently, with too many people in Scotland being taken in and entranced by all the intrigue generated. This particularly applies to their core project. Do you remember in 2014 that every time we received a poll in which the Yes campaign was behind, there was always the caveat that such and such a percentage were undecided? How many times did we see the phrase, “When you take the Undecideds out...”?
When you look at polls today, you see no such caveats, no suggestion that the undecided might swing against them. The implication is that their desired outcome is inevitable, and the rest of us are mere spectators in the process. Many people are so admiring of the nationalists that they overlook each and every mistake, or piece of poor judgement or bad taste. The fact that they then get away with it in itself becomes something to admire as well. Alas, there is no evidence that any of this behaviour is going to change.
The current pandemic should have put the secession argument to bed for the next ten years or more. The economic strength of the Union has helped pull us through to date, and we will need this until all the problems it will generate are properly behind us. But in Scotland, everyone just assumes that we could have done this too. Reality has no traction. The SNP’s relentless campaign of public relations and spin is just too strong for many.
This is how it was in 2014. Back then they lost the argument, but they only just lost it because they won the campaign. They told stories, they created images of milk and honey, and the future could be whatever people wanted it to be. Independence activists argued for mutually exclusive visions of the future, even though only one of them could ever be attempted. The SNP was quite happy to let the Yes campaigners do this. They would decide at a later date which side they would let down.
Given that their economic argument only amounted to one page, and no-one believed that, then the chances were that everyone would have been let down had they won. Thankfully, in the end economic reality decided the issue for most people. Critical analysis was still apparent in the population.
So it will be if there ever is a next time, but if there ever is a next time, we will see less of the pretence of economic justification, and more of the fairy stories. The pro-Independence movement will try to generate a mood. Superficially it will be about Scotland, but in reality it will be about the greener “other side” because they know that this is what works best for them.
Many of us on the pro-Union side of this argument know that reality is our strength, but the warning signs are there now that this will not be enough. The current Covid-19 crisis also shuts down many avenues of proper scrutiny, and this will help the nationalists in their campaign in 2021. None of this is going to go away any time soon. If we want to deal with this issue, we cant just wish it away. We have to grab this bull by the horns and see what it is really made of. We need to change the terms of the debate, and not allow the SNP to dictate these for us. We need to have the confidence to do this.
One of the key lessons we have learned from the referendum votes in 2014 and in 2016 is that a referendum based on the principle of an idea is going to give you all sorts of problems. If 2014 did not resolve this particular issue, why should another vote be any different, irrespective of the result? To go back to first principles, a referendum is where a government seeks the consent of the people to move from, say, a current constitutional position to some different but defined alternative. The alternative has to be defined so that the public knows what to vote on. A vague direction of travel is not good enough. The IndyRef and Brexit votes caused all sorts of problems, and neither is over yet.
The Irish fudged their independence agreement under Michael Collins, it caused a Civil War (in which he was assassinated), and the politics of Ireland today are still defined by what side people were on at that time. Vagueness and confusion can have political implications for a century and more, even for those on the same approximate side. Think about that for a moment. Do you want your grandchildren and great grandchildren to still be having this discussion?
If this issue comes back again, the only way to know what we are voting for is to negotiate the agreement first, and then vote on it. Independence then becomes what you negotiate, and that becomes the reality around which you can have the debate. Any other types of independence are irrelevant. People can either argue for what is on offer, argue against it, or boycott it. The pro-Union side will win this, and probably do so comfortably, because what is on offer will then become real and this is Scotland. We don’t do wishful thinking here.
However, we don’t want two independence votes. We all know the general arguments, and the principles of the debate will not change, but there needs to be a mandate to negotiate.
For me, confronting this issue means we need to take any majority of pro-Independence MSPs at the Holyrood election next year as a mandate to negotiate. In practical terms, if this was to be the case, then an incoming Scottish Government should be given until the end of 2021 to decide whether to act on its mandate, and to prepare their negotiating position if they did. It should then be given 18 months to negotiate an agreement with the UK government, the timeline they said they would need in 2014, and have a confirming vote on St Andrews day in November 2023. Everyone should have the negotiated agreement posted through their door so that we all know that we are voting on the same thing. Some will point to the time and political energy required to do all this, but let us not kid ourselves, this argument is absorbing many tens of thousands of hours of time already, many tens of millions of pounds, and has been distracting from everything else for nearly a decade now. This will continue unless we confront it.
Negotiating an agreement will test what Independence actually means. It will test if Nicola Sturgeon really wants us to be independent, or if she simply likes the power the constant intrigue gives her. It will test the vision of those within the independence movement of what they actually want. At present, the media cannot do any of this, the opposition parties cannot do it. George Galloway may cause a stir, but he won’t do it either.
Boris Johnston is the one who can make it happen. If he believes the strength of Britain is our people and our economy, then this is the ground we need to be on. Ruth Davidson says that we should have “put the boot in” a bit more after the 2014 result. While I understand the sentiment behind this, we missed that chance. What we need to do now is grab the bull, sit it on its arse, examine it closely and see what it is made off. An agricultural explanation would be how to stop a dog taking an unhealthy interest in something foul smelling but intriguing that you know is going to be bad for it. The best way to do that is to rub its nose in it so that it understands exactly what it is it is dealing with. This is what we need to do now.
If people continue to be intrigued by this issue, then we need to explain in a different way what it is likely to involve.
Almost all politicians in Scotland wanted a two stage process for Brexit based on a final outcome, so they can hardly deny the logic. Ultimately, it is the only way of resolving this. If coronavirus does not persuade us that we need to change our way of looking at the world, then rational arguments will never work. The seeds of nationalism have been sown too thickly and too deep. Reality needs to be written down clearly and simply with no ambiguity. Write it down for some people in crayon if necessary so they understand it. It is the only way to bring this matter to a close.
Victor Clements lives in Aberfeldy in Highland Perthshire and runs a woodland advisory business.