Leaving the rabbit hole – Boris’s Scexit game-changer

Leaving the rabbit hole – Boris’s Scexit game-changer

by Linda Holt
article from Tuesday 11, February, 2020

FOR NATIONALISTS, independence is the ultimate carrot; the shining answer to anything less than ideal in present-day Scotland; the be-all and end-all of politics. Such quasi-religious beliefs exercise a terrific lure, as nationalists demonstrate on marches, in the letters pages of newspapers, on social media and indeed at Westminster, Holyrood and council chambers across the country. I recently learnt a new expression to describe this mindset: drinking the SNP Kool-Aid.

But the same might also apply to those who oppose independence. Of course unionism is not the same as independence as it is real, actually existing. Oppressed yesterdays and austere todays cannot compete with better tomorrows. Nevertheless those who oppose independence can be as monomaniacal in their focus as those who champion it. Opposing independence can equally become an end in itself. “No to IndyRef2” Kool-Aid is also a potent brew.

”Westminster/Tory bad” and “Independence/SNP bad” mirror each other. Whatever validity criticism of a particular policy – be it SNP or Conservative – might have, however much such criticism might usefully contribute to political debate, or supply a valuable corrective – all that is lost when the tribal reflex takes over. The only thing that counts is scoring points for your team. No wonder, then, that more and more nationalists and unionists find themselves preaching to the converted.

There is a dawning sense now, I think, on both nationalist and unionist sides that they have been stuck down parallel rabbit holes.

Among Scottish Conservatives, it’s evident in the way the current leadership contest has developed. Opposition to independence and then to a second independence referendum is widely credited for the extraordinary electoral successes enjoyed by Scottish Tories in 2016 and 2017. Jackson Carlaw, Ruth Davidson’s deputy through these years, is the continuity candidate. He fought the November election more or less exclusively on the tried and tested drum of No IndyRef2, and notwithstanding the losses in that election, he is still banging it with a vengeance.

His opponent Michelle Ballantyne’s campaign has picked up momentum among councillors and grassroots members precisely because it recognises the poor general election and concludes that simply banging the No IndyRef2 drum no longer guarantees electoral success. We can argue about the role other factors (Boris, Brexit, the collapse of the Labour vote) played in the loss of more than half of Scottish Tory seats, but the point is that the leadership contest has caused a clear strategic divide to emerge.

Last week Carlaw wrote on the Conservative Home website:

“There has been a vibrant debate in the party during the leadership election campaign about the need for us to be more than just the ‘No to Indyref2’ party. The truth is, of course, that we need to do both. We need to make clear that we are resolutely opposed to another referendum, and that we are prepared to defend the Union to the hilt. But we also need to set out what this position will deliver.”

Nevertheless what is notable is how hard he still finds it to put down the unionist drum and flesh out a positive policy agenda.

Similarly, Jenny Hjul’s endorsement of Carlaw in the Courier last week warned that while “a second independence referendum may not be on the agenda for now... a resounding SNP victory at Holyrood next year could again change the political landscape” before asserting that only Carlaw could “galvanize the Union majority and lead the fight against the Nationalists”.

But the truth which Carlaw and supporters like Hjul are struggling to comprehend is that Boris Johnson has taken the possibility of a second independence referendum off the table for the foreseeable future. Unlike David Cameron or Theresa May, he has been absolutely unequivocal that constitutional matters are entirely reserved to Westminster, that the 2014 result stands for a generation and that this is unaffected by how many seats the SNP win either at Westminster or Holyrood. In other words, a majority of pro-independence MSPs in 2021 is no mandate for a second independence referendum.

This is a much clearer and harder position than advocated to date – with both Ruth Davidson and David Mundell suggesting the opposite not that long ago. This means it will make no sense for the Scottish Conservatives to say, as they have done in the last three elections, vote for us to stop independence. Boris Johnson has locked the No to IndyRef2 drum in a cupboard and thrown away the key.

Johnson’s hardline stance is a game-changer for Scottish politics; it has taken the wind out of everybody’s sails, nationalist and unionist alike. On January 31st, Nicola Sturgeon’s big speech on the next steps in her referendum campaign proved to be a damp squib which left fundamentalists Like Wings Over Scotland seething and realists like Jim Sillars quietly relieved. But it signified Sturgeon’s reluctant recognition that there would be no independence referendum in 2020 and that she had no power to compel the UK government to grant the necessary powers. Civil disobedience and “wildcat” referendums are not options for a mainstream party of government. As Gerry Hassan argues in last weekend’s Sunday National, the politics of grievance will only get you so far: “Far-reaching political change requires a self-government about more than the constitution, and our external relations with England and others”.

There will be many Scots, an overwhelming majority I would guess, who will be pleased to see their elected representatives emerging from their rabbit holes to tackle the ever growing number of failings in Scotland’s neglected public services. This is the front on which both unionists and nationalists will have to fight the 2021 election. Voters will be passing judgment on fourteen years of devolved government under the SNP and the opposition’s proposals to remedy its failures. The nationalists will no longer be able to pretend that electing SNP and Green MSPs will be the propeller for a second independence referendum; nor will the Conservatives be able to argue that only by electing their candidates will it be stopped.

Many unionists in Scotland are not very keen on Boris Johnson, but they, and indeed anyone who wants a politics of competent devolved government, may yet have a great deal to thank him for.

Image by Marzena P.  from Pixabay 

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