I was speaking at an excellent meeting at the Milestone Kirk in Dounby, Orkney, on Tuesday. I was talking farming, Brexit and making the case for an independent Scotland. Naturally, I find all this stuff fascinating and it had a real 2014 feel about it. Who, to borrow from Paul Kavanagh, could we have predicted that the tide would have come in so soon, and so far? And yet, here we are. It’s good to be back. And so soon. And so far.
The 19th of September 2014 was awful, the worst day of my life. Dreadful. And I’ve a confession to make. That Friday it was my turn to pick up the weans (translation Orkney – peedie wans?). I’d got back home from the vote at Easterbrook Hall in Dumfries at 7am. Despite all my efforts, it wasn’t that close. We’d been battered, gubbed, horsed, 70-30 in Wigtownshire and 55-45 nationally. I’m not sure I’ll ever quite get over the sight of Labour activists high-fiving their Tory allies as the results swung in their favour.
I hadn’t slept much and could easily have fulfilled my duties. But I didn’t want to. I couldn’t face meeting folk who I know had, to my mind, voted against the interests of Scotland. Or who, worse, didn’t care. Some – most of them – are my friends. My sister took pity on me and picked up the boys on my behalf. Me? I got quietly blootered. And then cried my eyes out.
Someone once said that the greatest thing in life was victory and the second greatest thing is defeat. The loss in 2014, awful as it was at the time, was the greatest experience of my life. And on the way home from Dounby I thought: God, I’ve missed this.
There weren’t many farmers at the meeting. And quite right, too. The forecast is great for the week and I reckon only half the barley in Orkney has been sown. Even when driving back to my digs, the Orkney fields were full of seed drills, being pulled by tractors with the headlights on. I’m up on business but had perhaps one proper meeting with a farmer today – and that was because he was in for a bite of lunch. He actually made me a second cup of coffee, but I suspect that was more to do with delaying the lifting of stones in his barley field than with the desire to talk at length about the value of my live yeast in his fattening cattle ration. He asked if I was free to help him lift stones. I told him I had a subsequent engagement. His raised eyebrow suggested that he wasn’t born yesterday.
We live in an age when an unelected PM refuses to engage in a TV debate or take questions from journalists. And yet, in the Orkney West Mainland, proper questions were being asked. I’m pretty sure nobody used the words “strong” or “stable” once. The debate was robust, but we were as far away from a coalition of chaos as it’s possible to be. We’ll get no change whatsoever out of the most intellectually pessimistic Westminster establishment in history, so we’d better just get on with it ourselves.
Three years ago, I really thought the game was up. So what has changed? How did we get here? The Tory message is “No to a second independence referendum”. But, actually, the UK that we voted narrowly to remain a part of in 2014 no longer exists.
When the second referendum comes round, probably next year, it won’t be because of anything independence supporters have done. When I’m told to respect the result of the 2014 vote, a few things come immediately to mind. Firstly, the road to Indyref2 started outside the Number 10 Downing St on September 19th 2014, when David Cameron ripped up the “vow” of near-federalism post-referendum by calling for EVEL – English votes for English Laws. It was clear that the promises made to Scotland by an increasingly nervous Westminster establishment were being broken. They were always going to be.
It wasn’t the only promise to be broken. Not by a long stretch. The renewable subsidies were axed, along with the billion pound carbon capture monies. The triple-lock pension is now in jeopardy. Despite the claims of George Osborne at the time, former Bank of England chief Mervyn King has called a currency union “totally feasible“, and claims that a constitutional vote was causing uncertainty were a flat out lie: the Indyref year saw projects in Scotland increase by 17%. Furthermore, the renewal of Trident means that most of the promised frigate contracts for Glasgow won’t now be happening.
So when you hear people talking about respecting a vote, remember that respect shouldn’t be a one-way street, and it grates when we’re told to do so by a government that has effectively ignored the result of the 2015 general election by calling a snap vote, a decision that has nothing to do with “strengthening our hand” in the Brexit negotiations and everything to do with a naked power grab and an attempt to divert attention from the slow-burning election fraud scandal. This is about as far away from respect as it’s possible to imagine.
Brexit, of course, changes the game. Perhaps the biggest pillar of the Better Together campaign was “vote No to stay in the EU“. This was, of course, nonsense – there exists no legal mechanism that would have seen Scotland or anyone else leave the EU in the event of a Yes vote – but it probably created enough smoke to swing people to vote No.
Then, of course, David Cameron put a promise of an in/out vote into his Conservative manifesto with the caveat that he won the majority that every poll said he couldn’t achieve. But an SNP surge and with Labour supporters refusing to believe that Ed Milliband wouldn’t form a coalition with the Nationalists, the Tories got their majority, and just over a year later the UK voted narrowly to leave.
Does Scotland now have a mandate for a second vote?
In short, yes – and for several reasons.
Firstly, I don’t buy the stuff about having to stand by a decision that was made three years ago on a series of false promises. By following this flawed logic, we would never again hold a general election – something that would suit Theresa May just fine. The UK that we voted to remain a part of in 2014 no longer exists.
Secondly, we always talk about holding our elected representatives to their word. So given that the promise to revisit the constitution in the event of a Brexit that Scotland doesn’t want is in the 2016 manifesto that saw the SNP returned by a million or so votes, it’s only right that we expect them to honour their commitments.
Thirdly, by 2018 we’ll know just how badly the Brexit negotiations are going. And it won’t be clever. Apart from the obvious hypocrisy of a Westminster government refusing to allow Scotland a vote until after we’ve left the EU whilst looking for an increased mandate from voters while Brexit negotiations have barely started, a majority of Scots wish to revisit the independence question before we leave Europe. So the claim that Scotland doesn’t want another referendum is factually incorrect.
Fourthly, recent election results in Scotland have seen a near-total SNP representation in Westminster; the nationalists have formed the government, either by majority or minority, for ten years; there are more pro-independence MSPs in Holyrood than unionists. Combined with manifesto commitments, this creates about as cast-iron a mandate as it’s possible to imagine.
Finally – and this is how I feel – I honestly don’t care. Things are so bad that we can’t afford the luxury of an argument over constitutional semantics and legal minutiae. Whether we have a mandate or not – and we do – is beside the point.
It’s a new game with new rules. Jean-Claude Juncker didn’t mince his words this week. Brexit is by definition disastrous and there’s nothing “soft” about it. £560m of EU farming subsidies will be missing from the Scottish economy. A hardline immigration policy denies Scottish farming of the 15,000 migrant workers it needs to pick its fruit every year. The Tory policy on Pillar One payments – reducing it to zero – becomes the new reality. Farming and fishing powers aren’t getting repatriated to Holyrood. The Sewell convention has been ripped up. Our parliament has no permanence and will spend much of its money and energies mitigating the real life effects of deeply harmful ideologically driven policies that we didn’t vote for, meaning that we effectively pay for things twice over. That isn’t good governance. That’s permanent crisis management. We’ll be a nation of firefighters.
Expecting a Prime Minister who’s currently manipulating parliamentary process for narrow political advantage to get us out of this bouroch is the stuff of utter fantasy. Even unionists are beginning to wake up to this, and recognise that we’ll be independent soon. Which changes the tone of the debate. It’s no longer “Yes or No” but rather “what kind of country do we want to be?” That gives me hope.
With Brexit, this truly is the end, the fork in the road. It’s either self-sufficiency in Europe or it’s the highway to right-wing, isolationist hell. I know where I’m going.
The tide is in, and this time it’s not going back out.
Alec Ross is a regular columnist with The Orkney News