The Unionists Ran a Campaign Based Entirely on Ruling Out a Referendum – and Lost

“Football, eh? Bloody Hell” (Sir Alex Ferguson)

Opinion Piece by Alec Ross


Alec Ross

When you’ve been on the emotional rollercoaster that is following the results of the General Election after weeks of fraught campaigning, it’s probably advisable to sit down in quiet reflection with cup of tea and calm down for a while. To take stock, regroup and reflect on what has just happened. You’ve probably avoid stressful environments. That’s what normal people would do.

So I went to Hampden Park for the football. With three minutes left, a largely uninspiring contest was petering out to a narrow win for the English visitors when Scotland substitute Ryan Fraser was chopped down at the edge of the box. Joe Hart didn’t get close to Leigh Griffiths’ stunning free kick. He was even further away from the second one. 2-1 Scotland.

Mayhem, joy, ecstasy, delirium – and then England equalised at the death.

Dejection, frustration, crushing disappointment.

Those few minutes encapsulated my entire life as a Scotland fan. We climb the mountain and then trip over the molehill at the top. I’d have taken a draw, but, good God, not like this. I headed, bewildered and battered, into the balmy Glasgow night, in need of something stronger than tea.

So, a great tussle involving two of the home nations and a late winner for a third (Northern Ireland won in Azerbaijan). Events on the football fields were, it seems, reflecting those on the political ones.

So how do I reflect on them?

It was a bad night for the SNP, and the truth is that if we’d run a better campaign the Tories in Scotland wouldn’t have got as many MPs and the Conservatives wouldn’t have won. After years of Scotland getting governments they didn’t vote for, Thursday saw the opposite thing happen – Scottish voters keeping the Tories in power. What irony. England, I’m sorry. I tried.

What I think has happened to the SNP is this. Firstly, the returning of 56 out of 59 MPs in 2015 happened due to an exceptional set of circumstances and in the immediate aftermath of a referendum. Just about every Yes voter supported the SNP, plus a lot of soft Nos who wanted the “vow” delivered. But it was never truly representative of Scottish opinion and there was always going to be a downturn. What was surprising, however, was the scale of the decline. This I put down to a few things.

Firstly, money, which the Tories have a lot of (although where it comes from is another question).

Secondly, the “No to Indyref 2” message resonated with the 20% or so of Scotland who will not vote for independence under any circumstances.

Thirdly, Labour, shamefully, encouraged tactical voting in marginal areas and any Labour gains weren’t due to the anti-independence vote but were achieved through people who preferred the radicalism of Corbyn to the “don’t scare the horses” approach of the SNP. Frankly, I don’t blame them. Incidentally, does Jeremy Corbyn know that Kezia Dugdale single-handedly prevented him from being Prime Minister by telling Labour supporters to vote Tory to keep out the nationalists?

The SNP fell into the trap of talking about devolved issues (which shouldn’t have been relevant to what was a General, not a Scottish, election) and on which the Tories could gain ground. Nicola Sturgeon is a talented politician but was conned into wasting a lot of her energies on talking about waiting times and educational attainment for seven year olds. All very worthy stuff, but a bit boring.

We lacked the big message that modern campaigns need (no Indyref 2, bring back control, Make America Great Again). We had Stronger for Scotland. What does that mean, exactly? I personally agreed with calling a for a section 30 vote on a second referendum, but the snap election caught us all by surprise. Both the big beasts outflanked us. We were a bit complacent. Labour beat us the draw on the living wage and the 50p tax rate, and were more positive and radical. As for the Tories, I argued (rightly, I think) that the constitutional issue was irrelevant as far as June 8th was concerned, and was roundly ignored when asking questions about free movement, membership of the ESM and future farm support.

But I realise now that nobody cares about whether the issue is relevant or not. The fact is it was there and we should have met it head on, and made a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum within the term of the next parliament. We should have re-stated that Scotland needs self-determination to ensure the free-movement of people that our knowledge based economy relies upon, an oil fund that would help ensure long term support for farmers and growers, a parliament that could actually build prosperity rather than spends its time mitigating Tory austerity.

We should have made the point that  we’d hold the referendum when we felt it was right, not at the end of Brexit negotiations that haven’t started or after we leave, which, incidentally, I don’t believe we will. We needed a vision. We got “Stronger for Scotland”. It looked like we were unsure and not convinced of our case. If the party isn’t sure, why should the public be?

There’s a party debrief scheduled for this morning. It will be lively. But support for independence and support for the SNP aren’t the same thing. SNP support has dropped, but its real power base is in Holyrood, not Westminster, and support is still solid. They’ve increased their vote in the council elections. 35 is still a lot of MPs and they’ve potentially some more influence than the 56 because of the wafer thin majority. They’ve been in power for ten years. But I think that Thursday shows that presenting yourself as a competent manager doesn’t inspire people.

Support for independence remains at around 45% – exactly where it was on September 18th 2014. Given that, when the Edinburgh Agreement was signed, it was at 27%, that’s a great base to start from. The reason they don’t want a second plebiscite is simple – they will lose it. And I take comfort from the fact that the unionists ran a campaign based entirely on ruling out a referendum – and lost.

It was their mandate that got rejected, not ours.

We can now add yet another mandate to the ever growing list of cast-iron mandates that they claim we do not have. So the future looks good. As for what’s happening in the here and now, however…. It’s bad enough that women’s and LGBTQ rights in Northern Ireland are going to be consigned to the deep freeze (how does Ruth Davidson, an openly gay woman married to a Catholic, feel about this? What will David Mundell feel when meeting allies who consider him an abomination?), what’s even worse is that by allying herself with the DUP Theresa May is effectively destroying the Northern Irish Peace Process. The terms of the agreement make it very clear that the British government cannot and must not take sides in the Irish debate. By agreeing to a list of DUP demands, one of which is likely to be a commitment from Westminster to oppose an Irish reunification referendum, the British government has done just that. The government would rather cling to power than see peace continue in Northern Ireland. It’s utterly shameful.

Furthermore, will the new government actually be able to govern? The PM’s office announced that a deal with the DUP before hastily and embarrassingly retracting it. I’m not sure I’d trust a Prime Minister to negotiate a Brexit deal with 27 EU countries when she can’t strike an agreement with eight Irish politicians.

And this – am I correct in assuming that English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) applies to all non English MPs? Because, if so, Mrs May wouldn’t be able to rely on Scottish Tory MPs votes, nor Northern Irish DUP votes for all ‘English’ competencies. We’d have a government that, literally, could not govern.

Against this backdrop, there are calls for Scotland to take a second independence vote off the table. I believe that we should do precisely the reverse. The UK government is in meltdown and will continue to lurch from crisis to omnishambles. To close the exit lanes in such circumstances would be an epic act of self-harm, as well as being a betrayal of those EU citizens living in Scotland who have trusted us to preserve their status and to give them safe harbour from the madness. We must not let them down. We have reasons for optimism. We’ve got all the tools we need to build a better country. Setbacks only matter if we fail to learn from them.

It was a tough few days, but we’ll be grand. The brilliance of Leigh Griffiths won’t be enough to take us to the World Cup Finals. But we’ll be joining the world soon enough.

Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News 

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3 replies »

  1. Absolutely agree, Alec, although it was shameful how in every televised debate or interview it was only devolved matters that were brought up by the unionists, not relevant to GE. I personally think SNP personnel need to show more teeth and not allow the situations in interviews where the interviewer spouts some lie then says, “Well, moving on”. Whoever is being interviewed should refuse to move on until a retraction or apology is forthcoming.

    • Aye, I’d agree. “Let’s move on” means “I don’t want to be held accountable for my line of questioning”. I also don’t think, on hindsight, we should have been so reluctant to talk about independence. When asked about our record in devolved areas, we point out how well we did given cuts to funding over the last ten years, and suggest that being in control of our own funding gives us the ability to put more money into these areas and thus improve our performance. It’s interesting that unionists, by criticising the SNP performance, are actually making the case for independence. By asking for improvements we’re already pushing at the limits of devolution.

  2. 1) Where does the Tory money come from? Where has the Tory money always come from…………’s a clue to one of them……….’But they brought prosperity down at the armoury
    “We’re arming for peace, me boys”
    Between the wars.’ – Billy Bragg.

    2) Whatever Kezia Dugdale, or anyone else, said or told them to do, no Labour supporter should ever, ever, vote Tory. It goes against Nature!

    3) To quote Gil Scott Heron again – “Mandate? My ass.”

    4) I never did, and I suppose I never will, understand how folk get so worked up about football – or any sport. I just don’t get it. Different strokes, for different folks. Makes a good analogy though.

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