A few short weeks from now, I’ll be dusting down the tartan breeks and embarking on yet another Burns Supper season, including, I’m delighted to say, a dinner in Kirkwall. “Ramadram”, as a witty friend of mine likes to describe it. No-one knows what the future holds, but, like death and taxes, some things are set in stone. And one of those inevitabilities is that, at some point during the season, someone who doesn’t want Scotland to ever be independent will tell me what a proud Scot they are. And then it happens, as certain as rain on Stranraer Show day.
“But”, they’ll say.
It happened again last year when I was sitting next to a woman wearing tartan. A lot of tartan. My theory is that the amount of tartan someone wears at a Burns Supper is diametrically opposed to their likelihood to ever vote for independence. They are the ninety-minute nationalists that Jim Sillars used to talk about, out to let their inner-nat off the leash for an evening before putting it back in a drawer for the next twelve months. There’s nothing as tragic as off-duty solicitors and policemen belting out songs about independence. Rise and be a nation again? I could suggest a few more appropriate lines. Scotland the Slave, perhaps.
Anyway, tartan woman approaches me. “I suppose you’ll be a nationalist like your father”, she said. She said the word “nationalist” in the way that unionists often say it – like nationalism is self-evidently bad and will inevitably end up in death camps and gulags, unless it’s UK nationalism which is, obviously, perfectly fine. I thought she was finished with me but she was just getting started. I forget exactly what she said, but I’m pretty sure it included the words “divisive”, “oil”, “financial black hole” and “Greece”. Then she got to her feet and gave a rousing toast to Auld Scotia during which she told us what a brilliant country we are. There’s a reason why my mobile ‘phone has the local cab number on speed-dial. Taxi for Ross.
Back home that night, and several drams later, I found myself asking the question: is it possible to be a proud Scot and not want to control your own destiny? Because here’s the thing. I spoke to hundreds of people during the first Scottish Independence Referendum. Some were Yes, some were No and some were genuinely undecided. But no Yes voter ever began a conversion by telling me how proud they were, because they didn’t need to. It was a given, understood, a self-evident truth. And I now realise now that the lady in tartan was proud of Scotland. It’s just that the Scotland she is proud of isn’t the Scotland that I am proud of. She’s proud of the one that sits down, shuts up and does exactly what it is told, that will always be run by whatever Government England decides should run us. The Scotland forever outvoted in every vote that matters, and in which even when we send 56 MPs to London it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever because they own – are – the firm and they make the rules and because the house always, always, wins. The Scotland that pays its taxes to Westminster and then gets on its knees and begs for a piece of what’s already ours. But tartan woman isn’t proud at all of the Scotland that gets all uppity and seditious and politically engaged and wants to run its own affairs. She’s utterly mortified and deeply ashamed of that Scotland. But then her pride is predicated not on a modern, ambitious, self-governing Scotland but on a meekly subservient one that sits down and eats its cereal. There, there. You’ll have had your referendum. Scotland is very violent, no? Do you have culture?
Which brings us to today’s article.
It is clear by now that events – Brexit and independence chiefly among them – are moving so quickly that it is proving difficult – impossible, in fact – to keep up. What I write may feel cutting-edge and digital on Friday, but then suddenly a Brexit – ahem – “breakthrough” (or abject capitulation and shaming humiliation; perspectives differ. Your call) makes the article old-hat and analogue. There’s a famous picture of Harry Truman posing with a copy of a newspaper which proclaimed in bold font that he’d just lost the 1945 presidential election.
He hadn’t. This was an early edition of paper that had looked at the exit polls that had shown his rival, Dewey, ahead and had just taken a punt. That’s how I feel when writing about stuff in this ever-changing, mad, mental, extraordinary world. So it is with this in mind that I offer you my thoughts on how things have changed – again – after last week’s article. It’s like that old Scottish expression. If you don’t like the weather, dinnae fash. Just wait fifteen minutes.
So, after some correspondence with the editorial team of this fine newspaper, I thought I might share with you my thoughts after the last couple of days. But it comes with a disclaimer and some advice. Read it quickly. It won’t be news for long. But thanks, anyway, for reading.
What, pray, is Ruth Davidson for?
I wrote the following before the Brexit “breakthrough” on Friday. But it still stands. Like every other Tory MP in Scotland, mine, Alister Jack, has gone AWOL. It is a disgrace.
Last Tuesday, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson released a statement in which she explicitly sided with the DUP against the Prime Minister over the question of the Irish border and a bespoke Brexit deal for Northern Ireland.
Ms Davidson wrote the following:
“If regulatory alignment in a number of specific areas is the requirement for a frictionless border, then the PM should conclude that this is on a UK wide basis”. That’s an enormous (but not remotely surprising) volte-face from a person who ran a passionate and articulate campaign to remain in the EU, before buying a first class ticket for doomed ship Brexit. For her, self always comes before side.
But let that sink in. The leader of Tories in Scotland sides with DUP & specifically calls for Scotland not to get a differentiated deal which would help our economy and which would recognise that Scotland voted to remain in the EU, and that 90% of Scottish businesses wish to remain in the single market at the very least.
She puts party ideology ahead of Scottish interests, which you’d expect. We can only assume that this is the official Scottish Conservative line, and must call this out for what it is: a deliberate and blatant attempt to weaken Scotland.
The new Scottish Tory MPs have repeatedly failed to live up to their promises to stand up for Scotland. They failed to demand Scotland’s £2.9bn of Barnett Consequentials due after the DUP bung. They voted to trigger Article 50 despite representing constituencies that voted to remain. They even voted down each and every amendment to the EU withdrawal bill designed to protect the Scottish devolution settlement. This is an anti-Scottish party that votes against the interests of its own people at every available opportunity and whose leader, when the going gets tough, goes into hiding.
So my question for the Scottish Conservatives is as follows.
“Would you support a differentiated deal that allowed Scotland to remain in the Single Market even if other parts of the UK did not?”
If the answer is “no”, then we have 13 MPs who put party ideology ahead of the interests of the people of Scotland.
So we must ask these supplementary questions:
It they cannot stand up for us now, then when? And, quite simply, what are they for? And why are we still part of this corrupt, self-serving and mendacious union?
As the news over the Brexit breakthrough broke, Ruth Davidson said this: “Throughout this process, my overriding priority has been to ensure we act as one United Kingdom.” Which sounds like the words of someone whose eyes and ambitions are focussed outwith the place she was elected to serve. She is utterly dependent on the SNP. Without the constitution, she literally has no meaning or message. With no target for her bluster, she is an empty vessel. Her position on Brexit reveals her as a hypocrite and a chancer. She has no principles and is self-centred, vision free and utterly pointless. She has called us, variously, thieves, vandals and subsidy junkies. She mocked the fine Scottish accent of an MSP who serves in the same parliament as she does. She openly admitted tampering with postal votes. Like the tartan woman at the Burns Supper, her vision, if she has any at all, is of a subservient Scotland. In fact, it is worse than that. It is the rolling back of the devolution settlement and the end of the Scottish Parliament, and of Scottish democracy, itself. I hope she gets her wish of a safe seat in England. Because she serves no purpose for Scotland whatsoever. In truth, her raison d’etre, and that of her party, is to weaken Scotland to the point where it can never, ever, go for independence again.
In the name of God, go.
Brexit and the Devolution Settlement
The Irish border discussion makes for a soft-Brexit that would see Northern Ireland and (crucially) the rest of the UK staying within the single market and the Customs Union. All of which, intriguingly, also puts another option on the table – not leaving the EU at all. Period. Because it may be that if Brexit doesn’t mean Brexit, but in fact means a muckle great divorce bill and no seat at the top table and therefore no influence – then what’s the point?
And this raises the biggest question of all:
if the UK is going to mirror the customs union and the single market, why go to the considerable bother of leaving the EU in the first place?
All has changed, changed utterly. As the brilliant Irish Times journalist Fintan o’ Toole comments: what if, instead of, as DUP leader Arlene Foster insisted, Northern Ireland leaving the EU on the same terms as the UK, the UK will have to leave the EU on the same terms as Northern Ireland. This, in effect, is what is now agreed. To borrow from Henry Ford, Britain can have any Brexit it likes, so long as it is green.
What it does mean, of course, is this. A Westminster government that is able to say it will avoid hard borders with Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit can never again tell Scotland that independence would mean a hard border between Scotland and what then remains of the rest of the UK.
We are witnessing, in short, the end of the Union.
What does this mean for Scottish Independence?
Firstly, a hard Brexit appears to be off the table – for now. The soft option may be unpalatable for English Brexiteers and there may yet be – yet another – election. So a hard Brexit may yet happen. Which is important for this reason: we can have a hard Brexit, or we can keep the devolution settlement. But we can’t have both. This explains why there is a Westminster Brexit power grab and not the power bonanza promised by the anti-Scotland Secretary David Mundell. When the history of this momentous period is written, The Rubicon moment will be the Supreme Court judgement that said, essentially, that Scotland need not be consulted and, legally, did not matter. Brexit lets us know where we stand. I suppose we must be grateful for small mercies.
Devolution and future post-Brexit trade deals make incompatible bedfellows. For example, if the UK asks the US for a trade deal that includes access to the NHS, then that will interest big American healthcare companies. But health is a devolved matter and Westminster would need the assent of Edinburgh. Or would it? The Sewell Convention is already toast, and the UK government – including my own MP and his colleagues – has already voted down an amendment to the EU withdrawal bill that would have allowed Holyrood to amend EU law that directly affected us. The only conclusion I can draw from all of this is that we are governed by people – often our own countrymen – who openly despise us.
There is a light and it never goes out
How many hints do we need? Theresa May said that now is not the time. But it is. Ireland has this week provided a stunning example of what can be achieved by a smallish country, and quickly, with the unwavering support of 26 friends against a larger nation who has none. With the likelihood of there being no hard border with the rest of the UK, the Westminster Government continues to build an already watertight case for an independent Scotland.
And I appreciate that there are those within the Yes movement who voted to leave the EU. I get that. The unconscionable behaviour of Madrid towards Catalonia should give all of us pause. But we can only win one battle at a time. This week demonstrates that it’s easier to become a newly independent nation whilst still within the tent than without it. That many within the Yes movement have reservations about the EU project rather misses the point, which is this: we can choose to be full members, or join EFTA, or join nothing at all. The point is that, when independent, it’s our call. And the discussion over Ireland this week clarified, for me, that the time for independence isn’t at the end of the Brexit negotiations. Ireland has shown what can be achieved, quickly, when a country has the support of its friends. To borrow a phrase, we are Better Together.
The wind is in our sails and we still have friends. I’m clearing my diary for February 2018, for two reasons. Firstly, we’ve never had a better set of circumstances to achieve our destiny.
And, secondly, I’m in Orkney in January. Some things aren’t up for discussion. For Indyref 2, February it is. And we shall win.
And I’ll meet you further on up the road.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News.
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