Devolution, twenty years on.
2017 marked the twentieth anniversary of the devolution vote and the subsequent re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament under a home rule settlement designed, in the words of George Robertson – to “kill Independence stone dead”. But, like the death of Mark Twain, its demise has been somewhat exaggerated.
Indeed, quite the opposite has happened. After a difficult start, and despite criticism that we aren’t using all the powers available to us (and despite the fact that devolution is about retaining power, not devolving it), the past two decades have seen Scotland take the lead in issues like the smoking ban, gay marriage and, last week, a progressive tax policy that portrayed a modern, forward- thinking country that didn’t feel the need to accede to the neoliberal groupthink that progressive tax rises are by definition politically toxic. Last week’s modestly radical budget gave us a glimpse of the kind of Scotland that we want to be, and that we will very soon become.
The Conservative policy – no second referendum – might as well be the name of their party. And yet it can only take them so far.
The concept of independence has moved from the margins to the mainstream. There is a pro-independence majority in Holyrood. Despite the mainstream media portrayal of the 2017 General Election in Scotland as being a victory for the Scottish Conservatives, the SNP has more Scottish MPs than the rest of the parties combined. Together with a vote in favour of a section 30 order, Scotland has, effectively, a triple-locked mandate to call the independence referendum, a mandate that goes way beyond what even Margaret Thatcher herself felt was needed.
And yet we’re in an age when even those who sit in Holyrood- like Ruth Davidson – reject the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament and fail to acknowledge its legitimacy. 2017 was the year in which the UK media rumbled Ruth for the vacuous, single-issue, policy free, media-created, ballot-box tampering charlatan that most Scots suspect her to be. Maybe in 2018 the Scottish media will catch up. But I hae ma doots.
The unionist locker is bare, if indeed there was anything there to start with. Unionists can’t say we’re not using new powers and then greet when we do by presenting a modestly radical budget that proposes a small increase in the contribution of those fortunate enough to be earning over £45,000 per annum and a freezing or reduction for those on £33k or below (i.e. most of us).
You cannot have it both ways. What worries them is that Scotland has now diverged from the neoliberal shibboleth that says that tax increases are politically toxic. It also worries them that it was actually well received. Indeed, Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions saw Theresa May reduced to attacking Scotland over something that has nothing to do with Westminster (and blatantly lying while doing so).
Just for the record, most Scots will now pay the same amount or less tax. And it is also a matter of public record that Scotland’s Tories voted against the right of parliament to have a final vote on the Brexit “deal”, whilst also voting against an amendment that would protect the devolution settlement. This is a gang of people voting against their own people and their own country at every opportunity. But then again, Scotland is not their country. Britain is their country. “The SNP tax Scotland, the Tories back Scotland”! Said May yesterday. To which our response might be: “you skelp Scotland – we help Scotland!”
Nothing scares the establishment more than a competent Scottish Government that can deliver popular policies on time and under budget, hence the media outrage over a baby box, the dreadfully biased reporting over The Queensferry Crossing and the predictable lack of outrage over a leaky aircraft carrier that won’t be carrying any aircraft until 2021.
To be perfectly honest, anybody who whines about a baby box but is fine with a leaky boat costing £3.1bn needs, frankly, to have a conversation with themselves.
But last week’s budget confirmed what I’d been witnessing for twenty years. This is a Scottish Parliament punching above its weight. Even with the limited powers we have, and within the context of a system where ever decreasing funding and democratic influence means we are having to be ever more creative to square the circle just to keep things roughly as good as they currently are, we are already acting like and imagining ourselves as the modern, self-governing country that we’re about to become. And, boy, that scares them to death. Our solid performance thus far isn’t an argument for staying within the United Kingdom but, given the increasingly constrictive nature of our constitutional arrangements in light of a Brexit that provides the motive and opportunity for those within the Scottish unionist establishment to roll back a devolution settlement they always despised, a compelling argument for leaving it at the earliest available opportunity. And I believe that opportunity will present itself very soon indeed.
So here’s how. And here is why I believe we will win.
The broken vow
The biggest argument we will have against the 2018 No Campaign is the 2014 No campaign.
Vote No to save the shipyards.
Vote No to save the renewables.
Vote No to save the HMRC jobs in East Kilbride?
and – the biggest of them all – vote No or you’ll be an isolated international laughing stock and you won’t be part of the EU. I was at a farming debate in 2014 when Alistair Carmichael guaranteed Scotland’s farmers continued membership of the EU post a 2014 No vote. I just wish more of us would knock on his door and ask say to him – honestly, big man: how, exactly, is that working out?
During the discussions ahead of the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement that set out the terms of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, Alex Salmond offered a third option – Devomax – on the ballot paper. Cameron refused it, because every briefing he received told him he’d win by a street. And you couldn’t blame him. And yet, with eleven days to go, Yes was ahead by four points and there were rumours of another poll that put Yes ahead by six. I honestly believe that if that poll had been published even seven days later, Yes would have won. But the fact that it wasn’t, allowed the “vow” to be published on the front of the Daily Record by three people – David Cameron, Nick Clegg and David Milliband – who had no power, desire or influence to enact such change and who all have left the stage.
Our No vote was never going to be seen as an article of trust but as a betrayal of weakness. Brexit provides the opportunity for Westminster to roll back the devolution settlement and create a set of inauspicious economic circumstances that will make it impossible for Scotland to go for self-determination ever again. Which means we have to do it as soon as possible. And I genuinely believe that there has never in our history been a better opportunity to do so
We’re already at 47%. That’s a significant number, for three reasons.
Firstly, that’s two points up on September 18th 2014.
Secondly, we aren’t actually – despite what Ruth Davidson believes – involved in a referendum at the moment.
And, thirdly, the figure utterly refutes the unionist myth that support for independence equates to support for the SNP. For example, a loss of 21 SNP MPs during the snap 2017 General Election actually saw a slight increase in support for independence in a period in which the question wasn’t even being asked.
So even if every single SNP supporter votes for independence (and not all of them will – I have a farmer friend who consistently votes SNP but is a soft No. That’s actually quite a common position in my industry), we’d still be twelve points short. And they did it after the postal votes were in, so 81% of the population was actually being asked a different question – devomax – that wasn’t on the ballot paper and which 19% of the Scottish electorate wasn’t offered. Better Together saw the polls and blatantly broke Purdah. They cheated. And yet, the headlines on September 19th read: “Scotland Votes for Change”. And it’s true, we did. But not in the sense that some of us believed.
Every single No argument has now been utterly discredited. The No argument may now be summarised as follows: “youse have hud yer vote”. But politics is a process, not an event (otherwise, why ever hold an election? What if you win a referendum on the premise of staying within the EU and then get dragged out? Must today’s generation be forever hidebound to decisions made in circumstances that they didn’t choose?
In any case, in the next and final Scottish Independence Referendum, our pitch must be that we are the shelter from the storm, the harbour in the tempest. Yes is now the safe option. Yes in now, in truth, the only option.
We lost the vote last time. And I know there’s things we could and should have done better. I don’t doubt the logic of the currency policy but on hindsight I see that it was politically naive and a piss-poor negotiating position. Perhaps we should simply have our own currency, and have an army of people – people who would have argued our case last time, but whom we didn’t ask – on our side. And we should have been way stronger on the oil thing (and we will this time, particular as Norway has recently announced a £1tr oil fund and the UK oil price is now great again. Funny how you never hear about this). But we won the argument. And this time we start from a rock solid 47%. We’re almost there already. But it’s not in the bag. We have to win every vote. We have a promise to keep, and miles to go before we sleep.
What else have I learned?
Avoid echo chambers. And don’t spend too long with the converted.
There’s 25% of Scotland that will always vote No and 50% of us are broadly onside. It’s the remaining 25% we need to think about. It’s quite possible that when we were protesting outside the BBC, Labour (and, shamefully, it usually was) were ‘phoning up old people and telling them that the SNP was about to steal their pension. To be fair, and despite the enormous, winter-shortening white paper, we were all winging it to a certain extent. We’d never done this before so, actually, 45% was a creditable result. But now we have Brexit and a broken vow.
If we can’t win from here then we don’t deserve to win a raffle. I’m realistic enough to know that, if we don’t win this time, it’s gone. And it’s gone for a long time. I’m imagining next year as a sliding doors moment, as two possible futures. In one of these futures my two sons are sitting in a bar, forty or so years from now, and an old guy nursing a whisky tells them about the Scottish Independence campaign of the early part of the twenty first century. “Aye, right enough”, they’ll say. “I mind our old man talking about that”. But it won’t matter to me. Because I’ll be dead.
Or there’s another possible future in which I’ll still be every bit as dead but those boys will be thriving because their parents and grandparents had the foresight and decency to see beyond deference, fear and self-interest and to pursue and to vote for a future that doesn’t belong to them but which belongs to the generations not yet born.
The last twenty years have shown much that is good about Scotland. In the last couple of weeks, with the budget in particular, we’ve shown glimpses of the modern, forward thinking, self-determining country that I always knew we could – and should – be.
I’ll be in Orkney reciting Burns next month, but it is another Robert – Frost – who is in my thoughts tonight.
“I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference”.
Merry Christmas, everybody, and a happy new year. It’s been a privilege to share my thoughts with you in 2017. Next year, it falls on us – all of us – to take the road less travelled. And to make the difference.