“The enemies of Scottish Nationalism are not the English, for they were ever a great and generous folk, quick to respond when justice calls. Our real enemies are among us, born without imagination.” – R.B. Cunninghame Graham
Early in 2017, when it became obvious that the UK government hadn’t bothered to read, far less consider, the eminently sensible compromise proposals from Holyrood that respected the Brexit vote whilst acknowledging that Scotland had voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, Nicola Sturgeon entered the press room of Bute House and pulled the pin from the grenade. She was, she stated evenly, honouring a manifesto commitment to ask the constitutional question again if there were a material change in circumstances – like, you know, being ripped out the European Union against your democratically expressed wishes. In short, indyref2 is happening. Game on.
We then witnessed the bizarre sight of a government being lambasted for actually doing what governments are accused of never doing – keeping its promises. The unionist media went into meltdown: “youse have hud yer vote” was the gist of it. But, as well as the manifesto commitment, the SNP also had a massive majority of Scottish MPs and the pro-independence majority in Holyrood meant led to the subsequent passing of the section 30 order that effectively triple locked the mandate for a second vote. During the debate, Ruth Davidson took the opportunity to mock a fellow MSP’s accent. The mask slipped. She was rattled. They all were.
Events, dear boy, events (Harold MacMillan)
Recently, during a fascinating and expansive interview on Radio Scotland, Alex Salmond was asked if would have done anything differently during the first Independence Referendum. He replied that, of course, he would have done, but pointed out that politics happens in real time and no politician is afforded the luxury of hindsight. He shared the favoured maxim of his late, golf-daft father: “son, always play the ball as it lies”.
That sentiment helps us to understand Nicola Sturgeon’s decision and puts into context the predictable havers that she’d misjudged the mood, that she’d taken her eye off the ball, that she should get on with the day job. All these were seductive arguments for those of a unionist persuasion, and all of them were nonsense. When you revisit March 2017 – the Brexit impasse, the manifesto commitment, the SNP dominance – and activists like me keen to get on with it – then it’s difficult to arrive at any other conclusion. The did the most sensible thing that circumstances dictated. She played the ball as it lay.
And it’s hardly her fault that Theresa May then decided that, actually, the best use of her time wasn’t cracking on with Brexit but with a wholly unnecessary snap election that lost May her majority and left her in abject humiliation, desperately shaking the money tree for enough banknotes to bribe the DUP to cobble together the coalition of chaos that she’d warned us against.
Nor could the First Minister have foreseen the cynical – but effective – triangulation of the votes of, variously, unionists, the no-surrender brigade and people who were just scunnered with the whole thing and who were highly receptive to the “no second referendum” message. And so Scotland ended up with twelve new Tories. Even now I find it awkward and a bit shaming that if Scotland hadn’t voted them in then there wouldn’t have been enough DUP MPs to bribe, no matter how hard May shook the tree. Scotland made the Coalition of Chaos possible. That is the elephant in the room.
It was revealing that virtually nobody bothered to point out the inconsistencies in May’s subsequent statements. Despite being rejected by the country, May said it was cliff-edge Brexit-time. That nothing had changed. And yet, in the same sentence, she claimed tha a few successful paper candidates in Scotland meant that independence was now stone dead. It was patently absurd.
But things change, and it wasn’t long before Scotland rumbled their members of the “youse hud yer vote” party for the spivs and charlatans that they are, witnessing them voting en masse for the article 50 withdrawal and against the amendments tabled to protect the now crumbling devolution settlement. They weren’t standing up for Scotland. They were lobby fodder, their raison d’etre the weakening and belittling of Scotland at every opportunity. That if what they are for. It is all they are for. What we are witnessing is them doing the day job. Which sees them languishing in third place in the Scottish polls, which is where you deserve to be when you’re not actually a political party at all but a single issue pressure group.
Where are we now?
After we’ve finished the whisky this Hogmanay and sung Auld Lang Syne, we need to have a word with ourselves and decide when we want to hold the final Scottish Independence Referendum. May is right. Now is not the time. But it must be soon.
Last year’s events – in particular the snap election and its far-reaching consequences (the 21 lost seats and 500,000 votes for the SNP, the rise and immediate fall of the no referendum party, the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn) shows how quickly things change. This is the essential truth that must inform our decision on when to hold a second plebiscite.
But first, some very good news. Before the starting gun has been fired we’re at 49% Yes. Given we started the last time at 28%, that’s one hell of a platform. And, three years on, every single part of the vow has been broken. Every one. It’s been breathtaking in its mendacity, but it provides an opportunity. Our greatest weapon in the 2018 Yes campaign is the 2014 No campaign. The reason Unionists tell us “now is not the time” is because they know the game is up. We’ll win from here, and it won’t even be close.
But, while support for independence is rock solid and will inevitably rise, other things are less certain. The Section 30 order is a bit like the book voucher I got from my auntie this Christmas – it’s got to be redeemed by a certain date. You use it or lose it. The order lasts until the end of the current 2021 term, and there are no guarantees it will be renewed – particularly when another pro-independence majority in the house is far from a shoo-in.
The second problem is Europe. In June, Nicola Sturgeon described clarity over Brexit as a precondition of Indyref2. But the Irish border issue has seen a cliff-edge Brexit less certain, and there’s even a possibility of a fudge that leaves decisions on Brussels alignment for future governments. We could be negotiating for decades, and it might not even happen at all. Far from achieving clarity, this is a peasouper of an Omnibouroch. And it’s getting thicker. If clarity is a precondition for a referendum, we might as well go home now because it will not happen.
So: here’s what we need to do.
It is precisely because the future is so uncertain that the First Minister must call the second referendum just after the bells with a view to holding the vote at the earliest possible opportunity. Things might look better, or worse, or about the same a few years from now. Nobody knows. But I fear that aligning something we can control – our independence – with something we categorically cannot – Brexit- is a huge strategic error. The fashion is to call Brexit a lifeboat, but the metaphor only works up to a point. For one, Brexit might not happen so we might not need one. And, much more importantly, rowing to shore suggests self-preservation, whereas our mindset needs to be: what kind of a society shall we become? This isn’t a salvage job, it’s a building one. A project that will see us, very soon from now, becoming the normal, median-sized, modern, progressive, socially just, accountable, self-governing country that some of us instinctively believe to be our destiny and in whose advantages all of us, of all political beliefs and none, will share.
None of that requires preconditions, Brexit clarity or otherwise. But it does need courage. And it does need to be very soon.
So enjoy your last Hogmanay as a valued friend and partner in the precious family of nations in which we are better together. There’s a bottle of Orkney whisky with my name on it, so if the First Minister could leave any announcements until the second of January, then I’d appreciate it.
And I’d really, really appreciate it if she walked into Bute House on Tuesday, looked at the camera and said: “Actually, Prime Minister, you’re wrong. Now is the time”.
Finally, good people, thanks for your support in 2017. Wherever you are, whoever you are: happy new year.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News