“For Britain’s guid! for her destruction! Wi’ dissipation, feud, an’ faction”. (Robert Burns, ‘The Twa Dugs’)
“Facts are chiels that winna ding” (Burns)
I had my first Burns Supper of the season on Saturday. Great fun it was, too. Before I propose the Immortal Memory in Kirkwall next week, I’ve got the privilege of speaking at a couple of Burns Clubs: one in Galloway and one in Ayrshire. There’s a reason why Burnsians don’t do Dry January.
I always get nervous before speaking in public, but that’s natural. In fact, it’s essential. A late friend once told me that most people at funerals would rather be in the wooden casket than deliver the eulogy. He gave me a great bit of advice about public speaking. “Always get your butterflies flying in the same direction”, he said. “And the day you stop being nervous is the day you should retire”.
I’m not contemplating retirement yet, and the butterflies will be out in force this weekend, but there’s something else troubling me. On Saturday, the toast to “Auld Scotia” is to be proposed by a very well known Tory Grandee. The thought of this brings back bad memories for me.
Last year, I was sitting next to a lady who was proposing the toast to Scotland and she was 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 kicks off the conversation. “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. Christ. Then I remembered why my mobile ‘phone has the local cab number on speed-dial. Taxi for Ross.
It was only later that I realised 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?
Now, that’s probably completely unfair on this Saturday’s speaker. I watched her on Question Time during the early days of the Scottish Independence Referendum and while I didn’t come close to agreeing with her she was learned, humane and self-effacing and chose to make the Better Together argument in a positive way, rather than calling us poor, wee and stupid, which is probably why she disappeared without trace. In a sense I’m quite pleased she’s speaking in Ayrshire on Saturday: I was kind of worried something had happened to her. In any case, she came to my wife’s Third Sector project, engaged with everybody and came across as a real people person. She joined the Scottish Conservatives at a time when that was probably still something you’d want to put on your CV. She’s a renowned speaker and Burnsian with a reputation for a sharp wit and a gift for one-liners. So not only do I go with an open mind: had I not been on the top table, I might have paid to get in.
But in a momentous week for Scottish – and British – politics, during which the thirteen Scottish Conservative MPs voted en masse against the Labour amendment that would have prevented the rolling back of the Devolution settlement, what I’ll really want to ask her is this: what do you really make of your fellow Scottish Conservatives today? Because I think that to label them useless is to miss the point. They’re useless to Scotland, for sure, but what if your job description – your raison d’etre, is to belittle and diminish Scotland at each and every turn? What if your role is to clear the ground for an all-out assault on a devolution settlement you never wanted and on Scottish democracy itself? If that’s your game, you’re not useless in the slightest. On the contrary, I’d say you’re playing out of your skins.
One word of caution if you’re of a Unionist persuasion (although I don’t like the word as it implies some level of equality to a constitutional anachronism which is absurdly unbalanced. To be a Unionist is to be an incorporporationist). After this week, please desist from lecturing me about respecting the results of referendums. “Youse hud yer vote” isn’t an argument. By that logic we should never hold another election ever again. But things change. The Incorporationist pitch in 2014 was “lasting, safer, change”, but Tuesday was, officially, a naked power-grab. The same people who lecture us about respecting plebiscites have this week driven a coach and horses through a democratically decided, cross-party settlement that stated categorically in 1997 that all powers were devolved unless explicitly reserved. And yet I honestly believe that when the history of these tumultuous days is written, the Rubicon moment won’t be this week’s amendment vote but the earlier Supreme Court ruling that made it inevitable. For it was this judgment that confirmed that Scotland need not legally be consulted over Brexit or anything else. Our powers are lent, not given. Power devolved is power retained. This was the week in which Scotland’s Baker’s Dozen helped to call in the loan.
I’ve spent the rest of the week trying to make sense of this. Why would the Scottish No Surrender Nae Second Referendum Ever Party vote against an eminently sensible Labour proposal that would have led, quite easily, to UK-wide agreement on those policy areas where devolved administrations have competence? It was, surely, an excellent amendment that would have respected devolution and cooled any talk of an imminent constitutional bouroch. And yet David Mundell et al didn’t even blink. They didn’t give it a second thought. They voted against Scotland. They were always going to.
Given that the majority was 24, this is crucial. A bloc Scottish Tory vote would have seen the amendment pass. Yet they didn’t, so the bill now passes into the democratic outrage that is the Lords where the people who actually do give a damn about Scottish Democracy, quite rightly, don’t sit. Which means we have gone from having our future decided by people we didn’t vote for to having our future decided by people who nobody can vote for. This is what voting No gets you. This is your Brave New World. This, people, is Better Together.
Seven months ago, the dirty dozen were elected on the narrow premise of denying us a second Referendum and pledged to stand up for Scotland. They promised to stand up for Scottish interests in both Holyrood and Westminster. Given that nearly every newspaper published this as fact, it is extraordinary – and, for those of us paying attention, tediously predictable – that when they did precisely the opposite and voted against the wishes of the very people who elected them – the same media voices who reported this as gospel at the time are silent. This week saw perhaps the biggest and most significant political vote in British political history since the Act of Union. And yet the top story was that there was heavy snow. In Kelso. In January. Nicola Sturgeon must, surely, resign.
But let’s try to work this out rationally. Why are the most potentially influential political group in modern Scottish history choosing to harm their own people when, given that they hold so much influence in a government with such a wafer thin majority, they could achieve so much for Scotland? Are they not the Kingmakers? Why do they choose to hurt us so?
I think there are a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s arithmetic. Last year’s hubristic and wholly unnecessary snap General Election, far from delivering the super-majority that Theresa May erroneously declared she needed to deliver the best possible Brexit deal, would have left her party out of office if it hadn’t been for the Tory revival in Scotland based on a narrow no-surrender demographic and a bribe to the DUP that threatened the very fragile peace in Northern Ireland brought about by a Good Friday agreement that stated that no side of the divide should ever be favoured by a UK Govt for political ends. Last year proved that power will always prevail over peace, and brought about the Coalition of Chaos that, ironically, Theresa May had been warning us about. So, suddenly, the UK Govt can allow no room for dissent. The thirteen must obey the whip on everything, even if it is devastates the rural communities that they represent and whose people will be disproportionately affected by the hardest of hard brexits that they, themselves, have brought about for narrow political advantage and against the wishes of the people of Scotland. But at least a seat in the Lords awaits, for which we must all be grateful.
But, as an explanation, this doesn’t even come close. In any logical universe, thirteen Tories voting for a Labour-sponsored devolution-protecting would have been a no-brainer. A win-win that would have respected the devolved administrations and the home rule settlement and which would have got the withdrawal bill through. And the Scottish Tories could have claimed – rightfully, for once, to be standing up for Scotland. So unanimously voting it down makes no sense whatsoever. Unless there’s something else in play here. Which, of course, there is.
And it’s this. Brexit removes the mask. It provides unionists the opportunity to roll back the devolution settlement. It explains why Ruth Davidson can fight for and win seats by opposing the independence referendum that the chamber she works in has already approved in line with the material change in circumstance – Brexit – that was promised by the government elected by the people of Scotland. Stands Scotland where it did? Alas, poor country, almost afraid to know itself.
Brexit lets us know where we stand. Ruth Davidson was an articulate and passionate vote for Remain. Now, she says, we must get on with it. She promotes bigots within her own party and then goes into hiding. Like her pal Boris, a known Europhile, she is not a signpost but a weathervane who will forever do what is best to forward her personal advancement. Her party barely recognises the legitimacy of the Scottish Parliament in which she sits. Because, ultimately, Scotland is not her country. Britain is her country.
Don’t make the fatal mistake of underestimating the thirteen Tories who voted against Scotland this week. They weren’t being incompetent. They were doing their job, dismantling Scotland brick by brick, like a game of Jenga that will see us, ultimately, crash to the ground.
They won’t do it immediately because they aren’t stupid. But our powers are being removed. Piece by piece by piece. It will be difficult to imagine a more straightened set of circumstances. And farm support will be removed. And the Tories and their sycophants in the press will ask what the Scottish Government is doing to mitigate the effects of a Brexit we didn’t vote for with the powers that they’ve now had removed. That’s it. This is the future of Scottish Democracy. This, people, is what a No vote gets you. This is Better Together.
So what are the options? This week we learned that the UK is the only country in the EU that hadn’t bothered to do any EU Brexit impact studies. But Scotland has. A hard Brexit costs us each £2300 / year. A Canada deal costs us £1600 / year. Even staying in the Single Market, Norway style, leaves us £690 worse off. In other words, the options are bad, awful or catastrophic. The best deal for Scotland is the one we have right now. We’re told we have to wait for the final deal to decide where our future lies. But why? How much evidence do we need? We can shout all we like about devolved powers but it isn’t a fight we are winning.
You won’t ever read this in the press but this week’s Tory capitulation and media silence takes us way beyond Brexit and transcends party politics. We now know that we can live in a modern, functioning democracy or we can remain part of the UK. But we cannot do both. It will be daunting but we have no choice. 2018 is the fork in the road and there is a road less travelled. Let’s take it.
“For Britain’s guid! for her destruction! Wi’ dissipation, feud, an’ faction”. (Robert Burns, ‘The Twa Dugs’)