“For Britain’s guid? For her destruction, wi’ dissipation, feud and faction!” (Robert Burns, The Twa Dogs)
For a cultural icon so radical, so modern, so angry, so relevant, Robert Burns still has an incredible knack, two hundred and twenty-four years after his death, of attracting some deeply conservative people to the suppers held in his name. Conservative, that is, with both a small ‘c’ and a large one as well.
Speaking at a Burns Supper on Saturday, I felt like I’d just walked uninvited into the monthly meeting of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. It was full of very white, very wealthy, very privileged and very Protestant people. It was also very posh, the kind of company for whom sex is what you put your potatoes in and whose houses don’t have rates – they have large mice. For some reason, that old Scottish joke kept coming to mind. Why don’t Scottish Presbyterians make love standing up? In case people look in the window and think they’re dancing.
Not for the first time, I was struck by the enduring unionist popularity for a man who wrote in 1790:
“Alas have I said to myself, what are the boasted advantages my country reaps from the union that can counterbalance the annihilation of her independence, and even her very name?”
If nothing else, the event allowed me to try to work out the number of Yessers in the room (zero) and to enjoy the ridiculous spectacle of tartan clad unionist solicitors belting out a song about independence. It occurred to me that these were the people that Burns wrote about two centuries before: the Establishment, the Holy Willies, the politicians, the pillars of society.
“You see yon birkie ca’d a lord, that struts and staunds and a’ that / tho’ thousands worship at his word, he’s but a coof for a’ that”.
The words from “A man’s a man for a’ that” felt apt, but so to did the words from “To a Louse” about the important of how the rest of the world perceives us.
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us! It wad frae mony a blunder free us, An’ foolish notion: What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us, An’ ev’n devotion!”
Teresa May’s Burns Supper this week was sorely lacking in this kind of self-awareness, and she was roundly lampooned for describing the supper as “part of the fabric of our union” (as well as a guest list that managed to spell everyone’s names wrong, and a cartoonishly pretentious menu. What, pray, is crispy haggis?) We’ve been trying to encourage people to #KeepScotlandTheBrand as tatties grown in Fife are suddenly engulfed in Union-Jackery, but now it seems that the Bard himself is getting a post-Brexit, Rule Brittania makeover. That eerie creaking noise you hear is Robert Burns birlin’ in his grave.
I’m perfectly fine with Teresa May, or anyone else for that matter, choosing to host a Burns Supper (although you just know it would have been dreadful). Of more interest and concern to a man of independent mind should be who the attendees were and what they represent. The guest included many of the Scottish Tory dirty dozen, whisky industry leaders, media chiefs, bankers, energy leaders, top civil servants and – no, really – the chairman of Tunnocks Teacakes. In other words, “elite” people who have done very nicely from being part of the ancien regime or who owe their continuing employment (in the case of David Mundell, for example) to the continuation of the status quo. The kind of people, in other words, who would do just about anything to frustrate the movement for Scottish Independence. So I have a feeling that Theresa’s Very British Burns Supper was about a lot more than just Fluffy Mundell addressing the Haggis very badly. It looked like a very powerful and disciplined army preparing for one hell of a campaign. And I shall explain what this campaign is and why we need to get organised. And fast.
Brace yourselves folks, because these next few paragraphs might not be too comfortable but there are some things that need to be said. And here’s my starting point.
This September will mark four years since the first Scottish Referendum, and I fear that one side of that debate has reflected on the previous campaign, been honest about where it went wrong, and triangulated its vote whilst building a war chest and planning for a campaign well in advance of the starting gun being fired. One side only has done all this. And it isn’t us. And that terrifies me. And here’s why.
Every action since 2014 has been designed to create the conditions whereby Scotland can never go for independence again.
Those who would deny us our independence because of fear, deference or self-interest have always been a powerful and formidable force. They take no prisoners and they don’t do emotion. They have no scruples. I see now that when we were singing songs in George Square, they were ‘phoning up your granny to tell them that Alex Salmond was going to steal her pension. Ours was the moral victory, but theirs was the actual victory. Yes voters like me were first through the polling station door on September 18th 2014, giving it the whole “selfie” treatment. No voters didn’t. They got up, went to work, had their tea and then voted No. It wasn’t emotional. It was business. Like completing your tax return, but with less fun.
It is now obvious that Scotland’s decision to vote No in 2014 – and, while I have some serious doubts over the veracity of a vote where the votes were counted by an outsourced agency based in England and in which the leader of Scottish Conservatives admitted tampering with the postal votes: and where Purdah was broken (19% of the voters were effectively voting on a different question to the 81% who voted after the -ahem – “vow”) – was the most egregious act of self-harm since the signing of the Act of Union of 1707.
The No side in 2014 argued that “No” didn’t mean the status quo. Faster, safer change, said Gordon Brown, and Nick Clegg. And David Cameron. And Ed Milliband. All of whom have since exited the stage for more important roles with people like Goldman Sachs. But, for what it’s worth, I agreed with them on the first point. “No” wouldn’t mean the status quo. “No”, I said, would mean Scotland being forced out of the EU against its wishes and the rolling back of its powers. I said that voting No after seeing a vow written on the front page of a tabloid wouldn’t be seen as an article of trust but as a sign of weakness. Which is precisely what has happened. Only worse.
The 2014 Referendum – and its result – was a huge moment for Scotland’s constitutional future. But it seems only one side of the constitutional question was energised by the result. While we gloried in the gold standard of democratic process that was the Indyref, the establishment set about the task of making sure that Scotland could never, ever, come so close to destroying a Unionist project that depends utterly on Scottish revenue ever again.
Which brings us to where we’re at. The British state is extremely powerful, and so lampooning a Downing St Burns Supper is a distraction. They don’t care about this. They only care about power. So when we – shamefully – voted against ourselves in 2014, we voted not for “no-change” but for the stripping back of our powers and the end of Scottish democracy itself. This much is clear.
This isn’t scaremongering. Think about it. We’ve gone from the “vow” from politicians who aren’t politicians anymore. We were promised “near federalism”, and instead we got EVEL. The Smith Commission saw only piecemeal repatriation of powers to Scotland, and the Scottish Government got battered for not mitigating enough the effects of the policies it didn’t vote for with the limited monies from a budget it didn’t set and can’t raise money for. Even the use of income tax powers triggers a downward adjustment in the block grant. We are being set up, as always, to fail. Devolution, said George Robertson, will kill nationalism stone dead. He was wrong, of course. Scotland now has a pro-Independence Parliament. It also has a majority of SNP MPs in the Commons, and a Section 30 – the voucher to order a second referendum – to boot. But does that mean self-determination is inevitable?
No. It doesn’t. The immediate response of the British State of the allegedly close result of the 2014 referendum was to regroup. To re-boot Project Fear. To launch Scotland in Union. To make sure that Scotland was diminished to the point where it could never again be so audacious as to demand the independence which will end the Unionist project.
The bitter irony – the thing that we’ve all missed – is that while the Scottish Government has spent the last three and a half years doing what it’s told to do by the British press and getting on with the day job and failing to re-write the case for self-determination, its opponents – in other words, just about everyone else – have busied themselves making sure that Scotland can never, ever, become independent.
And you have to give them credit. They’re doing a good job. The mask slipped early. On the day after the referendum, David Cameron announced English Votes for English Laws. The Smith Commission saw Labour block every new Holyrood power possible. And then every Unionist in Holyrood, by campaigning against the right of Scotland to hold the second plebiscite that their own parliament had voted for, effectively refused to recognise the sovereignty of their own parliament, while their cheerleaders in the press told us how awful the Scottish NHS was and how there were five minute delays on the new Forth Bridge and what was that Nicola Sturgeon doing about it. And this was just the start.
And then the democratic outrage that is Brexit happened. The Supreme Court judgement on Article 50 legally confirmed what some of us had long suspected. Power devolved is power retained. Our competencies are lent, not given. And the Tory deal with the DUP effectively means the end of the Barnett formula and therefore less money for Scotland and fewer powers with which to do things with it. Brexit, for Unionists, is Christmas Day.
So where are we now? I now realise that it’s pointless criticising, as I did, the thirteen Tories who voted against the recent Labour amendment that would have protected the devolution settlement before the bill entered the Lords. Because the dirty dozen were only doing their job, which is to serve the interests of the British State. Because I now realise that there are no Scottish Tories. There are only British Tories. And there are no unionists, because that implies respect and equality. They are incorporationists.
Brexit provides a golden opportunity to roll back the devolution settlement that they always hated and to put Scotland back in its box forever. If you want to catch a thief you have to think like a thief, so if – God forbid – I was a unionist, this is what I’d be thinking and doing.
Firstly, I’d realise that if I wanted to achieve my endgame of a cliff-edge Brexit, the last thing I’d need would be a devolved Scottish Government with the powers to block things. I’d obviously start by demanding that my Tories in Scotland voted against any Brexit amendments. I’d give David Mundell and the Scotland office all the money, people and resources he needed to wage a war on the Scottish people. I’d then want to remove the Scottish Parliament at the earliest opportunity so that I could take control over previously devolved areas like fracking so that I could plunder absolutely everything from that resource-rich region so that I could pay for Brexit. I’d then slash the Scottish block grant to the point out that the Scottish Government had to cut public service funding and then get the papers – who are, naturally, staunch unionists – to ramp up a co-ordinated anti-Scottish campaign which takes the line is that, actually, Holyrood isn’t doing a good job and is an appalling waste of money, a talking shop, a wholly unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and should be closed immediately. I’d use these classic divide and rule tactics and use the press to turn Scotland against its own parliament and then I’d inherit the ruins. David Mundell then essentially becomes Scotland’s viceroy and Ruth Davidson becomes Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and North Britain. And, by the way, I’d get the Repeal Bill through before we leave the EU in March 2019, just in case anything goes wrong and we don’t Brexit when we’re supposed to. We will be under the yoke of London neo-Liberalism forever and the dream of Scottish Independence will be dead. But at least there won’t be all that divisive constitutional stuff and our passports will be blue and we can watch the Royal Wedding. And we’ll sing independence songs and wear the tartan on Burns night. We’ll be Better Together.
Three and a half years ago, the talk was all about what a Yes Scotland would look like. The union apologists promised change, and they were right – up to a point. But it was never going to be more devolved powers. It wasn’t going to be home rule, near-federalism or any other meaningless label you care to use. A No vote was never going to be seen as a gesture of trust. It was always going to be seen as a sign of weakness. What we’re witnessing now is that weakness being exploited. What we’re seeing is full-out, co-ordinated assault on Holyrood and on Scottish Democracy itself. The British Tories in Scotland voting to wreck the devolution settlement was just the phoney war. The cavalry will be with you shortly.
That’s it. That’s the future of Scotland. That’s your Brave New World. That’s what voting No gets you. Eat your porridge and thank us at you leisure.
That’s why I believe that talking about the timing of the second independence referendum and seeing how Brexit ends up rather misses the point. We’re not talking about whether Scotland is a member of the EU, or EFTA, or the Single Market, or the Customs Union. We’re not talking about any of that. On this day – Burns Day – we need to ask one question and one question only. Is Scotland a country? And if the answer is yes, then it’s about time we took it back and started acting like one. It’ll be a hell of a fight, but the prize will be great. Let’s get it done.
Postscript: I’m in Orkney tomorrow night proposing the Immortal Memory to Robert Burns in the St Magnus Centre Come along.