I’d taken a couple of weeks off from this column to start a new chapter in my life as a director / owner of a proper agri-business, so it’s good to be back. In truth, as the bombs rain down on Syria and the world feels more unstable than ever, you feel like borrowing that old Keith Richards line. Good to be here? Given the alternative, it’s good to be anywhere.
I’ll tell you a wee story. When I was campaigning during the first independence referendum, I was out for dinner with a friend.
“I know a Yes vote is important to you”, he said, “but I’m thinking of the bigger picture”.
I’m not even sure he realised how it came out, but all I could hear was what I’d always heard. That ours are parochial concerns. That Scotland must always sacrifice itself to help England to save itself, from itself. That we must always shelve our own, smaller, concerns and that our destiny must always be determined by a larger neighbour and by people we didn’t vote for, that the union must prevail, even if it means being sucked in by the gravitational pull of people we want nothing to do with. Even if that means austerity. Even if that means leaving the EU despite voting overwhelmingly to remain. Even if that means being dragged into an insane bombing campaign designed as a diversion to the permabouroch of Brexit without parliamentary approval or even evidence of guilt. Even if it means hearing about the decision from Donald Trump first, which tells you exactly what the UK has become – a faded wee irrelevance that everybody hates. No vote, no public support, no peace strategy. This is a desperate act of cowardice and diversion. If that doesnae work, dinna fley. The Royal wedding will be with you shortly.
Far from being a reason for putting independence even further into the back burner, recent events – Salisbury, Syria, Brexit – make the case for living in a Scotland that wishes to be one of the good guys appealing and increasingly urgent. In the frantic first days of my new adventure, I wasn’t totally immersed all of the time. I was, for example, aware of the stooshie caused by MP Pete Wishart and his calls for delaying a second independence referendum, and the predictable unionist press reports of schisms within the SNP and the wider Yes movement.
It seems we can’t win here. If we have robust debate and talk about our differences and genuine concerns about when to start the campaign or indeed what our relationship with Europe should look like, we are labelled as divided. However, if we all tow the party line we are called a sheep-like cult. Heads you win, tails we lose. I do know, however, that the movement is united on the biggest question – should Scotland be an independent country? – so accusations from some within Yes that Pete Wishart is somehow in the pocket of the Eton posh set are ludicrously wide of the mark. That said, my own position is clear. There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t call it today. Not one. Indeed, I honestly feel we’re at a stage where not to call it would be a betrayal and an abdication of the Scottish Government’s duty of care to its own citizens.
Of the countless number of annoying things in football, chief amongst them is commentators saying “pity, he did the hard part” when some hapless player balloons it into row z after slaloming past half the team and with only the keeper to beat. The hard bit is finishing the job, getting over the line. It’s getting into position that’s the easy bit. It explains why an expensively assembled Manchester City can build up a seemingly impregnable sixteen point lead over the winter and then falter in the spring. Rory McIlroy built up momentum last week in the Georgia sunshine before folding on the Sunday back nine. It’s hard to seal the deal.
The Yes movement is that striker through on goal. We’ve done the work. We’ve practiced the arguments. We’ve got the momentum. We have the people. Our opponents are in disarray. Yet our prevarication reminds me of the story of the great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly instructing his centre back that he should under no circumstances enter the opposition box at any point in the game. “But what if I end up there by mistake, boss?”, he asks. “In that case, son”, says Shankly, “just put the ball in the net and we’ll discuss your options later”.
I increasingly think that we are in danger of over-complicating things. Yes, I get that we can’t afford to lose because if we do it’s gone and it’s gone for a long time and that I won’t ever see independence if we blow it. And I recognise the concern over the scenario where we call a referendum and then Brexit is miraculously averted. And yes, I understand the logic of waiting for a consistent 60/40 lead in the polls. But what if that doesn’t materialise? And what if it does and the polls are wrong? And they increasingly are. Hillary was ahead. Remain was ahead. And yet we have Trump and we have Brexit. We live in the age of unreason. Remember, too, that we started in 2012 a whopping forty-six points behind – and nearly won. Probably would have won, too, if it hadn’t been for the Vow. And the postal-box tampering. And purdah being broken. And (perhaps) Cambridge Analyticals. So, actually, a starting point of at least 45% – which is in the bag – is a brilliant place to start from. So start we should.
And the debate about whether or not it falls within the legal competency of Holyrood to call a second independence referendum – the elephant in the room, as Wings over Scotland described it this week – means that time is short. The argument is that the Scottish Government needs to legislate immediately for the right to call a second referendum, because even if it loses then we’re no worse off than we currently are. If we win, however, then we re-make the case for independence in a parliamentary term in which we have that most rare and precious of things – a Holyrood majority for independence.
Add to that a pro-independence majority of Scottish MPs in Westminster and the fact that the current Holyrood parliament has passed the Section 30 order that permits it to request a second referendum and the much vaunted triple lock mandate suddenly becomes a quadruple one with the law on its side. But governments rise and governments fall, and there exist no guarantees that a pro-independence majority will remain ad-infinitum. Indeed, the d’Honte system was set up to ensure that this was precisely what wouldn’t happen. “Devolution will kill nationalism stone dead”, said George Robertson – although happily it hasn’t quite worked out like that. But the parliamentary session ends in three years, and the chances of getting a referendum post-2021 in a Brexit-diminished, pro-unionist, section 30 revoked, Better Together Holyrood are, frankly, zero. In truth, they’re unlikely to be that high.
So. The broken vow. Brexit. The scrapping of Sewell and the end of Barnett. The power grab. The threat to peace in Ireland. The undermining of the devolution settlement. The threat to Scottish democracy itself. The continuing democratic deficit. The selling out of the fishermen. The selling out of the Scottish Brand. Syria. We have a mandate – three of them – for a vote. And yet we are told we must wait and see. We must ca’ canny. We must be patient. We must know our place. And eat our cereal.
Aye, right. The truth is I’ve had it up to here with canny. Canny got us the No vote. Canny kept us in a union that is diametrically opposed to our best interests. Canny saw us being ripped out of Europe. That isn’t being canny. That’s being self-defeating. What will win it for us this time is that, this time round, Yes represents the safe option. Yes is the harbour in the tempest.
“Timing is everything”, we’re told. It is not. Frankly, it’s irrelevant. We have the mandate and we have the people and there is no perfect moment, no sweet spot. Either Scotland is capable of independence or it is the first country in history that is incapable of running its own affairs. Win a completely winnable argument. Today. It’s that simple. It really is.
The rest is noise.
It’s good to be back, by the way.