If a book I’ve been thoroughly enjoying recently (“When They Go Low, We Go High”) tells me anything, it is whatever else we may choose to say about him, Tony Blair had one hell of a speechwriter. Philip Collins, the author, critiques all the great speeches, from Cicero through The Gettysburg Address to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” (which he wasn’t supposed to say, incidentally. It was only when his entourage whispered to him that his speech wasn’t hitting the target that he put his notes down, spoke from the heart and from memory, and achieved immortality. But it could have gone the other way. The book is full of wee gems like this).
I thought about the book again last week when witnessing the powerful oratory of Scotland’s Brexit Minister, Mike Russell, last week, as Scotland debated – and roundly rejected – the Brexit bill. Truly great oratory is depressingly rare in the age of Twitter and focus groups. So it was a pleasure to hear the following:
“And that is our duty because this Scottish Parliament belongs to the people of Scotland: not to us as parliamentarians, nor to this Government or any Government. As elected members, we hold this place and our powers in trust: for the generation that voted for it, for this generation, and for the generations to come”.
So: government of the people, for the people, by the people shall not perish from the earth. An Edinburgh morning. Echoes of Abraham.
It was one of those moments where you just wanted to stand and applaud, when you were genuinely proud of your own, hard-won, imperfect, thrawn, Parliament. The day when Scotland – or at least the large majority that isn’t British Nationalist – took a look at the small-print and said: aye, right. No deal.
Which is just as well because otherwise we are being set up to fail. The paradox is this: on the one hand we are being demanded to achieve things as a parliament that is not in our gift to deliver and then being roundly castigated when we, as is inevitable, fall short.
The recent criticism of minimum pricing is a case on point. Alcohol taxes falls firmly into the “reserved to Westminster” powers category, so when a unionist asked me recently why the Scottish Government hadn’t just upped the duty on booze, she was actually calling for something that I want too – greater powers for Scotland. Inadvertently, she was making the case for independence. And yet, in the same breath, British Nationalists in Holyrood are voting, en bloc, for crucial powers to be – ahem – “borrowed” for a year or seven.
The hypocrisy is staggering. Here is a group people who tell us to respect the result in 2014, despite the fact that each and every one of the promises they hastily made to win have been utterly broken. A group who have seemingly not just won an advisory EU referendum by the narrowest of margins and franchises possible but who also interpreted this as a mandate to impose the hardest outcome possible despite it being firmly rejected by the people of Scotland. A group who would gleefully overturn something that Scotland most definitely did vote yes to – Devolution. But the people have spoken. The vote must be respected.
But is a headlong rush towards a hard-Brexit respecting the will of the people? No, of course not – which is why I think there may still be a vote on the final Brexit deal – if one ever arrives. Remember, the vote was close and Scotland overwhelmingly wanted to remain. The franchise was deliberately engineered to be as restrictive as possible, so it excluded EU nationals, ex-pats and 16/17 year olds. What transpired was a decision taken by an alarmingly narrow demographic based largely on xenophobia and a slogan on a muckle big bus. And to get an idea of how eagerly the Brexiteers have seized the narrative, we need to channel our inner Robert Burns, he of the “antithetical mind”. In other words, let’s look through the looking glass the other way. Imagine, for a second, if the result had been different. Imagine if it had been 52:48 remain. And imagine if those Remainers had taken that as a green light to join Schengen, ditch sterling, join the Euro and abolish the monarchy? Radical stuff, and yet that is just the diametric opposite of what those driving the Leave narrative are gleefully pursuing.
However, Tuesday saw the Holyrood debate on a WM Brexit Bill that would have seen key devolved areas like farming “borrowed” for a year or seven, essentially ripping up the founding principle of devolution that a power is devolved unless explicitly reserved. The Scotland Brexit Minister, in a brilliant piece of oratory, made the excellent point that powers reside with the people, and that it wasn’t within the gift of transient politicians of whatever hue to give them away. Not that stopped the British unionist conservatives trying to exactly do that, voting en bloc against the very parliament in which they sit. So here’s the thing. If you’re a Tory MSP, in a Scottish chamber, representing Scottish people, and you vote for the end of the democratic Holyrood that you’re paid to work in: what exactly is the point of you? And why are you here? Whither “standing up for Scotland”?
I get why they did this. They voted against devolution in 1997 and Brexit affords the opportunity to re-establish one-nation Toryism and roll back constitutional settlement that they always hated. They also know that Brexit needs to be paid for, which means trade deals on farming and healthcare, which is exactly what this power-grab is all about. It’s hard – impossible, even – to achieve such deals when these areas are devolved. So devolution must end.
But on Tuesday they were roundly chased, 93-30. An unambiguous horsing. It was one of those moments when you felt really proud of the Scottish Parliament. What differed in this instance was, apart from the scale of the win, was the lack of unionists saying that the vote must be respected. Instead? Tough. Power devolved is power retained. Know your place. We’ll take that as a Yes. If you don’t like it we’ll see you in court. This must be those shining new powers that Gordon Brown promised us in 2014.
As far as the unionists are concerned, project fear never ends. That’s why they were meeting in London today, the Better Together band back together, only with added DUP. Which is good news – that internal polling has them rattled. They know the game is nearly up. “Scotland doesn’t want another divisive referendum”, says Ruth Davidson, again (does she have any other policies?) Well, she’s maybe right. I know independence supporters who can’t really face another vote. Referendums are a massive pain in the arse. But then going to the dentist isn’t necessary a bundle of guffaws either, but it’s a pre-requisite of good dental health. Similarly, we maybe have to suck up the inconvenience of a second vote as a pre-requisite of competent government.
So here’s a couple of suggestions. I’m no political strategist, but I’d hazard that the 93-30 vote against the Brexit Bill broadly reflects Scotland’s support for an Edinburgh parliament that has led the way in progressive legislation in areas like healthcare, gay marriage, section 28 and the smoking ban. I’m quite convinced that Scots, across the political spectrum, broadly like their parliament and don’t want its powers to diminish, or the institution itself to perish.
Sometimes things are exactly as they seem.
Mike Russell made the point that power ultimately belonged to the Scottish people and it wasn’t for him or anyone else to give away. He also made the point that this wasn’t an independence issue but effectively about a hugely popular devolution settlement. When the second vote is called, I’d be appealing to the goodwill of a Scotland that broadly recognised that a legislature in Edinburgh, restricted in scope that it is, is a force for good and is worth defending. And I’ll be arguing that independence not only guarantees the continuity of our parliament but immediately makes it as powerful as any other independent chamber on the planet, and grants us the kind of powers that every other nation takes as its birthright but which we must beg for and which are now being withdrawn as part of a right-wing ideological fantasy that Scotland utterly rejects. That’s my first suggestion – hold a second referendum. If we’re granted one. Which we won’t be. Because now is not the time. And it never will be, either.
Which leads me to my second suggestion. Don’t hold a second independence referendum. No, you did read that right. Here’s my cunning plan. There are some strong rumours coming out of Westminster which are effectively saying: get ready for a snap election. So here’s an idea. What about us making autumn 2018 a plebiscite election, a de-facto indyref 2? Why not get the pro-independence parties in a room and get them to table an express manifesto promise to leave the union if pro-independence parties get over 50% of the seats? Margaret Thatcher herself saw that as a mandate for independence. It’s beautifully simple. Win thirty-five eminently winnable seats (the Tories are likely to lose at least five of them) and simply declare our time as a member of the United Kingdom at a merciful end, without any of that horrible divisive nonsense. The end of an auld song, if you will. Sure, we could do it in the Holyrood election of 2021 but politics is about leading from the front and momentum is building. We have the momentum. We have the people. The only thing we have to fear, said Roosevelt, is fear itself. Actually, now is the time.
Ultimately it has nothing whatsoever to do with any of this. It’s got nothing to do with the price of oil or whether we use the pound or not. It’s how we see ourselves, how we feel. It’s about our self-belief and our self-respect. It’s about our pride. It’s about escaping the toxic Westminster vortex that drags us in despite us consistently rejecting its policies and its philosophy. Frankly, if we can’t win a second referendum in these circumstances then hell mend us.
If we become the first country in the history of the world to vote against ourselves not once but twice because we don’t like that Nicola Sturgeon or that SNP then we don’t deserve to be independent and deserve what will come to us – the dissolution of our hard-won powers, the rolling back of the devolution settlement and possibly the end of the Scottish nation itself.
As the ink was drying on the Treaty of Union of 1707, the Earl of Seafield was heard to remark: “There’s the end of an auld song”. A second No vote would truly spell the end. Not the end of a song, but quite possibly the end of a nation and a future when we’re in a constitutional twilight zone where we get the kilts on for the Burns season and say “wha’s like us” and sing songs about independence having just rejected a state of affairs that everybody else sees as normal. Again. The chances of being granted, far less winning, a third referendum are for the birds. Forget it. Game over. We will be a region with all the power of an English parish council. And the fault will lie squarely with ourselves. No ifs, no buts, no excuses.
“Where there is no hope, we must invent it”, writes Albert Camus. The Philip Collins book ends with a story told by Elie Wiesel to Bill Clinton that precisely locates the source of political wisdom that we, every one of us, must defend.
“Once upon a time”, he said, “there was an emperor, and the emperor heard that in his empire there was a man,a wise man with occult powers. He had all the powers in the world. He knew when the wind was blowing what messages it would blow from one country to another. He read the clouds and he realised the clouds had a design. He knew the meaning of that design. He heard the birds. He understood the language of the birds, the chirping of the birds carried messages. And then he heard there was a man who knew how to read another person’s mind. I want to see him, said the emperor.
They found him. They brought him to the emperor. Is it true you know how to read the clouds? Yes, majesty. Is it true you know the language of birds? Yes majesty. What about the wind? Yes, I know.
Ok, says the emperor. I have in my hands behind my back a bird. Tell me, is it alive or not? And the wise man was so afraid that whatever he would say would be a tragedy, that if he were to say the bird were alive the emperor, in spite, would kill it.
So he looked at the emperor for a long time, smiled, and said:
“Majesty, the answer is in your hands. It is always in our hands”.
The answer, good people, is in our hands.