With Scotland’s self-imposed exile from major football championships now about to enter its third decade, we find ourselves clutching at straws. The Saturday teatime game between the mighty Argentina and the heroic Iceland was memorable for a number of reasons, not least because it reminded us that, at its best, no other sport comes close.
It’s hard not to feel joyful arguably the greatest player ever to have walked the earth cannot score from twelve yards past a part-time keeper whose day job is making music videos for Eurovision. The commentator called it the “hand of Cod”, but he could equally have said: “Messi – nul points”.
Yesterday’s Scotland on Sunday managed to find the Scottish angle, however. “Ex-Hutchison Vale kid Alfred Finnbogason makes history at World Cup”, read the headline. That’s right – the scorer of Iceland’s equaliser and his country’s first World Cup goal used to play for a Boys Club in Edinburgh, where his father was studying. So between Alfred’s equaliser, and the fact that the Icelandic “thunderclap” routine was patented by Motherwell fans, there is a vibrant and tangible Scottish presence at Russia 2018.
Actually, there’s nothing of the sort but we have form for this sort of thing. The death of Manchester United great George Best a few years ago led to Leithers tweeting “RIP Hibs Legend” (Best played precisely eleven games for the Hibees at the end of a nomadic career). Reflected glory it may be, but for football fans like me it’s been a long twenty years and we’ll take our comforts where we find them. Incidentally, it occurs that we haven’t actually qualified for anything in the age of devolution. Personally, I blame the SNP. Sturgeon must surely go.
Just to be clear (and not in the Theresa May sense of the phrase), I didn’t set out in this article to have a moan about Scotland’s continuing absence from the World Cup, although I’d make the point that if a country with a population smaller than Edinburgh and which didn’t even play football on grass until 1957 can hold their own against Argentina and dump England out of the European Championships then we are clean out of excuses and need to have a talk with ourselves. I’ve never subscribed to the view that it’s only a game – the blue shirt and those who wear it is as much a symbol of our national identity and sense of self as the all-black shirt is to the people of New Zealand and the baggy green cricket hat is to Australians – but equally it’s not the end of the world.
But what if you weren’t being excluded from a football tournament but from engaging in your own democracy? Because, make no mistake, that is precisely what is happening. Last Wednesday’s ejection of Ian Blackford and subsequent mass walk-out by his colleagues for calling for an emergency debate on the Brexit Bill after no SNP member was afforded the chance to even take part in the process that sees devolution dismantled despite Holyrood voting overwhelming to retain these powers was predictably and tediously labelled a stunt. But what else was he supposed to do? And how did we get to the stage where it was felt necessary?
Leaving aside for now the sheer brass neck of being labelled stuntmen by people who think the answer to the Brexit shambles is a blue passport, some questions have to be asked. Like – if the third largest party in Westminster, a party which has gone out of its way to find solutions and to offer compromise even though Scotland firmly voted to remain in EU feels so ignored, disrespected and marginalised that it walks out of PMQs, wouldn’t it be an idea for the Westminster Government to examine its own behaviour and perhaps conclude that it ought to try a little harder?
I’d also suggest that one of the things that’s being forgotten here is that what Scotland is asking for is by any standards totally reasonable. Scotland isn’t demanding the modern home rule, near-federalist, devomax powerhouse as promised by a spooked Gordon Brown and the authors of the infamous “vow” days before the 2014 independence vote (although we should, because the people who need to respect referendum results are the winners, not the losers).
No, all Scotland wants is that the fundamental principle of the 1998 Scotland Act be respected – that is, all powers are devolved unless specifically reserved. And yet here we are, living the line from the Proclaimers song and begging for a piece of what’s already ours. The whole shameful episode is replete with irony, from unionists now voting against the devolution settlement they championed and promised to secure, to nationalists defending something – devolution – that was delivered by a unionist government and is seen by some within the independence movement as a trap, to Labour MSPs voting in Edinburgh to refuse legislative consent to the very bill that their UK colleagues are now imposing on Scotland against its democratically expressed wishes.
So what is going on? Just for once, in a perverse way David Mundell’s statement the day after the walkout may have actually done us all a favour by providing a moment of clarity. Remember when we were going to be better together? Lead us don’t leave us? A partnership of equals? More powers to make us the most powerful devolved legislature in Europe?
“Scotland is not a partner in the United Kingdom. Scotland is a part of the United Kingdom”.
And right there, the union breathed its last. You’ll have had your devolution. Shut up and eat your cereal. It was perhaps the most telling statement of the whole affair and it confirmed what many of us had believed for four years. That the UK government hasn’t the slightest interest in respecting the principle of devolution, that Westminster should only legislate for Scotland with the consent of Holyrood and, by extension, the Scottish people. And we now see why, perhaps anticipating Brexit, the promise to enshrine this principle in law was never delivered. The 2016 Scotland Act states that Scotland would “normally” legislate on devolved matters – but, of course, what is normal is entirely within the gift of Westminster. And that is why the power-grab is a red line for Holyrood – because once powers over areas like farming are “borrowed” then a precedent has been set and Westminster can and will do exactly what it wants. Which means no Scottish Parliament. It might even mean no Scotland.
Mundell’s statement was the day they stopped pretending there was an equal partnership. There never was, and it only existed because Westminster was prepared to go along with the charade. But there’s more. It’s not just that Westminster doesn’t like devolution – it never did and it never will. It’s that it, literally, can not afford it. Because you can’t do a whisky trade deal with Donald Trump if it’s a devolved area. You can’t do an agricultural trade deal with Australia that would see standards over hormone treatments reduced because that’s within the gift of Holyrood as well. And good luck with selling the NHS to American private health giants when Scotland is constitutionally in charge of its own health policy. That’s why there’s a power grab, and it’s why we must realise that we can have Brexit or a functioning Scottish democracy. But not both. Everybody knows it, and even some unionists are privately admitting that the game is up.
Perhaps the best summary of last week’s events came from Murray Foote, author of the vow, who is now firmly of the view that Scotland’s future must be as a newly independent country. In essence, he said that he could no longer subscribe to the view that Scotland should have two parliaments: one that it didn’t vote for, and the other whose primary function was to mitigate the effects of the policies of that parliament. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to be far more progressive, dynamic, ambitious.
Increasingly, the choice is being made for us and it’s now just a matter of time. The watching billions and fans in Russia will have to survive yet another Scotland-free tournament, but bear with us people.
After this week, we know that Scotland will be joining the world very, very soon.