“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.” (Groucho Marx)
“Don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” (Bob Dylan)
In light of this week’s events it takes some believing, but just two and a bit years ago, in the run-up to the EU referendum, one of the most articulate and passionate advocates of remaining within the European Union was a certain Ruth Davidson. “There is nothing more positive”, she argued, “than having a strong economy supporting jobs and opportunities, and that is why I believe you should vote remain”. The subsequent, narrow vote to leave was achieved, we now know, by allowing the most narrow voting franchise imaginable, a slogan on the side of a bus and, crucially, illegally. Why the police have failed to prosecute is a matter for another article.
To be fair to Ms Davidson, she seemed to grasp the new reality and argue that staying within the single market should be the overriding priority, even if that meant free movement of labour, and insisted that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon argue that case – which she has done with vigour, right up to yesterday’s speech in London (of which more later) during which the First Minister argued with intelligence and logic that staying within the Customs Union and ESM was the outcome that most closely reflected – and respected – a nuanced public vote that saw two out of four UK nations express their desire to stay in the EU, including Scotland by a margin of nearly two to one.
So what Ruth Davidson was suggesting – quite fairly, I thought – was a soft Brexit that would achieve consensus amongst all but the hardest Eurosceptics.
“People are signposts or weathervanes”, said Tony Benn. “A weathervane hasn’t got an opinion until he consults the polls.”
It was only when the edict came from Conservative HQ that the weathervane started to twitch and Ruth changed her tune. It now appeared that single market membership wasn’t a binary choice. There were “gradations of access”, whatever that means. It wasn’t a big leap from a back-pedal to a fully blown, screeching u-turn. When her boss spoke at the recent Conservative Party, she boasted about ending free movement and described staying in the single market as an affront to the referendum result. Her foreign secretary compared Brussels to a Russian prison. And Ruth applauded. Not so much “the lady’s not for turning”, more: “I am their leader – I must follow them”.
For those of us who watch these things closely, none of this should be remotely surprising. This is, after all, the leader of a party that voted against the section 30 order that allows her own parliament to request a second independence referendum within the current parliamentary term. Whilst I’d argue that it’s perfectly fine for a party to oppose Scottish independence, it absolutely isn’t fine to say that Scotland shouldn’t be allowed to ask the question. And it isn’t fine to say – as she did, whilst knowing that a series of mandates existed – that Scotland will not be allowed a referendum until at least 2027. And it certainly isn’t fine when the Scottish media reports this as an “independence deid” story even though its source leads a defeated opposition party with barely twenty three percent of the MSPs in Holyrood. But of course what Ruth means is that there’d be no vote for as long as the Tories are in power in England, and if they’re in power in England, pure arithmetic and the limited and non-permanent nature of devolution means that they’re the de-facto rulers of Scotland as well. And the same goes if it’s a Labour Government, who have told us we’re not allowed democracy either. So we now know that, for Ruth, Scotland doesn’t matter. The UK matters. But even the UK doesn’t as matter to her as much as Ruth does.
But even this, profoundly shocking and breathtakingly anti-democratic as it is, pales into relative insignificance when we consider her party’s behaviour over Brexit. One can almost understand, if never condone, its position over a second independence vote. However, to vote en masse – and they did – against a Holyrood Withdrawal Bill that would have demanded powers already in devolved areas returned to Edinburgh in line with the 1998 Scotland Act and in the spirit of the convention that states that a power is devolved unless specifically reserved strikes me as the escalation of the assault on the Scottish Parliament and the undermining of its powers that began after the epic act of self-harm that was our vote against ourselves in 2014 and which will only end with either the dismantling of Holyrood and the reimposition of direct rule, or with independence itself. And it begs the question for Scotland’s chief British Nationalist party. If you vote against the very parliament – and the very country – in which you sit and whose people you represent from the proceeds of their taxes: what, pray, is the point of you? And why are you still here?
And, if you were still unsure as to how determined they were to wipe Scottish democracy off the map, this week ought to have removed any lingering doubts as Ruth Davidson and David Mundell, Secretary of State for Scotland, actually threatened to resign if their government passed a Brexit deal that gave special treatment to Northern Ireland, as the most important thing was “the integrity of the United Kingdom” – even if that guaranteed the worst possible deal for Scotland: a hard Brexit. It immediately confirmed that the continuation of the United Kingdom – in which Scotland’s wealth and resources are used to fund Brexit – trumps every other consideration. The union is an end in itself, a sacrosanct shibboleth that doesn’t care who or what it harms. It confirmed that the idea of standing up for Scotland and lobbying for a separate deal for Scotland hadn’t even entered their minds, or if it had it was in the context of doing the precise opposite and impoverishing Scotland to the point where it could never again try to right an old wrong and reclaim its democracy. It confirmed that unionism will always trump the well-being of the people of Scotland. It raised the likelihood of them opposing a Scottish safety net, even in the increasingly likely event of a No Deal. So to recap – Ruth Davidson has this week completed her Damascene conversion from ardent remainer to threatening to resign; not to ensure that Scotland gets as good a deal as Northern Ireland, but in order to ensure that Northern Ireland gets as bad a deal as Scotland. And in layman’s terms? I’ll walk unless Scotland gets shafted good and proper. Scotland’s enemies weren’t at the gates. They were here in the citadel, amongst us.
In such a scenario it would constitute a dereliction of duty for our leaders not to get us out of this existential threat as soon as humanly possible, and to that end I was frustrated at the “now is not the time” schtick ahead of the recent SNP conference, and wasn’t slow in saying so. I felt that there was a point where being canny crossed over into being feart, and by not calling a second referendum I felt we’d reached that tipping point. But once again the First Minister seems to have made the right call. There’s a reason, after all, why she’s the First Minister and I’m the one writing this column. Her speech in London confirmed her not as a weathervane but as a signpost. Her call for the UK – and Scotland – to remain within the Customs Union and the ESM was the epitome of statesmanship and common sense, while her backing of a “People’s Vote” diffused any argument that this was some kind of Independence Trojan Horse and showed that she is as politically savvy as ever. Once again, Ms Sturgeon didn’t just move the needle. She is the needle. Thank God for that.
And, with the upcoming Brexit deal likely to fall well short of ESM membership, far less that of the Customs Union, the material change of circumstance that her manifesto promised would trigger a second vote will be complete. It will be a green light. We’ll be on our way and this time it won’t be close.
“Your old road is Rapidly agin’. Please get out of the new one If you can’t lend your hand For the times they are a-changin’”
We’re nearly there people. Let’s finish this