You gotta stand up for what you believe” (Jon Bon Jovi)
The much heralded return of Ruth Davidson to frontline politics this week was launched with a BBC interview that was about as interrogative and probing as Hello magazine. The broadcaster didn’t bother to ask, for example, why she opposed a second independence referendum when she had stated in 2016 that she wouldn’t oppose one. What has changed, or was she simply being – in the words of the late Tony Benn – a weathervane rather than a signpost? These are my principles, said Groucho Marx. And if you don’t like them? Well, I have others.
Neither was there any attempt to ask the obvious question that should have been asked some months ago when Ms Davidson claimed she didn’t want to be Prime Minister but was determined to become the First Minister of Scotland. The obvious question – “is that because you consider the position of First Minister a lesser and easier position than that of Prime Minister, and if so, why are you here?” – wasn’t asked. I’d also have wanted to ask this. If you lead a party that actively campaigns against a Scotland-specific EU withdrawal bill, that the courts have ruled is within Holyrood’s competency to draft, and by extension campaign for the removal of powers post-Brexit that trample roughshod over the devolution settlement that underpins the democracy in which you sit: then what, pray, is the point of you? Whither “Standing up for Scotland”? Why are you here?
The interview was revealing, I think, on many levels. Firstly, it’s hardly a mad conspiracy theory to mention the contrast between the Conservative leader being allowed to essentially make her pitch to a UK virtually unchallenged and the First Minister being constantly interrupted by the same media during her interview ahead of the SNP conference last weekend. It’s also interesting that the narrative is all about Ruth Davidson being a serious contender for the position of First Minister when every poll shows her party’s support falling and the SNP set to win over fifty seats in the not unlikely event of a general election. It also seems highly fanciful that a woman who fought strongly to remain in the EU would come close to becoming the leader who could unite the various warring factions of the Tory permabouroch. In truth, this is a media getting itself into ludicrous contortions borne from a deep determination to stop the facts from getting in the way of an agreed narrative.
It’s also, I think, indicative of what the media thinks of Nicola Sturgeon, her party and the wider independence movement when a “woman comes back to work after having a wean” story is deemed more important than a speech from yer actual First Minister outlining plans for a second independence referendum (which was shunted in favour of the snooker, obviously).
It’s also worth mentioning something else that always gets a free pass – this line that there is no appetite for another independence plebiscite. There comes a point in every argument where the numbers trump the spin. Facts are chiels that winna ding, and a 49% desire for independence – a dead heat in reality – is hardly “no appetite”. Particularly when it doesn’t include an army of soon to be enfranchised sixteen and seventeen year olds, whose future it is and who would vote for self-determination in a heartbeat. That’s not a lack of appetite. That’s being absolutely bloody starving.
It’s worth recalling that when the Edinburgh agreement was signed in 2012, support for an independent Scotland stood at around twenty-seven percent: which was why then Prime Minister David Cameron was quite relaxed about granting a Section 30 order to permit a vote. Every poll suggested he’d win by a lot. Of course, he got to a stage where he was quite probably behind with eleven days to go, hence the vow and the breaking of purdah (another thing that never ever gets reported). The only thing thing that has concerned the establishment since getting the fright of their lives – apart from the epic determination to self-harm over Brexit – is making sure that Scotland never gets the opportunity to get ideas above its station and never gets the opportunity to regain its rightful constitutional status as a modern newly independent European country. Everything – the scrapping of Sewell, the beginning of the end of Barnett, a Brexit enabled power grab, Scottish politicians voting against Scotland – is underpinned by this deep desire that Scotland’s devolution settlement must be rolled back and that we always be the junior partner in this grotesque sham of an unequal union.
It was always going to happen. By becoming the first country in history to vote against itself, we effectively told London that anything they did to us from now on was fair game. A no vote was never going to be seen as a gesture of trust but as a betrayal of weakness. Nobody ever gained self-respect, far less self-determination, by failing to stand up for themselves.
So now we have a problem.
Here’s the thing. I admire Nicola Sturgeon enormously and I think she displays enormous poise and dignity when being shouted at and interrupted by interviewers. But sometimes the question asked is fair and genuine. Asked on Sky News how she would get round the problem of not getting permission to hold a second vote on independence, she said “I will make the case for independence”. She stated that Westminster’s position on granting a vote – in other words, not to grant a vote – was illogical and unsustainable. Which is true, but they still aren’t going to change their position just because we ask them nicely. A parliament whose stated aim is to deny us our independence and that holds us in outright contempt isn’t remotely likely to ever permit us the right to hold a vote that will clearly deliver us our independence by a sizeable margin. It would be like negotiating to get your ball back from a Rottweiler.
So we need to be honest and to look at other ways to get over the line.
For example, there may soon be a general election. The pro-independence parties could simply write the shortest manifesto in political history, and state that if a majority of pro-independence is returned (and it will) then that, in itself, as a mandate to withdraw from the Act of Union. Which was, I like reminding people, the stated position of a certain Margaret Hilda Thatcher.
Or we hold a referendum anyway. That may be risky, given that unionists might boycott it, and may be seen as advisory only. But, then again, so was Brexit – but by virtue of it happening it became a political imperative. Whatever the legal status of the vote, it would need to be dealt with.
And what I do think is that we cannot keep predicating any new vote on the outcome of something that may not happen for years if ever at all – Brexit. Indeed, I’d argue that Scotland’s appalling treatment over Brexit is in itself a reason to leave, regardless of the UK’s final Brexit destination. Scotland didn’t vote for any type of Brexit, and all types of Brexit would leave Scotland demonstrably worse off that we are at the moment. And, as I’ve often written, the primary and over-riding responsibility of any leader is the wellbeing of her country’s people. I’d argue that our continuing membership of the United Kingdom, whether in Europe or not, poses an existential threat to the continuing wellbeing of the people of Scotland, and Nicola Sturgeon’s job is to get us out this deeply harmful constitutional arrangement by any means available and at the earliest possible opportunity.
With independence, everything is possible. It’s becoming very clear to more people than ever that the fact that we have to ask to leave means that by definition we aren’t in a union in any properly understood sense of the word. That’s not a partnership. It’s subjugation.
We must never forget that it is the people of Scotland, not Parliament, who are sovereign. “And what if they say: ‘we are the state, and we say no?’”, asked the late Canon Kenyon Wright, chairman of the Scottish Constitutional Convention.
He answered his own question thus.
“But we are the people”, he said. “And we say yes”.
Let’s get this done.
Alba gu bràth