By Alec Ross
“Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behaviour, because that’s what ninety-nine per cent of scientists tell us,” he said. “And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of. And now we just don’t have that.” (Barack Obama).
“Nowadays I don’t read the news. I just lie to myself and cut out the middle man” (Frankie Boyle).
Once upon a time, there was a consensus.
It was the settled will that people should have a certain standard of living and the right to a decent wage and a national health service that was free at the point of delivery and would never be sold off. Scotland should have a right to decide its future. And, in the aftermath of two global conflicts and consequent economic hardship and food shortages, we all agreed dealing with your European neighbours was a much better idea than falling out with them. It was an idea than anticipated the words spoken by the great Irish humanitarian John Hume after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Twenty-one years ago today he received the Nobel Peace Prize. He described the European Union as the greatest anti-war mechanism ever invented. Forget for a second talk of tariffs and Canada plus and WTO rules. This is about peace.
I’m forty-eight now. Not old, but in golfing terms I’m on life’s back nine and there are no mulligans. You hear folk say they’d love to be eighteen again, but not me. Youth brings its own demands- expectations, peer pressure, the fear (and the reality) of rejection from the opposite sex – but you reach a stage where, having come through the worst, you feel pretty comfortable in your own skin. You’re married. The weans are lovely, bright people. You’ve a secure career and while hardly a millionaire there’s savings and a nice house and you come to Orkney a lot and get paid for it. You’ve come through tough times and you’re still in the game. And, yes, we’ve got Trump. And Johnson. And Brexit. And it’s awful. But Obama said in the aftermath of the rise of Trump that he would only see it as the end of the world when it unequivocally was the end of the world. Whatever happens, on Thursday and beyond, it isn’t the end. It may not even be the beginning of the end. And for the growing number of us who see Scotland’s future as a normal, median sized, newly independent country? This is only the beginning.
History isn’t straight lines, says Obama. It Zigzags. It’s only the end when we’re at the end.
“The vanity of each generation”, writes the brilliant Andrew o’ Hagan in his essay ‘Scotland Your Scotland’, “is to believe that we are living in the greatest period of history. Each generation imagines it is germinating a brand new world, that the times are glorious, that their period is the most interesting ever to occur, that earthly progress would turn around now for a thousand years and their names would be written on water. The Romans believed it, and their civilisation is now a heap of lovely ruins and a dead language”.
Our vanity is to view the path of human civilisation as constantly upwards. But we have the leader of the free world who is a racist and a misogynist and a narcissist and a climate change denier. We have dark money and a media that fails to report it. We have a power grab and an all out assault of Scottish democracy itself. We have a UK government that cannot govern without the DUP and which effectively has no opposition. And we have Brexit. We could be leaving without a deal, despite having voted to remain by a margin of two to one. Progress isn’t upward. These are sizeable bumps on an increasingly rocky road.
Part of the fascination comes from the realisation that things that came about during my adult life that I assumed were permanent – stable democracy, lasting peace in Ireland, the Scottish devolution settlement – have in truth, because of Brexit, been proven to be built on sand.
Last Monday, I was driving from Stranraer to Edinburgh to catch a flight to Kirkwall to fulfil a speaking engagement with the Orkney Agricultural Discussion Group. Incidentally, as ever, I was humbled and encouraged by the way folk were prepared to tackle big issues head on. And with honesty. And humour. And whisky. Jesus, what a breath of fresh air.
Not for the first time, I saw a clear disconnect between the people working in the industry and those from firth of here who deign to speak for us. “This country”, said Michael Gove, “has had too much of experts”. But there’s no substitute for brains. Expertise has never been more needed, or so politically absent.
Heading out of Stranraer, And on the way to the airport, I noticed a number (although fewer than 2017 – this may or may not be significant) of field signs for my local British Unionist Conservative Candidate. “Vote Alister Jack to stop Indyref2”, it said. And it got me thinking.
Firstly, Alister Jack is a Conservative and the Secretary of State for Scotland. In terms of Scottish Tory hierarchy, that’s as high as you can get. And, given that even within the devolution settlement eighty-five percent of the powers reside within the competency of UK governments that Scotland has rejected since the 1950s, this makes him Scotland’s most powerful politician. You’d think this would give him a platform to sell a vision of a strong Scotland. That he’d use that power to fight for us.
And yet I found myself looking at it and thinking: that’s it? That’s all you’ve got? You’re the most powerful politician in Scotland, and this is your message? “Exercise your democratic right and vote for me on Thursday. In return I’ll deny you forever your democratic right to vote on Scotland’s future”. And I found the wording revealing. He wasn’t saying “I oppose Scottish Independence”, which despite being a position I profoundly disagree with is at least a legitimate (if highly illogical) one to hold. He was saying: “I will deny Scotland the right to even ask the question under any circumstances”, which is not.
Especially when it comes from a hardline European Reform Group member who is a leading architect in the Brexit Omnibouroch that the Scottish Government has stated represents the material change of circumstances tabled in its manifesto that would allow Scotland to trigger a second independence referendum.
Especially when Scotland has a soon to be increased majority of pro-independence MPs in Westminster – a situation that the late Margaret Thatcher considered not just a justification for a plebiscite but a de facto Declaration of Independence itself.
And especially when Scotland’s own parliament has defied a voting system designed to “kill independence stone dead” and returned – again – a pro-independence majority. That’s about as bulletproof a set of mandates as it’s possible to envisage. And it begs the question: if Alister Jack not only opposes independence but any democratic process that allows the people he represents to decide – does the Conservative Party – believe in democracy at all? And if he doesn’t, what purpose does he serve beyond stymieing the lives of the Scottish people on the instructions of people we didn’t elect and can never, under the current arrangements, get rid of?
In short, what is he for?
And if anyone’s still seriously considering voting for anyone other than the SNP on Thursday, I’d ask that you’d pose this question to any other party in Scotland that isn’t led by Nicola Sturgeon: do you have any policies? Because denying Scottish democracy isn’t one.
Alister Jack’s election leaflet makes sixteen references to independence referendums, two fleeting mentions of his party and precisely zero references to Brexit.
I don’t blame him for the last bit. His boss says there’ll be no border checks in either Belfast or Cairnryan. Alister says there’ll be checks in Belfast but not in Cairnryan. The Irish government says there’ll be checks at both. They are all over the place on this. Incidentally, I had my car searched twice at the ferry port today. That’s never happened before. Already the mood has changed.
I’ve long thought – and way before Brexit happened – that essentially Scotland has two parliaments: one that broadly represents its interests and one that exists to do precisely the opposite. Whatever happens on January the 31st, the Brexit process has completely bypassed Scotland and has given lie to the notion that we are in any sense a union in any sane definition of the word. And, in a sense, Thursday’s election gives everyone in Scotland the chance to say whether or not we’re happy with that to continue.
Whatever the Alister Jacks of this world like to think, it isn’t up to them. There’s no holding back a river in spate. Independence is coming. It’s no longer a question of “if”, but of “how” and “when”.
Firstly, the “how”.
Whatever happens on Thursday, there’s going to be a SNP majority – again. There comes a point when the political journeys of neighbouring countries becomes so diametrically opposite that the idea that one is ruled by the other becomes just ludicrous. In my opinion, we crossed that Rubicon a while ago and Thursday will further underline a harmful democratic deficit that has led to Scotland to a place where it now has more foodbanks than branches of McDonalds.
A Labour minority government – still a possibility, albeit a remote one – would present an opportunity. Any SNP support for Corbyn should be lent with the strict conditions that the powers of the Scottish Parliament were made permanent and along with the explicit power to decide the timing and nature of any future independence referendum. This allows Scotland a free hit at its own future, which is as it should be. Interestingly, Corbyn’s stance on a second referendum is more nuanced than his Scottish branch leaders. This could be mutually beneficial.
However, incredibly, England likes Boris Johnson and he’s probably going to win by a street. On the face of it, this is problematic but options would still be there. Polls show that Conservative Party members would happily wave goodbye to Scotland if it meant reaching the sunlit uplands of Brexit and Empire 2.0. My belief is that Johnson and whoever follows him would cheerfully trade Scotland for a permanent majority in a post-Brexit Britannia that allowed them to pursue their nihilistic neoliberalism without the moderating influence of EU membership.
And secondly, don’t forget that Scotland has its own legislation over referendums. Holyrood has voted by majority for referendums over anything to be within the competency of Scotland. This is important. The bill doesn’t mention independence specifically but only referendums in general. Law is based on precedence, so we could for example hold a referendum on whether salt and vinegar was better on your chips than salt and sauce. Just for transparency, I’m a sauce man. A precedence is then set and then we can call an independence plebiscite. The chances are it wouldn’t be opposed, because blatantly denying democracy isn’t a good look, and even if it was the Supreme Court would be unlikely to rule against it.
As for the when, we could crash out of Europe in six weeks time, so my thinking is that the second and final independence referendum happens anytime from then until the next round of Holyrood elections. Actually, it absolutely must happen in that timescale because who knows what happens in the next Scottish elections? A pro-independence majority isn’t inevitable – nothing is. We have several mandates but they aren’t permanent. We must use them or lose them. 2020 it is.
We as the electorate need to up our game. It feels comfortable blaming politicians for everything but the cliche that we get the politicians we deserve happens to be true. Ask questions. Persuade people. Get out and vote.
People remark how little this campaign has been about policies. But there’s a reason for that. This is unlike any election that has ever been. It’s not so much an election as two referendums rolled into one.
And Scotland faces a choice. Brexit Britain or an independent, modern, outward looking Scotland.
I wouldn’t normally state this quite so explicitly, but here goes. Vote SNP. Vote Richard Arkless in Dumfries and Galloway. Vote Robert Leslie in Orkney and Shetland. Vote for Scotland. Kick out a political class that not only doesn’t represent you but actively works against your best interests. Do yourself a favour. Give your weans a chance.
“And what if the state says no?”, asked the late Canon Kenyan Wright”. “We say – ‘we are the people – and we say yes’”.
This Thursday is the most important vote you have ever cast.
You know what to do.
There are 6 candidates standing in the Orkney and Shetland Constituency to be held on Thursday 12th of December.
David Stephen Barnard, Independent
Alistair Carmichael, Scottish Liberal Democrats
Coilla Anne Drake, Scottish Labour Party
Jennifer Fairbairn, Scottish Conservative and Unionist
Robert Fraser Leslie. Scottish National Party (SNP)
Robert Watt Smith, The Brexit Party