In Ernest Hemingway’s great novel The Sun Also Rises, the character Mike Campbell is asked how he happened to become bankrupt. “Two ways”, he replies. “Gradually, then suddenly”.
Constitutional change happens in much the same way. Over a long period of time, a number of incremental, seemingly minor changes occur and accumulate – and then, one day, the world is a different place.
Just over two decades ago, Scotland’s Parliament, with limited powers, reconvened after a two hundred and ninety-two year hiatus, restored by a Labour administration that believed that it would cement their power base in Scotland forever and a day and, in the famous words of George Robertson, “kill independence stone dead”. Then came the catastrophe of Iraq which led to many lifelong supporters questioning their commitment to a party that no longer seemed to share their values. I’ve met many ex-Labour supporters and they all say the same thing. “I didn’t leave the movement”, they say. “The movement left me”.
This paved the way for the SNP to lead a minority government in 2007, and consolidate with a stunning overall victory in 2011 which triggered a manifesto commitment to hold the 2014 independence referendum. Even at this stage, meaningful constitutional change seemed fanciful – after all, Yes began the official campaign polling at twenty-nine percent, which is why David Cameron was happy to grant the plebiscite in the first place. They had every right to believe they’d skoosh this.
Of course, it didn’t quite work out like that. With eleven days to go, Yes went ahead and unionists went into all-out panic mode and – in a clear breach of the purdah rules – delivered the “vow” promising “better, safer change”.
It got them over the line, but at what cost? The vow was not delivered, and in truth it was never going to be. Instead of extra powers we got EVEL. Instead of securing our place in the EU, we got Brexit and the naked power-grab of an internal market bill that will effectively grant Westminster a veto over all new and existing Holyrood legislation. And we are being led through Covid by a First Minister who displays every characteristic – honesty, transparency, empathy, humanity – completely lacking from anyone within Downing Street, and who does so whilst being herself. And don’t underestimate the subliminal positive impacts on a nation’s self-confidence when its leader – in her demeanour, in her appearance, in her accent, in her humour – looks and sounds just like us. She looks like what Scotland is becoming – “bien dans as peau”, as the French say – comfortable in our own skin.
The cumulative effect of these individual events and factors has led to fourteen polls in a row putting support for independence at at least fifty-three percent, with one at 58:42.
The story of the last two decades is how Scotland – gradually, then suddenly – decided to become a newly independent nation.
And yet it’s still not certain.
Last week was a good week for Scottish democracy, with the launch of The Scottish National Investment Bank designed to aid our transition to net zero by 2045. The initiative was followed by the historic announcement, lauded by the world’s media, that Scotland is to become the first country on the planet to provide free sanitary products for women after MSPs voted unanimously for a bill brought forward by Labour member Monica Lennon. The passing of the bill made a strong statement that the government’s commitment to equality and tackling poverty was genuine, whilst also speaking to Holyrood’s capacity, even when divided on the constitution and much else besides, to unite behind core values. In a momentous and uplifting week, it was revealing that the silence of those who argue that constitutional debate is hampering Holyrood’s ability to do its day job was deafening. It’s perfectly possible – arguably essential, as a reading of wartime Hansard reports demonstrates, to legislate on important stuff, even during a time of grave crisis.
Gradually, then suddenly.
But where will the “suddenly” take us?
Last week, in Westminster, Jacob Rees-Mogg gave a speech in the House of Commons during which he talked of the “constitutional tinkering” of the last Labour administrations which had “weakened our parliament and helped divide the UK”. Most ominously of all, he called for the UK government to “undo their foolish tinkering”.
This did not come out of nowhere. Boris Johnson has previously talked of repatriating devolved powers and recently called devolution a “disaster”, which for all the faux outrage has always been the establishment position. Power devolved is power retained. But last week was a significant change in tone as the Overton Window lurched to the right. Make no mistake, the ending of the Scottish Parliament and the crippling of Scotland’s democracy, unthinkable only a few years ago, is very much a mainstream discussion.
So while the road to independence looks from one viewpoint – positive polls, popular Holyrood legislation, a charismatic and trusted leader – to be fairly straightforward, from another it looks a lot bumpier.
Firstly, it seems to me that pursuing any sort of policy that continues to expect any kind of permission for a second plebiscite from an executive that ideologically opposes the very independence that the vote would inevitably deliver is fanciful in the extreme and hopelessly naive. Believe me, a government that tried to temporarily shut down its own Parliament for political expediency wouldn’t think twice about shutting down someone else’s for the same nefarious reasons.
Secondly, it occurs that, while on the surface it’s “good optics” to shelve constitutional debate during a pandemic, the logic doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. America just elected a new president. Switzerland just held a referendum. And what, pray, is Brexit if not constitutional change? Is that cancelled until the Union Jack emblazoned vaccine gets here? Aye. Thought not.
Thirdly, while the polls for Yes are good, I suspect there’s a hell of a lot of don’t knows and soft Ayes out there and and some point we need to give them something. At the moment it all reminds me of an ultra-cautious football manager playing 4-6-0 against a team not as good as them, trying to not lose rather than to actually win. And you can see the players thinking: “jings, my manager doesn’t believe in me. Why should I”? In this context, the riskiest thing we can do is nothing. Because those thousands of people who have changed their mind have given us their trust, and at some point we must reciprocate or risk losing them.
And, finally, we don’t have elections until May. Brexit will have happened. The Internal Market Bill will have been passed. It’s tough to hold a process when your democratic pillars have been sabotaged. And whither a Brave New World when its very earth is scorched?
In the end, it’s up to us. Like the character in Hemingway’s book says – things happen gradually, then suddenly. Things are about to happen very quickly, and we have it in our gift to decide where – Brexit Britain, or a the modern, compassionate democracy we glimpsed in Edinburgh last week – that takes us.
Happy St Andrews Day good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.