“We fight when they ask us
We boast, then we cower
We beg for piece of what’s already ours”
The Proclaimers, “Cap in Hand”
Whilst following the purgatory of the Brexit discussions, I came across a couple of pithy lines from an old American ambassador who perhaps came closest to identifying the reasons for the English population’s desire to self-harm by leaving a trading bloc that had, by any sensible benchmark, been good for them.
“Britain has lost an empire but failed to find a role”, he said, “and she has never got over winning the war”.
He was surely right. It’s revealing that much of the language around Covid and the Westminster Government’s response to it has been framed in the rhetoric of armed conflict. Nurses and carers on the “frontline”. A Panorama programme documenting the response juxtaposed key workers with Spitfires and called it “our finest hour”. Boris Johnson talked about fighting a “common enemy”, as if the virus could be defeated with tanks and a Tommy gun. The Queen channeled her inner Vera Lynn and consoled us with the words “we’ll meet again”. It is perhaps no coincidence that the individual who more than any other became the face of the Covid Era, Colonel Sir Tom Moore, was a decorated veteran.
When he died recently, the Prime Minister led the applause for a remarkable man who had, aged nearly one hundred, walked the equivalent of a marathon in his garden to raise millions for the NHS. That this is remarkable is beyond debate. But the question that really ought to be asked is why the institution was so strapped for cash that a ninety-nine year old felt he had to help. I know that many people admired the man – I certainly did – but the reality is that every single penny needed by the NHS could have been created, effortlessly and costlessly by the UK Government, if it wished to do so. But it didn’t want to. Like austerity, the underfunding of health is a political choice. It was entirely possible to have made a different one. The sort of compassionate governance needed now more than ever simply isn’t in the DNA of this most neoliberal of political classes. Like the monstrous city trader Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street, they wreck things simply because they can. There is, predictably, talk of a statue – which as we saw last year won’t create any controversy whatsoever – but it occurs that if we want to honour the man, and the hundred thousand people dead from Covid, then demanding proper funding for all public services, without exception, would be a good place to start.
I don’t want to kill the mood here, but while it’s great that a man who lived to a hundred raised millions for the NHS, the normalisation of the NHS as a charity rather than a fundamental tenet of government funding is a deliberate tactic to asset-strip it further. What is on one hand an uplifting good news story is, on the other, a further damning indictment of neoliberal greed and conscious cruelty. The result? You’ll have had your facemasks. Here’s a wee badge from Matt Hancock. And a round of applause. We’ll get back to you on the pay rise.
It’s one of the dark ironies of these worrying days that a man whose heroism helped bring about the welfare state and the social contract found himself in his one hundredth year fundraising to mitigate the terrible damage wreaked upon one of its crown jewels, the NHS, by intellectual pessimists like Boris Johnson who epitomise everything that true political giants like Bevan rightly despised.
All of which went through my mind last week when I watched the significantly less decorated part-time military figure of Baroness Ruth Davidson asking First Minister Nicola Sturgeon when she was going to take up the generous offer made by Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack of the lend of the British Army to help roll the vaccine out.
I thought the answer was not just excellent but highly perceptive. In essence, the First Minister said of course all help would be welcome, but that Ms Davidson and others really ought to stop making out that this was in any way a favour. The armed forces belong to Scotland as much as anywhere else – indeed many of them live here – because they are paid for completely fairly and proportionately by the Scottish taxpayer. Yet here we were, being asked to beg for a piece of what’s already ours.
It’s actually been a theme running through this pandemic. The kind and benevolent Rishi Sunak indulges us with furlough monies and loans, because obviously a finance minister in a self-governing Scotland couldn’t possibly print money to keep the economy afloat. “You wouldn’t survive five minutes without me”seems to be the message, which sounds to me very much like the patter of an abusive spouse.
A recent study into the future finances of Scotland stated that for Scotland to recover from the wreckage of this pandemic, and to mitigate and the next one – and there will be a next one – it needed to borrow twenty billion pounds. But, of course, under the narrow – and narrowing – parameters of devolution, we are allowed to borrow a mere £348 million – a relative pittance. So we find ourselves in the dangerously exposed position of hoping that a government in a neighbouring country miraculously finds its borrowing and spending priorities in tandem with a place that has utterly rejected its party and political philosophy for nearly seven decades. Frankly? I hae ma doots.
So I’ll leave you with this thought. What if we didn’t have to ask?
Scotland`s replete supplies of water, food and energy gives us the essential resources necessary to develop the economy of our country. Indeed, few other developed countries are fortunate enough to have such resources.
Scotland has been taken out of the European Union against its wishes. We must find a way to restore our free access to European markets for both goods and services. Also we must find a route whereby free movement of people is restored – because agriculture, the fishing industry, tourism and the hospitality sector have benefitted greatly from immigration. NHS and Social Care have also depended on people who have chosen to live and work in Scotland. Our universities, colleges, and research facilities gain enormous benefit from highly skilled overseas researchers.
None of this vision of a more prosperous and fairer society for Scotland will be achieved whilst we remain under the domination of a government in Westminster that we did not vote for. The first step to pursue this positive vision for Scotland is to win an overall majority in the May election.
We can choose to be a better country or we can choose continuing Westminster rule. But we cannot choose both.
Very often you hear unionist politicians on this side of the Tweed lecturing the Holyrood government to put aside any thoughts of constitutional change and concentrate its energies on its domestic agenda, particularly when the pandemic is far from over.
To which I always say two things.
Firstly, Covid and an overflowing domestic agenda in-tray didn’t for one second derail the pursuit of the constitutional train wreck of Brexit. And, secondly, it isn’t – as several would be managers of the Scottish Labour branch office would have you believe – an either / or.
Independence is the great enabler. The whole point of independence is having the power to do things, and I have long thought that what the increasing numbers of us who long for the normality of self-governance need to do is to shift the burden of proof. We have long been expected to defend our position, to make the case for Scotland speaking for Scotland, as this was somehow an absurd position and not the mundane normality it actually is.
If I were to make one suggestion, it would be this.
Whenever you see a claim from a Scottish politician that they, if elected, will do this, that or the other, ask them simply this: “how do you propose to achieve these things within a constitutional arrangement that makes it impossible for you to do so”?
What is driving the many successive positive polls for self-determination, I think, is that an increasing number of us, from across the political spectrum, are realising that the answer to that question is: “we can’t”.
And those are the people who are going to get us over the line. Not people like me who write passionately about the subject and attend rallies and talk about it all the time. But people who have simply witnessed the broken promises. Who were promised federalism and handed a power grab and EVEL. Who were promised a place at Europe’s top table and got Brexit. People who watched the body count climb and came, soberly, to a decision. You won’t find these folk at a YES march. Some of them come to the party not with joy but with a heavy heart, like a jilted lover betrayed once too often. But that’s ok. Jock Thamson has many bairns. How you got here is not important. What matters is that you are here now. What matters is where we’re going.
Welcome, welcome again. Very soon, you will be living in a place where you never again have to ask for permission. And fun never hurts, either.
Stay safe good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.