Watching the shameful events from Glasgow’s George Square last weekend I experienced – like many people I suspect – a strong sense of deja vu. Some of the same people who’d “defended” the city’s statues only months earlier in the aftermath of the toppling of the Colson memorial in Bristol were now climbing over the same monuments in a flagrant mass contravention of Covid regulations. We should really have experienced bewilderment, but in truth if you live here you get used to it. Barack Obama talks about the arc of human progress moving ever upwards. Sunday was one of those days when you wondered if the great man was maybe being a wee bit naive.
Just as a similar gathering in the same venue the day after the 2014 referendum wasn’t really about the result, neither was Sunday really about the football. What both events were about was political ideology, British nationalism and loyalism towards Scotland’s place within the United Kingdom, even as it enters its death throes. And while it would hardly be on the same level as the inevitable spike in infections that the self-entitled fans have caused, it would still be hugely disappointing and darkly ironic if, because of the utter recklessness of a few thousand eejits, Scotland’s largest city didn’t get to host some eagerly anticipated international football matches having finally qualified for something for the first time in over two decades. Never mind Darien, Culloden, the 1978 World Cup campaign or the epic self-harming of the No vote of 2014. This would beat them all. It would be the most Scottish thing in history.
Before all that, however, we’ve work to do.
As we all know, positive polls for independence aren’t a new thing. With eleven days to go before the 2014 plebiscite, a stunning new poll put Yes ahead for this first time – an incredible turnaround, given that support for independence started two years earlier at twenty-seven percent: which explains why David Cameron was so happy to accede to a vote in the first place. But the new numbers rocked the establishment which then cleared its diary and came to Scotland brandishing promises – including the “Vow” which pledged to deliver a whole raft of shiny new powers. Faster, safer change. Virtual home rule. The most powerful devolved legislature in Europe. All nonsense, of course, but enough to maintain the Status Quo.
The moment the vow was published I knew we were in trouble. I knew that if we gave them another chance it would be seen not as an article of trust but as a betrayal of weakness. And so it turned out. Instead of new powers, we got a power grab, the internal market bill and the shared prosperity fund – all of which undermine devolution. Instead of “lead us don’t leave us”, we got EVEL. And Vote No to Stay in the EU became Brexit.
I can guarantee you that amongst the bampots in George Square on Sunday were people who said, without a shred of self-awareness, that it would be the height of responsibility to hold an election in in the middle of a pandemic. But it’s going ahead. We can say that for definite. It may well be the only thing we can be sure about. Because for various reasons, which may or may not include the recent Holyrood inquiry, an independence majority in May isn’t a done deal. Far from it.
So I’m going to make a few suggestions.
Firstly, one of the take homes from the enquiry is this. Scottish democracy is in a good place. There are legitimate concerns over transparency, openness and accountability. But, in the end, what matters is that the members of a democratically elected chamber publicly held its executive to account. That’s about as far away from the failed state and banana republic narrative peddled by the Gordon Brown’s of this world as it’s possible to get.
Yes, all governments – many of them in self-governing countries – have scandals and get things wrong. As far as I’m aware however none of them have ever seen outsourcing their decision making process to a neighbouring country with a diametrically opposed political worldview as part of the solution. And while there is disagreement over the issue, the very existence of devolved government has at least allowed Scotland to explore different and more tailored approaches to achieve broadly better outcomes during the pandemic.
Secondly, while I would have preferred to have seen the May elections as the de facto indyref2, we must at least insist that independence is front and centre of the campaign and remains the core issue for the next five years, during which we find a way to hold a second and final plebiscite – not least because anything less sees an already fatigued movement lose its energy completely.
And, thirdly, we need to move on from personalities and the tiresome #istandwithnicola stuff. This is not about a leader. It’s about Scotland’s future. I read today that Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack has threatened to halt a second plebiscite through the courts. And it may well be that an emboldened Conservative government under Boris Johnson will continue to refuse a vote under any circumstances. But that doesn’t mean we stop trying to get one. Like the No vote in 2014, anything less than a resounding win will be seen as acquiescence. And if it means temporarily shelving my preferred list vote to get us over the line, then that’s what I shall do. Because Westminster will see failure as total vindication and will continue to roll back devolution safe in the knowledge that they will be highly unlikely to be held to account or to be asked to make a case of Scotland staying without the union during a referendum. And there won’t be a damn thing we can do about it.
And despite – perhaps in some way because – of Westminster’s handling of the pandemic – the Conservatives have a scarcely believable thirteen point lead over a Labour opposition that is trying its best to flaunt its own unionist credentials – hence the sacking of a Labour candidate: not because she supports self-governance, but because she supports the principle that Scots should decide who governs them. Just think about that.
And then think about this. Scotland has a chance to escape this madness. Scotland has a chance to be normal. Scotland has a chance to be better than George Square.
And than chance presents itself precisely fifty-six days from now.
You know what to do.
Stay safe good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.