Just very occasionally, you’ll be watching the football and there will be a truly awful, potentially career-ending challenge. In time-honoured fashion, the miscreant’s manager will issue a statement. It nearly always goes along the lines of: “it really is most out of character. He’s honestly not that type of player”. And I always think of the guy in hospital with his leg in a stookie and think: actually, he is. I saw it on the telly. He’s just proven it in front of the whole world.
The late, great poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou lived her life by a maxim that we could all do well to follow. “When people show you who they are”, she said, “believe them the first time. People know themselves better than you do. That’s why it’s important to stop expecting them to be something different from who they are”.
I’ve thought about that excellent guide to self-preservation a lot during lockdown. I thought about it when Boris Johnson floated the idea of herd immunity and when he recently claimed that the relative success of the vaccine roll-out was due to capitalist greed. I thought about when it emerged that the UK government was being advised during the Brexit negotiations that farming wasn’t necessary. Previously, I’d thought about it when Jacob Rees-Mogg chided the victims of Grenfell for their lack (as he saw it) of common sense, and when the Home Secretary suggested processing refugees on a remote island or, better still, repelling their boats with a wave making machine. I thought about it when Douglas Ross said his first priority in the event of him becoming Prime Minister would be to clamp down on travelling people, and when the health Secretary gifted contracts for systems that didn’t work worth more than the entire Scottish budget to his pals.
Every single time, various apologists tell us that they didn’t mean to say what they said. That they’d been taken out of context, that it doesn’t reflect their political worldview. But what they’ve said and done aren’t gaffes or aberrations. These aren’t normally moderate people having a bad day at the office – this is what they are. If you watch Rees-Mogg talking about the Grenfell fire, for example, he isn’t making throwaway remarks, but articulating a carefully constructed argument based on views that he clearly holds. He’s really thought this through. He shows us who he is. They all do. And we had better believe them.
And I also believe this. Power devolved is power retained.
Seven years ago, as Scotland prepared to choose its constitutional future the first time round, I gave a radio interview in which I stated that a vote for “no” wasn’t a vote for “no change”. Change was coming, I said, and the real question was who got to control what that change looked like – us or someone else? Who should speak for Scotland?
Because I always feared that a no vote would be seen by Westminster not as an article of trust but as a betrayal of weakness. And so it was. Instead of greater powers, we got EVEL and, more recently, the Internal Market bill and the shared prosperity fund, all of which allows London to legislate across devolved areas. And, with EU membership now taken from our grasp along with the shared standards we signed up for, the potential for Westminster to legislate on Scotland’s behalf is greater than it has been since the reconvening of Scotland’s parliament more than two decades ago.
Only three weeks back, Holyrood passed a bill enshrining the United Nations rights of children within Scots Law. Alister Jack, Secretary of State for Scotland, wrote us a letter telling us to know our place and that we “cannot seek to make provision that constrains the UK parliament’s ability to make laws for Scotland”. There’s shiny new UK Government hubs going up in Edinburgh and Glasgow and talk of compulsory union jacks on all public buildings. Even our ability to formulate direct and indirect financial support in agriculture – a devolved competency – could yet be stymied by the effective veto that is the Internal Market Bill.
Put yourself for a second in Boris Johnson’s shoes. You lead a party that voted against devolution in 1997 has always distrusted power-sharing and your instincts are always centralising in nature. Having to actually factor in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh into your thinking has always kind of pissed you off. And you’ve got a thirteen point lead in the polls and British Nationalist core support. You’d neuter Scotland’s democracy without a second thought. Why wouldn’t you?
So this ends one of two ways.
Like the vote in 2014, anything less than a resounding win a month from now will be seen as acquiescence. Because Westminster will see anything less than a conclusive victory 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.
If it looks like a power grab, and feels like a power grab, then it probably is a power grab. The key question we need to ask ourselves between now and then isn’t who we want to represent us in Edinburgh but whether we actually want a parliament in Scotland at all. Anything less that a big majority will be taken by London as a sign that we don’t. The stakes could not be higher.
Westminster has for a long time shown us who they are. We should believe them. And take the only logical course of action at the earliest possible opportunity.
Stay safe good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.