There’s a memorable episode of the acclaimed American political drama, The West Wing, where the Vice-President John Hoynes is chairing a meeting.
“Our first priority is re-election”, he begins. It’s as far as he’s allowed to get before his boss, President Jed Bartlett, interrupts him. “No”, he says firmly. “Our first priority is the American people”.
The scene contrasts perfectly two different political mindsets. On one hand, a desire to simply continue in power by any means possible; on the other, a belief that public office is a privilege that should compel the holder of that position to use all available powers to protect the people and, where possibly, allow them to thrive. It reminded me of an interview my own father gave a few years back, in which he talked about how he came to make certain decisions in his role as a Farmers Union President. “I’d think back to a day when I was sitting at the kitchen table in an Orkney farmhouse I was visiting”, he said, “And I’d try to imagine how they’d have reacted to whatever it was I was thinking of doing, and I’d weigh up whether this would make their lives better or not. Thinking like that meant, I think, that I was able to think clearly and therefore make more good decisions than bad ones”.
I thought about this during a week when watching Scotland’s leaders, and those firth of here, in a week when Omicron threatened to spiral out of control and Scotland stood on the precipice of more restrictions and perhaps another lockdown.
Central to the discussion was the topic of funding as Scottish businesses, already ravaged by the pandemic, face further losses and, in some cases, bankruptcy.
Something that Douglas Ross, full time linesman and branch office manager of the Conservatives in Scotland, said suggested that, in terms of understanding leadership, he is in the John Hoynes camp rather than the Jed Bartlet one.
“It’s also absolutely crucial that we see the Scottish and UK Governments working together constructively, fully focused on tackling Omicron.
“Instead, over the last week, we have seen an unnecessary funding row that is a distraction from the task at hand.”
Let’s try to deconstruct this.
Firstly, nothing annoys a one nation Tory than watching a Scottish Government govern reasonably competently in devolved areas because it shows that Scotland would be perfectly capable of governing itself in all areas of policy. That this irks them betrays their deep distrust of a devolution settlement that they never wanted and are openly trying to undermine through things like the internal market bill and the shared prosperity fund and the post-Brexit power grab.
Secondly, he is actually saying to the Scottish Government: “Don’t you dare try to win the funding due to Scotland that could actually help it to recover more quickly”. But surely trying to secure the best possible outcome for Scotland, pandemic or no pandemic, should actually be a base requirement of any Holyrood Government, whatever its political stripes.
It’s a bit like when folk complain about you speaking in your native tongue or, God forbid, the Gaelic. When folk say, “I don’t want you to speak like this”, what they really mean is “I don’t want you to speak”. Likewise, when I hear a guy, leading a party, in a Scottish Parliament, saying “I don’t want this parliament to do its job by demanding what’s its by right”, what I hear is “Despite hating devolution and wishing that Scotland’s democracy was neutered even though paradoxically I wouldn’t have been within a hundred miles of it without the reconvening of parliament and a fairer voting system that rescued from the abyss a party that as recently as 1992 had precisely zero MPs north of Gretna, I am perfectly happy to be funded by the Scottish taxpayer to participate in a place of democracy that, as a British Nationalist with an eye on a job for life in the House of Lords, I’m a little ashamed to be a part of”.
As the fictional Jed Bartlett said to his VP, a parliament’s first and overriding responsibility is to the people.
I’ve used an example – farming – in several previous articles.
There’s two questions: what do we wish our industry to look like? And what constitutional arrangements do we need to deliver our vision? Looking at it this way, unless we truly believe ourselves to be genuinely genetically incapable of governing, then full autonomy in this area is a no brainer.
We must ask the same questions more broadly: “what do we need to do to rebuild Scotland post-Covid?”: and “is that likely to be delivered by a Westminster class hardwired into austerity and neoliberalism that we have to beg to borrow on our behalf because we’re not allowed to?”
And, finally, the Tory leader’s argument isn’t actually very good. Because it isn’t a binary choice between making the case for the proper funding that we’ve already paid for in full and working together. It’s possible to do both. Indeed, the latter becomes easier with the former, and the delivery of the former facilitates the latter. Who, really, after everything that has happened, believes that we are better to throw in our lot with Westminster and tie our fate to a system that makes us beg for a piece of what’s already ours?
And there is a wider false binary, which is the notion that we either choose to have a constitutional debate or choose to recover from the ongoing pandemic.
Here’s the thing. Not only can you have both – the NHS, house building and the post-war education acts were all conceived during a global war – but, actually, one helps bring about the other. Self-governance and the power it affords is the enabler of a better society.
In the fictional drama, Josh, Jed Bartlet’s amiable communications guy was often telling him: Let Bartlet be Bartlet. In other words, let the handbrake off. Be yourself. Take risks. Follow your instincts. Do the right thing.
So. Let Scotland be Scotland. Independence is the separator – but not in the way a unionist would frame it. Self-determination is vital. It isn’t independence or recovery. It’s independence for recovery.
It’s tempting to watch the cheese and wine bouroch in London and expect that alone to deliver Scotland’s freedom. It isn’t. It’s important that we aren’t distracted by the perma-embarrassment in Westminster but instead quietly leave the stage. Quite frankly, given the scale of the infighting I’m not sure they’d notice we’d gone.
But go we must. We can be better or we can be run by a party we have rejected since 1955. But we can’t be both.
Burns Supper season is just around the corner. Who knows if the new strain will permit us to meet publicly to celebrate his life and legacy, but some lines from his great, misunderstood anti-war song Ye Jacobites By Name come to mind.
“Lay your schemes alone / adore the rising sun / and leave a man alone to his fate”.
The truth is that current arrangements means that Scotland’s fate, in terms of pandemic recovery and in terms of everything else, is not hers to determine.
It’s high time it was.
Stay safe and have a great Christmas good people. Because it’s later than you think.
And I’ll meet you further on up the road.