“The way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it” (Tony Benn)
“The Heart ay’s the part ay that makes us right or wrang” (Robert Burns, Epistle to Davie)
Driving back from a farming event in Aberdeenshire last Thursday, I was listening to the opening exchanges of First Minister’s Questions. To be honest, it was fairly tame stuff about the launch of the Scottish Investment Bank and the sudden resignation of its CEO last week. At one point the presiding officer chided an MSP for talking over the First Minister as she responded to a question. And that was about as explosive as it got.
Which is precisely the point. The miracle is in the mundane. I mean, the world is going to hell and the biggest threat to our democracy is someone talking a bit too loudly. The rascal. Something must be done.
Listening to the programme with me was the journalist guy waiting to do an interview on the station. He was Ukrainian. He actually sounded quite emotional – not surprisingly, given he was speaking from Catalonia having fled the ongoing catastrophe in his beloved homeland. You got the impression he’d love his country’s government to have the opportunity to have a minor dust-up over inward investment and gross domestic product, rather than fleeing for their very lives.
The exiled journalist came back to mind – not that he’d ever been far from it, mind – yesterday when I read a couple of comments from the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford.
In the first, he stated that The Queen would be the head of state in an independent Scotland.
It seems I must have missed the exhaustive public consultation exercise on this fundamental issue of governance that is after all entirely up to the people who live in a country where the inhabitants – not the crown, not the parliament, but the people – remain sovereign. That’s an entirely differently article, but if anyone has a holiday cottage in a remote Scottish Island without any Wi-Fi on the weekend of the fourth of June then I’ll happily pay over the odds to avoid the embarrassing and slavering deferential bampottery that we’ll all be mercilessly subjected to.
Of greater import – for now – was Ian Blackford’s assertion that the party’s short-term focus should be Ukraine and that the constitutional debate should take place in a “timely manner”.
There are I think a number of things to say here.
Firstly, the party was elected on a specific manifesto promise to hold a second plebiscite within the lifetime of the current parliamentary term if and when Covid eased – which most now believe has happened. Indeed, it makes no logical sense to halt the planning for an independence referendum when other democratic processes – like the May council elections – are very much going ahead regardless of the worsening situation in Ukraine. And, as for a “timely manner”, you’d think that perfectly describes the period immediately after the Brexit vote when Scotland was removed from a union it wished to remain part of and remains part of a union it increasingly wishes to leave. So we can arguably conclude that the commitment to holding a vote in 2023 has been booted, perhaps with relief from its supposed protagonists, into the long grass. Park it guys. Now is Not the Time. Jings, it’s like Theresa May never actually went away.
There’s a grim irony in a government using the reality of another country defending its independence to shelve its promise to deliver independence for its own people. On being elected to Westminster in 1974, Winnie Ewing said she was coming south to settle up, not to settle down. I worry that we find those green benches a wee bit too comfortable.
It seems there will always be a reason not to do it, and we appear too quick to swallow the unionist narrative that we need to deal with the immediate issues and shelve the constitutional question, perhaps indefinitely, because it’s impossible to do the two things at the same time. The case we need to be making is that this isn’t an either / or question and it isn’t a binary choice and that the powers afforded by autonomy actually change the game in economically recovering from the pandemic, for example.
Perhaps I’m being uncharitable to the SNP leader. Perhaps he’s genuinely trying to be respectful in postponing a democratic process. He probably is – although I wish he’d given the nearly half of Scotland that voted for his party in the belief he’d actually deliver an actual referendum the courtesy of a heads-up.
But it still makes no sense.
As the bombs rain down and people flee in biblical numbers, I’m quite sure that Scottish constitutional matters are hardly uppermost in the minds of the good people of Ukraine. But even if they do afford us a cursory thought, they might think – why are they doing this? Why are they passing up the opportunity to win something by putting a cross on a piece of paper when I’m trying to defend that same thing and quite possibly dying while doing so? At the very least, they of all people would surely understand the desire to have full agency of your own future, given that theirs is so precarious.
So, counter-intuitive though it may sound, the best possible thing we could do for Ukraine would be not to further postpone our journey to independence but to fast-track it with immediate effect.
Tony Benn, mentioned above, once said that socialism is a cause or it is nothing. It’s the same with Scottish independence. If our own government doesn’t truly believe in it, and postponing it for no good reason suggests it doesn’t, then what is it for? History shows that while independence movements are rebel causes at heart, it needs rebels to carry the day. That’s maybe what’s missing right now. And an appeal to what Lincoln called the greater angels of our nature wouldn’t go amiss, either.
So here is my appeal.
As of Monday, 1.2 million Ukrainians had fled their homeland. Fifty – yes, fifty – ended up in a United Kingdom that is not coincidentally the only place in Europe that requires refugees to have a visa to gain entry. Ireland, with a population ten times smaller than the UK, has already welcomed well over a thousand. It’s an unconscionable state of affairs that Scotland remains complicit in for as long as it delays its journey to a normal country that can and would choose to behave differently and better.
The reality is that while it’s right that we stand with Ukraine, the truth is that we can’t help them because the two powers that we need to do so – defence and immigration – are reserved to the xenophobic government we didn’t vote for in a country we don’t live in. We want to welcome Ukrainians but because our democracy is outsourced to a hostile political class diametrically opposed to our own all we are left with are clothes donations and sunflower emojis on our social media.
Franklin D Roosevelt used to say that if your neighbour’s house is on fire you don’t ask him to pay for the rent of your hose.
Today, Ukraine is burning. Scotland, alone, isn’t allowed to do what every fibre of our humanity wants to do and give refuge to people fleeing the inferno. Just writing that makes me ashamed. And what does it say of us when we could choose to change things so we can help – but choose not to? Do we boast, then cower?
In the end, independence is at its heart a moral imperative. A cause. But not just for Scotland.
The courage of the Ukrainian people continues to inspire. The least we could do, I think, is to show a bit of that ourselves. And we’d be that country and join that brotherhood in a way described by Robert Burns.
“But ye whom social pleasures charms
Whose hearts the tide of kindness warms
Who hold your being in the terms,
‘Each aid the others”
Come to my bowl, come to my arms,
Stay safe good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.