IT is a nice feeling to be in full agreement with the First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon and I share the goal of Scottish independence, but we do not naturally agree about much else, having as we do such different ideals for society and such divergent estimates of the capabilities of government. But when she announced this week that there will be no second referendum for Scottish independence during 2017, I felt sure this was the right decision to take.
In fact the announcement was uncannily prefigured last week by my first column of the new year, which appeared under the heading “Independence is much further away than it was just before Christmas”. I reached this far-sighted judgment mainly on the basis of two facts. The first was that there had been no shift in public opinion in favour of independence since the referendum of 2014 (if anything, the trend has been slightly contrary). The second was that sentiment at Westminster seemed to be consolidating round the aim of a hard Brexit, the diametric opposite of the soft Brexit outlined in Nicola’s paper on Scotland’s Place in Europe only three weeks previously. If true, that meant the paper was already outdated.
Last week nobody knew the First Minister was about to change down a gear in the drive to seize the opportunities of Brexit, so my arguments got a rough ride in certain quarters, especially in the comments posted underneath my piece on The National’s website. “Negative and miserable,” thought Ann Murie. “The cringe is strong in this one,” said Roger Terrett. Dennis Nicholson found I was “pretending to be positive while being predictably negative (again)”. Denis Macniven declared this was “yet more propaganda worthy of BBC Scotland, where you will doubtless soon appear” (alas, I have yet to appear). “That is why we have to call the referendum soon and go for it,” urged Lorna Campbell, “we have already wasted enough time. We just need enough to get a draft out and call it.”
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I have no idea if these and others who were good enough to send in responses to my column will be going on Saturday to the Scottish Independence Convention in Glasgow. Ever since the preparations started, it has been billed as the occasion when the push for the second referendum would really get under way. The concept of the convention has a special meaning and importance in Scottish history. A convention is called when the normal processes of politics have somehow turned out inadequate, so the people take a direct hand and seize the chance to assert their will without getting lost in a parliamentary maze. This was what happened in the convention that overthrew the tyrannical House of Stewart in 1689, and declared that it had forfeited the crown. Further conventions were called from time to time right down to the one which, between 1989 and 1995, did the donkey work on devolution in defiance of the prevailing Thatcherism in London.
It has to be said that the present circumstances are not quite so desperate. We can hardly claim the will of the Scottish people is being thwarted or denied, because there is as yet no majority for independence among the Scottish people. The Independence Convention might do something to improve the situation, but surely the time to call for a referendum comes when such work is over rather than before it has begun. It is true that, within the time-span of the campaign itself in 2014, the Yes side ran strongly and pushed its share of the vote up from a prospective 25 per cent at the outset to something not so very far short of a majority when the polls closed. Still, it was not enough – and as the positive trend strengthened, so did the resistance to it.
This was because the Yes side was beginning to exhaust potential reservoirs of support among those who would vote on principle, or after careful weighing of the issues. The campaign needed next to appeal to those prime motive was calculation of their personal interest. There was nothing wrong with that motive: we live in a democracy, after all, and people are entitled to vote one way or another for any reason they like. The onus lay rather on the Yes campaign to find fresh reasons for such people to support it, and it did not do well. In particular, the arguments on the currency and other economic matters were deficient.
Matters have not greatly improved since, despite steady campaigning. Common Weal this week published a paper by Peter Ryan, The White Paper Project, How to Make a Currency which miraculously managed to avoid all the main issues. A second Yes campaign will need to do better than that if it is not to be slaughtered once again by unionist hired guns.
The trouble is that those straining at the leash for a second campaign have no better idea how to run one than to shout louder next time round (see Lorna Campbell above). They prattle on about equality, but I have devoted more than one column to this concept without being able to find out exactly what is meant by it.
I think in fact that little is meant by it: it’s just a mantra meant to make us feel good. The same with the concept of socialism. Since socialism has been dead for the last quarter-century except in a few impoverished corners of the world, it would be nice to know which precise model of it is supposed to be on offer in Scotland. I don’t think Scotland can be like Cuba or Venezuela because we don’t have the sunshine. North Korea, anybody?
The real way forward is not to deepen these defeated commitments of 2014, but to broaden our commitments so that they appeal to marginal groups that then remained just beyond the grasp of the Yes campaign. What about all those old Liberal Democrats, for example, concentrated in the rural north and south of Scotland? Theirs was historically the party of Home Rule, and a lot of them disliked its policy of non-cooperation with Alex Salmond’s government from 2007. Today, if for quite other reasons, the party has collapsed, and many of its supporters must in the Scottish elections have turned to the SNP. Yet they would not vote Yes in the referendum. How can we bring together their political with their constitutional commitments? I don’t think socialism is the answer.
The question poses itself even more pointedly in the case of the Tories. As regular readers will know, I used to be a Conservative myself, and have stood as a parliamentary candidate both for Westminster and for Holyrood. I washed my hands of the party essentially on patriotic grounds. Patriotism has always been part of the Conservative stock-in-trade, in Britain and right round the world; a Conservative party that became anti-patriotic, like the one in Scotland, was to me a contradiction in terms. Even today there are plenty in the party who think like me, though their numbers have been diminished by internal purges.
How can they rediscover something that many of them would like, a patriotic allegiance to Scotland? Again, I don’t think socialism is the answer. The big majority in favour of Remain in the referendum of 2016 has obviously added to the complexity and the volatility of our politics. I wonder if it can even be encompassed, let alone rendered fruitful, by the Scottish Independence Convention, which rather looks like some kind of lefty love-in.