WELL, what a week it has been. Writing a column amidst a political atmosphere that changes faster than the Scottish weather is a bit of a challenge. But looking back can help to put things in context and make some sense of tumultuous times.
The leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Annabel Goldie, said in parliament that Alex Salmond had to choose between five years of “constitutional uncertainty” or take a “brave pill and get on with the referendum”.
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Changed days indeed. Back then, the Labour and Tory party alike beat their chests and demanded “an immediate referendum” on Scotland’s future.
The reason is not hard to see. They were confident of victory. A YouGov poll published just a week after that SNP landslide victory showed support for independence trailing almost 30 points behind the status quo, with 29 per cent saying they would vote Yes in a referendum, and 58 per cent No.
"Bring it on!" was the battle cry of the Unionists.
The patronising claim by Teresa May that it wouldn’t be fair to the Scottish people to ask them to vote before they know the full terms of Brexit is extraordinarily hypocritical even by Tory standards, given that rest of UK won’t be allowed a vote on the divorce terms.
No-one should be surprised that pro-Union politicians are running scared of a democratic ballot to decide Scotland’s future. But I am surprised that some in the independence movement seem to have gone lukewarm on a fresh vote. I’ve seen some folk expressing fear that we won’t win.
Now, let me be clear. I am all for debate and am not slow to venture my own views. And I don’t believe the independence movement should be a monolith, intolerant of dissent, marching to the command of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. Diversity is healthy.
But my view is that Nicola Sturgeon was courageous and totally right to make the call she did – and the response of Theresa May is perhaps the most crushing answer imaginable to those in the independence movement who are not convinced.
Colin Fox, co-convenor of the Scottish Socialist Party for the last 12 years, said there are no guarantees we will win a Yes vote within the next two years. But there are no guarantees we’ll win a Yes vote in five years, or ten or 20 years.
Sometimes caution is the most reckless policy of all. The way to turn that 47 or 48 per cent into an outright majority is by reviving the mass politicisation that drove up support for independence from 29 per cent to 45 per cent between 2011 and 2014.
Before the Brexit vote last June, I was part of the vast majority of independence supporters who felt an early referendum could be a mistake. But that vote last June changed everything.
It demonstrated three things in action. Firstly, that a big section of the Scottish electorate were conned into voting No in 2014. Secondly, that Scotland can always be over-ruled by England on major decisions that will have a profound impact on our society for decades to come. And thirdly, that the political gulf between Scotland and England is now wider than ever before.
Yes, one of third of Scots voted to leave, and yes, they included independence supporters. We can debate at length the pros and cons of EU membership. And I’m happy to argue the case to anyone that cares to listen that it was not the EU that carried out more than 100 privatisations in Britain, or joined the USA in an illegal war on Iraq, or insisted that we keep nuclear weapons on the Clyde, or spent billions smashing the miners’ union, or imposed the Poll Tax, or slashed social security benefits for those most in need, or deregulated the banks paving the way for decades of austerity.
Irrespective of the arguments over EU membership, one fact stands out: the Brexit vote, and the UK Government’s response to that vote, illuminates the fragility of democracy for small nations – or in the case of Northern Ireland, parts of nations – within this multinational state.
And that is the fundamental difference between the EU and the UK. The EU is not a multinational state. It did not and could not prevent the UK, or any other country, holding a referendum at the time of choosing. The UK has that power and used it. Theresa May was not obliged to go cap in hand to the European Council begging for the equivalent of a Section 30 order.
On the specific timing of the referendum, I am curious about this talk of waiting till 2021 or 2022 in order to find out more about Brexit. According to The Daily Telegraph last month, the UK Government intends to have the EU negotiations all wrapped up by March 2019, then leave two months later.
It is clear to me that the only excuse for that kind of delay is that the Tories hope that the SNP will lose momentum in the 2020 Westminster election, and that Scottish Parliament will lose its pro-independence majority in the 2021 election.
I’ve previously expressed a preference for the next referendum to be held in September 2018. If that has to be pushed back a bit until May 2019, then that’s fine by me.
If we still don’t know most of the detail by then, that means Brexit is on course to be even more of a calamity than we ever expected. Either way, spring 2019 seems to me the latest we can wait to minimise the damage to Scotland that Nigel Farage has bequeathed the rest of the UK.
This is a time to be strong, courageous and bold. I am glad it is Nicola Sturgeon who is holding the reins.