The Lamont Paradox
TOO many unanswered questions. Too much confusion, uncertainty. When, oh when is the SNP going to ‘come clean’ and provide us all with the facts we need to make an informed decision on independence?
Such, we are told, is the heartfelt plea of ‘the undecideds’ – that significant percentage of the poor, ignorant people of Scotland who would love nothing better than to walk hand in hand with Eck into the promised land of oil and honey … if only the shifty bugger would spell out exactly what was on offer.
As one previously unspecified aspect of the whole referendum process after the other has been designed and legislated for, these calls for clarity have not diminished, merely flitted onto the next huge question mark, and the next, and the next. The opposition in Holyrood regularly throw accusations of ‘conspiracy’ or ‘cover up’ and, even though mud of the poorest quality, some of it does eventually stick – at least in the eyes of a public scandalously ill-served by a brazenly one-sided media.
Among many other complex issues successfully negotiated by the Scottish government and its small band of hard-pressed civil servants over the last few months has been the legal basis for the referendum anchored in the Edinburgh Agreement, the adoption of every recommendation of the Electoral Commission (if only the opponents of independence would do likewise), legislation prepared to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote and now the Scottish Independence Referendum Bill containing a set date for the vote itself – all while the day-to-day business of government (including such small matters as steering another budget through Holyrood) has had to be conducted.
Each of these were in their turn described as vital, fundamental prerequisites for the referendum which the SNP government would fail to deliver timeously at their peril and in contempt of the Scottish people. Each now, of course, is dismissed as unimportant displacement activity to try to deflect attention from the ‘real’ issues such as … [add this week’s cause célèbre].
And still the calls for more clarity, more detail drone on. ‘The SNP have had 40 years to plan for independence – what has it been doing all that time?’ (a favourite refrain of the Gordon Brewers of this world). Next on the list of demands is that the White Paper spelling out a prospectus for independence be published immediately – a particularly disingenuous demand from a Scottish Labour Party which knows from experience in government that such whopping policy documents cannot be magicked out of thin air at short notice. But then, this is the party which wants every possible scenario spelled out and costed, every diplomatic, economic, social, political and constitutional crease ironed out and spread before the nation – all with no ministerial or civil service input as that would be diverting resources from dealing with people’s real concerns. And it wants it yesterday.
Nevertheless, slowly but surely, each dull procedural, legal and administrative duck lined up by the unionists and their acolytes in the media is being shot down and, slowly but surely, the attention now moves onto the interesting stuff. We go from the ‘how’ to the ‘why’. Yes Campaigners have been rubbing their hands in anticipation of this moment for some time, convinced that arguments of self-determination combined with the unchallengeable fundamentals of a sound Scottish economy – at least in theory – will at last reveal the paucity of the unionists’ case.
But perhaps it would be prudent to just pause for a moment. There is, I fear, a major conundrum to be faced before puffing out our chests and walking confidently towards the enemy’s guns, spiked though they may be. And the aforementioned Brewer’s latest assault on Nicola Sturgeon disguised as an interview (Newsnight Scotland, BBC 2, 21/3/13) shone a light on it.
In the course of his swivel-eyed harassment of the Deputy First Minister (could you imagine the same disrespect being shown to a senior member of the UK cabinet?), he demanded time and again to be told of a single SNP policy that would make Scotland either a) fairer or b) more prosperous than it is at the moment. When would the SNP start saving up its oil fund, what would be the level of corporation tax, how would it manage the welfare system differently from Westminster and how would it pay for it … etc, etc.? While admiring Sturgeon’s steely calm in the face of this spit-flecked aggression, you couldn’t nevertheless miss the fact that, first of all, her answers tended to be of the vague, aspirational sort, determinedly non-specific. (This, despite the fact that we know the SNP has policy ideas for an independent Scotland coming out of its ears.) Secondly, she seemed reluctant to point out the screamingly obvious nonsense at the heart of Brewer’s questions.
Brewer’s conflation of SNP policies with the strictly constitutional question of self-determination is, of course, done knowingly. He’s not daft. He just works for the BBC. And those of us who belong to no political party can and do regularly point out the difference between voting for independence and voting for Alex Salmond – a distinction which, depressingly, so often comes as a major revelation to folk. So, what’s to stop the Scottish government doing likewise? Because, had I been sitting in Sturgeon’s seat that night, I would have wasted no time in pointing out the difference between the two and telling Brewer to wind his neck in. But, as I said, she did not to nail him on this, preferring instead to accentuate the positive, touchy-feely stuff about Scottish values and how many new independent countries have been created since the last world war.
It is a reluctance that has vexed me for so long. I see an open goal – would somebody on the telly please take the shot?
But then I watched a clip of Johann Lamont from earlier in the day in the Holyrood chamber and slowly, shockingly the dreadful answer to my own question settled on me like the poisonous cloud of an eggy fart.
The independence movement, as we know, is a broad church. It includes people who, in any other context, wouldn’t be seen dead with each other. But for this overarching cause they will happily share community hall meetings, flag days and online chatrooms. Though mercifully free of paramilitary sorts (any of you out there just keep walking, nothing for you here … that’s it, move along) it does have a fair few conspiracy nuts. They range from those who see bias in every last punctuation mark of the Dundee Courier to those who fear an MI5 plot to rig the ballot and turn a ‘yes’ vote into a ‘no’. One only slightly less bonkers strain of paranoia holds that the performance of the unionist parties in Holyrood, particularly over the last two terms of SNP government, have been deliberately … how can I put it? Pish. The theory goes that Labour, Tories and Lib Dems, worried that the combination of a competent SNP administration and robust, intelligent scrutiny in the chamber by a lucid opposition might just persuade Scots that their parliament wasn’t half bad. That, you know, we might not be too stupid to run our own country after all.
And so, the X-Files box set owners would have us believe, we get lumbered with Lamont, Davidson and Rennie. We get Scottish Labour ditching the last vestiges of its core values, we have the Tories saying one thing one week and another the next, and we get the Lib Dems talking to themselves because they haven’t realised yet everyone else stopped listening three years ago. And we get all this because their London masters have commanded that it be so.
Let’s be honest, as conspiracy theories go, it’s not the worst. It certainly pops into my head whenever I get this reason for a plan to vote ‘no’: ‘That bunch of over-promoted cooncillors at Holyrood couldn’t run the tombola at a school fair. I’m not letting them loose with my taxes.’ But, of course, the real reasons for the sorry state of the opposition parties are many and far less exotic. The Tories have a dangerously small talent pool from which to pick their standard bearers in Scotland and the Lib Dems committed political suicide in 2010 – they just haven’t realised they’re dead yet. As for Labour, this really is the worry. Until the penny dropped the other night, I thought it was limited to just the betrayal of their principles as well as the graceless deportment, the inarticulate buffoonery of their front bench. But, paradoxiocal as it may seem, I now see in this shameless shadow of a once great political movement another threat to independence … well, the SNP in particular.
You see, the obvious answer to Brewer’s demands for cast iron commitments from the SNP for the first years of an independent Scotland – (and for the avoidance of doubt, here it is – that we are not voting in 2014 for the SNP, we are voting for the freedom to later and for evermore vote for a government of our choosing) – is an extremely hard one for an SNP politician to give. Why? Because, first of all, it’s a bit much to ask a party which has dreamed for its entire existence of what an independent Scotland could do to suddenly, with the dream’s reality at last in sight, go all collegiate and diffident, to subordinate its long-held policy specifics for fear they may be in some way counterproductive.
Secondly – and this is the kicker – because sitting in a TV studio as a member of a landslide administration, a government returned on a majority of the popular vote (the only one in the UK) it would be insane to start selling the policies of your deeply unpopular political opponents. That, I am afraid, is what emphasising the right of the Scottish people to choose another government post independence amounts to.
‘It would be presumptuous of me, Gordon, to tell you what the SNP would do in the first years of an independent country. The Scottish people will decide for themselves what government they want. It might well be a Labour one with its commitment to workfare and the end of universalism at the heart of the welfare state. Or Tory, with its commitment to workfare and the end of universalism at the heart of the welfare state. Or even a Liberal Democrat government with … oh well, I’m sure they’ll think of something.’
The Scottish people roundly rejected the policies of the other parties. Doing anything other than emphasising the progressive, social democratic approach which has served the SNP so well under Salmond’s leadership would be counter intuitive and surely too much to ask of the party. But it isn’t too much to ask of the wider independence movement.
This is the void the Yes Campaign needs to fill – and quickly. The phoney war is over. Just about every box in the administrative preamble to a legally binding, constitutional plebiscite has been ticked, the ‘t’s crossed and the ‘i’s dotted. Everyone knows now that we are about to start discussing what an independent Scotland really could and would look like. The SNP has its own vision – rightly separate from its aspiration for an independent nation per se. It is for the Yes Campaign to take the lead now, to sell the dream of independence, the opportunities and affordability of it, the freedom, sense of self-worth and sheer excitement of it. It can do this without being bullied by TV boors into delivering political hostages to fortune because in the context of the wider campaign such commitments are of no relevance.
We know the Yes Campaign is not a front for the SNP but it is time it started asserting that fact with much more vigour and aggression. Providing the SNP the space to make its own case for its own vision of an independent Scotland – free from the need to invent alternatives from the as yet fictional Scottish Labour or Conservative parties – seems to me like the ideal place to start.