One Year On: how to lead from behind
“Politicians argue that only if they are in power will decisions be the right ones, and thus we must suffer tedious rounds of facile political argument over enduring and deep-seated problems, when closer analysis of these problems leads to the more disturbing conclusion that no politician and no government … … is able to solve them. Somehow we know this. Frustration with conventional politics is rising everywhere, depressing voter turnout and fuelling popular anger. Politicians too can sense the mood, but are unable to offer any prescription except more of the same politics, perhaps spiced with a dangerous and hollow populism.”
– Carne Ross: ‘The Leaderless Revolution’ (2011)
In this season of mellow fruitfulness there has bee a widespread desire in broadcast, print and social media, and among politicians, to reflect on the Referendum, one year on. It appears, however, that within the impenetrable, unrelenting anger of Unionism that still seems to be trying to turn democratic victory into bitter, sour and resentful defeat (what on earth do they have to be so angry and resentful about? It seems the mere defeat of an opponent is not enough, only extinction will do): relatively little, or indeed nothing at all has been learned from the last twelve months of politics; certainly in the reflections emanating from the so-called ‘opinion-formers’ in London, in Westminster or more generally representing a near-catatonic Unionism in Scotland.
The rout of Scottish Labour in the General Election (one MP), the collapse of the LibDems (one MP) and the obvious, endless, complete and utter irrelevance of the Conservative Party (one MP, yet again) have not led to a transformation in the politics of any of these futile political parties, but merely, if bizarrely, has produced a singularly rebarbative Unionist ‘anti-strategy’: an obtuse insistence, doggedly to stick to their threadbare, rejected politics and their unwholesome, destructive ideologies in the face of the wholesale defeat of their Westminster parliamentary candidates. This is a defeat-sodden ‘solution’ all three obey uniformly, as if still prisoners of the disciplinary shackles of Better Together’s essential political inanity.
All three Unionist parties persist in hysterically attacking the SNP for its commitment to achieving independence through a referendum in some ‘sooner-or-later’ future; which is after all the SNP’s ‘raison d’etre’ (and in principle at least, if not execution, is presumably non-negotiable for its leader); and in spite of the fact that this attack has had no impact on broad and strong public support for the SNP, or had any effect on support for independence itself, which indeed continues to increase momentum in closely monitored polls of public opinion.
The reasons for this Unionist political failure are not hard to find. It is an indictment of Unionism that in spite of the referendum victory it quickly became clear that the Union had managed the near impossible; both to win and to fail. It managed to win, but not to win the decisive political destruction of the SNP it had assumed was its political entitlement, and in the process of winning deftly turned the result into a Pyrrhic victory, with sufficient devastating effect, comprehensively to demoralise itself: no doubt as a direct product of Better Together’s own campaign; which, through a hapless mixture of condescending complacency, ill-conceived hubris, squandered opportunities and bungled politics ensured an electoral death-sentence for Labour, without a single benefit for either Conservatives or LibDems. The emptiness of Unionism and the mean-spirited nature of its politics shocked the Scottish people, who began to see a different character to the Union to that which they had taken for granted for generations.
Three years ago it is doubtful if even Alex Salmond believed there was more than 30% support for independence when he announced the historic event (hence the need for a two year campaign and more than a pinch of optimism); but support was turned into 45% of a record turnout by 18th September, and without wishing to underplay the extraordinary and uplifting engagement in politics by the Scottish people to reinvigorate the polity (and which has been reviewed in depth by many other writers), in no small measure was achieved through the ineptitude of Unionism. Popular support for independence is now still closer to 50%, helped by David Cameron’s almost unique capacity for serial-blundering over the Union.
The Unionists’ campaign pre and post referendum has revealed, quite extraordinarily, that the Unionists understood little either about the nature of Scotland or even the nature of the Union (and notably this applied to Scots politicians, who offered only a rich embarrassment of mediocrity throughout), a gap in their knowledge that they conveyed with typical grudging resentment and brazen inarticulacy to the Scottish people. It is the Unionists, then and now, that are clearly unable or unwilling to find or express a convincing, still less inspiring argument for the Union. All they can ever muster is the raised voice, the dismissive assertion, and when both swiftly fail, the resort to bad temper. It is a recipe for electoral wipe-out they appear too witless to resist. They are indeed inexorably pushing the Scottish people towards independence as if they, the Unionists, were the real nationalists; which of course (ideologically) they are.
It is astonishing that Unionist politicians have failed the Union so badly, and failed the Scottish people, who have left enough clues for an alternative constitutional strategy to independence over the last three years. Here is the root of the problem, for the Union is being defended by the most thoroughly inept, incompetent, hapless generation of Unionist politicians and apologists in three hundred years. We may wonder what the Union’s key Scottish architect, William Carstares, would have made of the present Unionists three hundred years later? Not much, I hazard.
Instead of paying attention; listening to the Scottish people rather than lecturing them, Unionism and Unionists chose instead consistently to rebuff, ignore or dismiss the clear desire among Scots expressed through the Long Campaign of the Referendum for Reform of the Union, through a new Union settlement framed in terms of full-blown Federalism or Devo Max. This demand for Devo Max was not SNP policy, and it was articulated in outline only, but however incomplete it expressed the aspirations of the majority of Scottish opinion; ahead of the curve, ordinary Scots struggled to assert the need radically to reform both politics and constitution in Britain. Unionists with an ounce of imagination, a little judgment, even less confidence and the smallest tincture of wisdom would have, could have created a vision for a new Union Settlement out of such an obvious opportunity presented to them; an alternative moreover that the SNP dare not touch. But Unionism saw it all not as an opportunity, but a threat; above all to them, to their parties, to their politics. Westminster, the Union, was simply not ‘up to’ the task set by the Scottish people; there was no vision. They failed the critical examination set by the people.
The Devo Max question merges into the referendum “second question” issue, which has now been revisited by David Torrance (‘The Independent’:17th September, 2015):
“The Prime Minister hasn’t escaped his share of the blame. Although his “red line” that the referendum comprise only one question was viewed as a triumph at the time, it looks shortsighted in retrospect. Had he embraced Salmond’s offer of a “second” question on “more powers” some believe, with good reason, the independence option would have been crushed beneath a swarm of voters embracing a constitutional Third Way.”
Torrance claims that it is “easy to be wise after the event”; and this is true, not least of David Torrance, who wrote this about David Cameron’s referendum tactics (Newsnet Scotland: 15th October, 2012):
“From the UK Government’s perspective it has achieved what its strategists always called the “main prize”, in other words a single referendum question.”
Torrance was not notably critical of the PM in 2012, although he was vigorously (if over-theatrically) advocating a second question in ‘the Scottish Review’ 6th October, 2011 with this illuminating if clumsily transcribed opening sentence: “As Shakespeare nearly wrote in Hamlet, ‘more relative than this, the second question’s the thing’”. It isn’t as if Torrance didn’t know. This is perhaps the point, Unionism manages a certain facility of argument, but ‘at the touch’ are given to taking the easy, wrong-headed, quick (cheap?) ’fix’ that fixes nothing; rather than working the hard yards for secure achievement. This glib vacillation and cheap opportunism has become the central tenet of Unionism. For the avoidance of doubt the second question was the obvious, best (but not certain) strategy for Unionism from the beginning; the Scottish people presented it on a plate for Unionists to run with, but as Torrance finally notices four years after his first presentation of the case, he concludes “it might already be too late.” And there is the irresolute, continuing weakness of Unionism, neatly packaged for all to see.
Devo Max as a broad concept, provided a small but tangible, usable pointer of hope and reform to rescue Britain from the wreckage of Westminster’s failed politics; something for the Union to make its own and save itself, which was free for Unionism exclusively to embrace; to use, to exploit, develop and shape; a credible alternative to independence for many Scots to consider. But Unionists preferred to spurn the whole idea and the Scottish people with it; in order, Unionists foolishly believed, to win the referendum decisively, rout the SNP once-and-for-all, return to the British political ‘status quo ante’ without actually changing anything; just call out the Labour voters to do the job for them (a campaign funded by the Tories), and then the Unionist politicians could return to the safe haven (especially from ‘the people’), the reassuring privacy, centralism and exclusivity of insider-Westminster ’business-as-usual’; and Unionists could achieve it all by ignoring the wishes of the Scottish people (they are still doing so – it seems that every single amendment presented by the SNP MPs now overwhelmingly representing Scotland in the debate over further powers in Westminster has been rejected by the Government; and David Cameron claims he does not understand the ‘precise’ detail of SNP objections to the outcome of the Bill; perhaps the UK government could point to the amendment[s] it has accepted?) and with this routine, casual irresponsibility the Unionists are slowly shredding the loyalty of Scottish people to the Union.
Unionists make much of the ‘tax-powers’ being devolved to Holyrood; with Income Tax as the seductive ‘jewel in the crown’. It isn’t: rather Income Tax has been set-up as a stand-alone poison chalice; income tax rates have rarely been varied in the UK in recent years because the tax is politically toxic; the devolution of Income Tax to Holyrood almost alone among the suite of headline taxes to which UK governments may resort (a ‘tall poppy’), is intended to induce its use by Holyrood in isolation, and with luck sink the SNP Government; and, as presented in this proposal, is certainly not intended to enhance the government of Scotland. This is the way Unionist politics is routinely conducted in the UK. It has little to do with good governance.
The Unionists have done irreparable damage to their own cause. Scots understand now their expected place in the Union is as follows; either to be taken for granted, or to be grudged; to be quietly grateful for ‘hand-outs’, for Scots to see their country’s self-respect dismissed or demeaned with graceless facility (especially by Unionists) as part of the hierarchy of what is really important in Westminster politics, and that Scotland itself can look forward to a future in which it is slowly marginalised, impoverished, its population ageing and consequentially its economy flatlining; and finally no doubt in the ‘longue duree’ a discreet historic ambition in Westminster may be won cheaply; Scotland will finally be extinguished for the glorification of a London-centric Lesser Britain.
Notice that the SNP has not promised a referendum in its latest announcements, merely sketched scenarios. The SNP is cautious, as befits the delicate balance of opinion. Why then do Unionists not just claim the victory they won, and build something both new and constructive; but instead shrilly insist on a “once in a generation” command for the opposition effectively to give up? After all Unionism won. Unionism’s response as the ‘winners’ should be decisive, a winner’s riposte to the SNP’s alleged hopes for a second referendum soon in the following terms; if the SNP want another referendum, ‘bring it on’. Even now the SNP would be reluctant to pick up the gauntlet; for the SNP is quite capable of calculating the odds, and does not wish to fight a second referendum, but to win a second referendum; and the SNP knows that may require more than a short-term (next election) political perspective. This is the message contained in Nicola Sturgeon’s recent speech, not the Unionist obsession with future, unknowable referendum dates.
The reason the Unionists continue to repeat the “once in a generation” mantra is quite simple. They are no longer sure that they can win. Anger, presumption and entitlement is now replaced by fear; they are no longer certain that the Scottish people are committed to the Union in the same way it could be taken for granted in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2014 they expected a decisive 70/30, or perhaps 60/40 victory at worst, and now they know they had (have?) a small and probably shrinking majority, if any majority at all. And what is responsible for that predicament? Unionism itself.
For a probable significant proportion of Scots the Referendum and the General Election were not and are not a matter of devolution, or of independence, but events through which they sought profound reform and modernisation of the Union, fit for the 21st century. The Union requires to change, and change now; but the Unionists are incapable of embracing it. They are paralysed by the inadequacy of their ideology and by the transformation in Scotland’s politics that they did not expect and cannot accept. Their predicament would be absurd, if it was not serious.
Of course the SNP understand something the Unionists either do not understand, or perhaps believe is unimportant. The SNP is not the leader of this political movement for constitutional change and knows it; it is led rather by the Scottish people, and the SNP recognise the real nature of the relationship, and of course this adroit deference to ‘the people’ is part of its ideology. This is what makes Nicola Sturgeon choose her words carefully on the matter, and I will speculate, illuminates what is meant when she critically observes that the future “depends as much on what you (David Cameron) do as what we do”. Does David Cameron believe in the Union?
It seems either he doesn’t believe in it, or he doesn’t understand politics; which is perhaps a misfortune in a Unionist Prime Minister.