Well, it appears that my old list MSP is to be the next First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon could not be a more striking contrast with the MP that serves part of her ward (Ian ‘bayoneting the wounded’ Davidson), and not just because of her commitment to preserve shipyard jobs when Ian was arguing (along with Alistair Carmichael) that Glasgow’s yards should lose contracts in the event of a Yes vote.
I can remember first seeing her about twenty years ago, before the 1997 general election. I was getting a bus back from the city centre to Shawlands at night, and this figure got on board just across the road from Glasgow Central station. She was carrying a huge duffelbag, wearing a large padded anorak and jeans, and looked exhausted, as though from a long journey after tiring days. We made eye contact, and she saw the recognition in my eyes as she hauled her bag into the storage area. Subsequently she became my MSP through the regional list, and with one exquisite letter managed to get a commercial property to contribute to the costs of tenement roof repairs that were around twenty years overdue (if you have ever lived in a tenement with a commercial unit, you will know how impossible a feat this actually is).
I remember going to see her in her surgery, and the quiet, focused and efficient woman seemed far away from the exhausted figure on the 38 bus. She knew exactly what she was doing, and deftly resolved the logjam of years with the Bolton based owner of the pub that was causing such a problem.
Fast forward a few years, and she is about to become First Minister – and at a toxic time. The Holyrood branch officers of the Westminster parties are trying hard to urge her to distance herself from Alex Salmond and independence – something of a tall order since she has been his deputy for 7 years, and leads a party committed to (guess what?) Scottish independence, at a time when support has never been greater. Mixed in with this are some familiar slights – the Conservative MSP Alex Johnstone referring to her ‘coronation’, recalls those bizarre claims that the other Alex wanted to be King of Scotland…trying again to make that connection between grandiosity as a dimension of leadership, rather than any legitimate democratic mandate. How long before the more explicit suggestions that she wants to become ‘Queen Nicola’ start being made, as the predictable repeat of the demonization of an SNP First Minister starts up again?
Nicola – like the other Alex – is not daft. She knows what they will try to do, and as watched Salmond endure the fire and scorn of an implacably opposed media for these 7 years. She has also worked as a leader in the rainbow coalition of the Yes movement. Yes, she has the opportunity to distance herself – slightly – from Alex, but that is hardly likely to be substantive. I would suggest that the greatest thing that she is likely to distance herself from, is Alex’s statement that September 18th will settle the issue for a generation, if not a lifetime. She knows (if polling is to be believed) the degree to which the No vote was conditional on ‘more powers’ (around a quarter of No voters giving the nebulous ‘promises’ in ‘The Vow’ as their reason). She also knows that acting to secure as great a degree of powers as possible in any extension to devolution, in the process showing the shortfall between what is delivered as opposed to what should be, is the best way to demonstrate to conditional Nos that they were conned. Which is also the best way to persuade them that they should vote differently next time.
And the next time might not be so far away. The 3 year plan for a rerun of the referendum, which I have heard people earnestly discussing, was predicated on an EU in/out vote, whereby Scotland votes to stay in the EU, against the wishes of the rest of the UK, which prompts an emergency referendum in Scotland. Only this week, Farage (ever keen to offer new column inches to those voracious journalists)argued that his condition for supporting a Conservative government following the general election next year would be the holding of an EU referendum in July. Not the 2017 July – the one that is 2 months after the general election. As in…9 months from now.
The first thing that strikes one about this is the contrast with the Scottish Government’s approach: they knew they had to take the best part of 3 years to try to inform and persuade the population that independence was the best course. Farage wants no informed decision (which I think was reflected in the Westminster desire to hold the Scottish Referendum swiftly without any long campaign) – he just wants a kneejerk reaction. You may argue as to whether he actually wants to come out of Europe, or just to be able to posture as the man that gave ‘the British people’ the choice – but certainly the best way to get an ‘out’ vote would be a short emotive and insubstantive ‘content-lite’ campaign.
I confess that I had been toying with the idea of issuing referendum ballots along with the EU ones – so that actually a clear picture would come through on both issues at the same time…AND it would save time and organizational issues – sort of a second ‘Yes Yes’ to mirror the 1997 referendum on a Scottish Parliament and tax-varying powers. The other argument would be to hold the independence referendum afterwards, so that people in Scotland would be aware of the form of the UK that they were voting to be part of – an EU-free one.
One can certainly envisage the nightmare scenario that could result from such a combined poll – that of Scots voting Yes to being in Europe and No to being out of the other union – voting effectively for a country and concept that did not exist outwith the ballot paper (as one would assume that the UK would vote to leave Europe). But with two staggered polls, and in the aftermath of a No vote to Europe, when faced with the cold sobering reality of a UK heading for the exit door from Brussels, it is easy to imagine that many more Scots opposed to independence would choose to cast their lot with a Scotland independent within Europe, than joined only to the British union.
And in the wake of such a UK vote, who knows – perhaps even the EU would give slightly more clarity on the possibilities of parts of the UK being able to remain in Europe if they vote to become independent. After all, by that stage, Europe will no longer have vested interests in appeasing a member state that has just decided to leave – so might just be a little bit more open.
“Alex Salmond was essentially a right-wing populist, posing as social democrat. Nicola Sturgeon is a social democrat. So, if we’ve had a challenge over the last few years…Scottish Labour needs to be very aware of the scale of the challenge it now faces.” (Jack McConnell)