The ‘Once in a Generation’ Game: 12 Referenda for ‘No’ Monkeys

A reviewer took me to task recently, over my use of the word ‘generation’: in the paper that I had submitted, I was comparing two historically separated figures variously engaged with Enlightenment science, and had said that there was a generation between them. A furious note was scribbled on the manuscript when it came back from review: ‘a generation is 25 years’. I had to confess that I had never before heard anyone say that there was a specific mathematical figure for how many years a ‘generation’ constituted, and thus considered myself duly enlightened.

‘Generations’ are topical right now: there has recently been an upswell in what is colloquially referred to as the ‘YoonStream’ (the Unionist social media bubble), regarding the recurrence of an independence referendum. The prospect of a second independence referendum is taken as perhaps the equivalent of the notorious ‘Vow’ made by the Westminster parties a few days before the 2014 vote, wherein large-scale, wide-ranging new powers would come to Scotland’s Parliament if we only voted ‘No’ to independence. It would be (Scotland was told) the same as Home Rule, the abiding aim of the de facto Labour Party’s founder, Keir Hardie – effectively a federal UK. (If any of this sounds familiar, that is because a couple of Saturdays ago you might have heard similar promises by Gordon Brown, the same architect as last time. What is interesting is that he was wheeled out in the final week of the campaign in 2014, as the polls showed Yes was ahead – perhaps his early appearance now, before the campaign has even started, is a similar reflection of recent polling showing that ‘Yes’ is again ahead…although it may equally have been an attempt to divert attention away from Nicola Sturgeon’s keynote SNP spring party conference speech to former ‘No’ voters, on the same day.) This ‘Vow’ naturally failed to materialise once the No vote had been secured – but the ‘vow’ equivalent that Yes is accused of, is that there was a ‘promise’ that this referendum was a ‘once in a generation’ or once in a lifetime event – ergo there should be decades before there was even the possibility of it happening again.

However, the whole premise is rot, relying as it does on the wilful misrepresentation of comments made by Alex Salmond in the run-up to the vote on 18th September 2014.

I remember seeing the reports in 2014, with him being asked about the referendum by somewhat hostile journalists, in terms of the frequency of such things. Alex swerved the question neatly, choosing to emphasise the rarity of having the chance to have such a vote for independence. “It is a once in a generation opportunity”, he replied. I understood exactly what he meant: it was a warning. He did not want anyone to be relaxed that this plebiscite might commonly recur in the future, that it was a question that could easily be regularly revisited, so no pressure to go with it this time. He did not want such an impression to spread, making the electorate complacent and feel that they could casually vote ‘No’ (or not vote at all) without serious consideration, as there would be ‘another independence referendum along soon’, like a number 11 bus. There had been no vote – or even token gesture of consultation – on the Act of Union in 1707 (to be fair, the closest that regular non-land-owning people had to free expression back then was the series of riots that took place in virtually every Scottish town and city in protest at the idea of the Union coming in to being), or at any point in the ensuing three centuries plus. So to say that the opportunity to have such a say was rare (or even once every twenty five years) is a significant understatement.

It seems fairly safe to say that a major reason for the 2014 plebiscite being agreed to by Westminster was that David Cameron was confident that he could use it to destroy the SNP as a political force.

There was no largesse here, or great love of democracy – he felt he could use it against his political opponents (in much the same way that he disastrously initiated the EU referendum purely to resolve the Conservative Party ascendancy) to his own ends. If Cameron had not seen an opportunity for himself, then that referendum would most likely have been denied – of course, not by being as foolhardy as to say ‘no’, but probably under the guise of ‘now not being the right time’, as Theresa May tried last week: hitting it into the long grass, as the political golfing metaphor goes. In short, it was a fluke of Conservative arrogance and caprice that the first independence referendum happened – Salmond was never, ever in any way shape or form saying ‘fair dos, if you win this, we will not ever mention it again’ – he was saying ‘they have never been so daft as to let the question be asked before, and this will probably be our one shot at it’. You cannot misrepresent the act of encouraging someone to vote because it is a rare chance that may well not come again, as equating to making a promise or vow – such as Cameron, Clegg and Milliband did in that last week of the campaign, in trying to make the referendum seem to be about ‘independence or more powers’, instead of In or Out of the UK. (You can read elsewhere about how that intervention undermined what the referendum was actually asking, as commented on by political scientist Professor Tony Carty, at https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/12/12/beyond-conditional-nos-the-ongoing-political-uncertainty-of-what-the-no-vote-actually-meant .) The two simply do not equate – but perhaps it says more about a certain kind of Unionist mindset that they would hear Salmond’s words as those of someone coming cap-in-hand to beg a favour, rather than a warning to the Scottish electorate against being complacent, because the state might well block any future calls for Scottish self-determination in perpetuity. Instead, they prefer to play the Once-in-a-Generation Game.

Of course, the issue of self-determination is not evenly spread throughout time, and becomes more of an issue at times when the colonial or ‘parental’ government becomes more obviously incompetent or unwilling to represent broader interests and concerns. This has the effect of reminding people of the state that they are in, and how brazenly unresponsive it can be to their needs. At other times, this is not so obvious – although having come through the crucible of 2014, the Scottish electorate look more forensically at Westminster’s performance than ever before. As hard as it was to battle through to the end of the September 2014 referendum and see it end in a failure, the more sanguine among us had been considering that it was an exercise in waking ourselves up – ready for the next time. Like Morpheus in the Nebuchadnezzar, unplugging as many individuals from the mainstream media Matrix as we could, so that they looked more critically at the political world around them, and what it really means to be Scotland in Britain. (Given the recent Panelbase media survey, whereby only 32% of Scots expressed confidence in the BBC as a balanced news-provider regarding constitutional issues, I think we can say that we have had some significant success in that regard.) That has meant the awakening of critical political thinking in Scotland – with political parties judged harshly, and rewarded richly, according to how well they stood up to public scrutiny. The political landscape of Scotland has been transformed – and, some might argue, this has had a knock-on effect in England. It also means that the electorate are a lot more questioning of the media that they more passively consumed in the past.

The ‘Yes’ Movement suffered last time from failing to criticise how Scotland faired as a component within the UK, instead focussing on the many possibilities and opportunities that would come with becoming an independent state. (One of Cameron’s purported reasons for refusing to debate Salmond during that campaign, was to avoid turning it into a referendum on Westminster’s ‘custodianship’ of Scotland within the Union.) Ian Bell wrote that he felt the main reason that ‘Yes’ lost, was in its failure to address why one might not wish to be considered British – in truth, Westminster has stage-managed exposure of precisely why one might not wish to be considered that since the result in 2014, running from English Votes for English Laws, the failure of the Smith Commission, the watering down of those insipid proposals, and the implosion of the EU Referendum and the sudden xenophobic leap towards a hard BrExit. And, so, we find ourselves once more looking at a Scottish Independence Referendum – perhaps more as an indication of the need to call Westminster’s performance over the last three years in the wake of 18th September 2014 to account, than anything else.

It is fair to say that the British state has not favoured the Scottish question being asked, and has relied on a series of unlikely-to-be-surmounted obstacles to prevent that from happening. But how ‘precious’ is that long-lasting union, if the countries of the UK are only in it because none of them are allowed to leave? As one commentator noted, it is the difference between parliamentary democracy and political capture – are we really being treated as though we are nothing more than a 19th century colony, in this ‘union of equal partners’?

For example, it is worth noting that, prior to devolution, there was no consideration of a referendum as the mechanism for Scotland attaining independence – all the SNP had to do was secure a majority of the MPs representing Scotland at Westminster, to automatically gain the right to declare independence. That was, of course, seen to be astronomically unlikely…but Westminster could not have foreseen the degree to which people in Scotland would become so utterly disillusioned with first the Conservatives (primarily from Thatcher), then Labour (through Blair in Iraq), and finally the Liberal Democrats (through coalition with Cameron’s aggressive government). Suddenly, the SNP were the only credible party of government left in Scotland. Today, those old Westminster guidelines seem laughable, with 56 out of 59 MPs elected to represent Scotland in Westminster being Scottish National Party members: never mind a simple ‘majority’ of Scottish Westminster seats as a requisite for declaring independence, they were close to getting ALL of the seats. That could easily be taken as a mandate – but the SNP have even more than that to underpin their right to hold a further independence referendum.

As I write this, the Scottish Parliament is debating the motion to pass a request for a Section 30 Order from Westminster, to make an independence referendum legal and binding. That same Scottish Parliament is governed by the SNP, who were elected explicitly on a manifesto that said that if Scotland voted to stay in the EU but the UK voted to Leave, then this would constitute grounds for a new independence referendum on Scottish independence (especially given that continued membership of the EU was supposedly one of the major reasons to vote ‘No’ in 2014 – although that argument was hotly disputed by ‘Yes’). Although the SNP dropped their absolute majority of the previous Scottish Parliament (which was supposed to be mathematically well-nigh impossible to achieve), the SNP have enough members to pass the motion against united Conservative, Labour and LibDem opposition in Holyrood, and they also have the support of the Scottish Greens for an independent Scotland. The SNP have a clear mandate for an independence referendum from their manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections last year, which described the specific EU vote circumstances that transpired – never mind what would have been a pre-devolution mandate from their near unanimous occupation of the Scottish benches at Westminster. But as you once more hear the desperate unionist howl of ‘but you PROMISED it was only once in a generation!’, remember that there was never any undertaking to Unionists, by either politicians or by the Scottish people, that there would not be another one – it was a warning to the Scottish electorate that, with the paucity of opportunities during the lifetime of the Union for Scots to assess whether the Union should be dismantled, that another chance might well never come again. Not an undertaking, but an expectation – and who could have expected that the Conservatives would press such a self-destructive button on their relationship with the EU, less than two years after citing it as the main reason for Scotland to stay in the UK?

It is interesting to note that Alex Salmond’s explanation to Andrew Marr (see quote below) of the sort of timescale that he imagined for a political generation is not so far from the literary one mentioned at the start of this article – the gap between the Scottish Assembly vote in 1979 (won on the same 52:48 majority as the UK’s EU referendum, incidentally) and the 1997 vote for the Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers, is one of 18 years – and between that and the independence referendum, 17 years. This time, the gap will be much smaller, because circumstances have changed catastrophically over an incredibly short timeframe…and it is hard to envisage another change as cataclysmic (Conservatives take UK out of the UN? Offer to join with Russia as an appeasement to Trump for a better trade deal to circumvent US protectionism? Yeah, I know…as unlikely as hard BrExit was 18 months ago) as to once more demonstrate a clear need to reassess the viability of the Union again. But – as much as Westminster might like to pretend that this is all a ‘plot’ of the SNP, or whomever is in charge of the party at any given time (because they always like to personalise it as an individual’s ‘obsession’, rather than the electoral preference of the electorate…although that is arguably far far more true of Theresa May’s premiership than Nicola Sturgeon’s), it is ultimately the people of Scotland that have that power – and who make the choice of when and if any given political party is given a mandate for an independence referendum. And if the people say it shall be so, then so it shall be.

But if the Unionists want it to be once in a generation, then we have quite a backlog of overdue independence referenda to get through – if it is twelve (for each unassessed batch of 25 years since 1707), then by my reckoning that leaves nine still outstanding, after 1979, 1997 and 2014 are taken into account. The sooner Scotland starts on getting through that backlog of referenda, the better.

Either way, it is coming.

 

“If you remember that previous constitutional referendum in Scotland – there was one in 1979 and then the next one was 1997. That’s what I mean by a political generation…In my opinion, and it is just my opinion, this is a once in a generation opportunity for Scotland.” (Alex Salmond to Andrew Marr, 14/9/2014)

 

 

Galloway and Salmond: An Unlikely Unified Chorus

Alex Massie in The Spectator has noted that there are now more members of the Scottish National Party than there are soldiers in the British Army. Which is all well and good (unless he is actually proposing a direct ‘contest’ between the two?) – but that means little compared to actual electoral success. Despite that simple statement, lots of external commentators have taken very different meanings from the result of the General Election in Scotland. The SNP winning 56 out of 59 seats was, for example, presented by Vladimir Churov, the head of the Russian electoral commission, as clear evidence that the Referendum last year was rigged – but that is (to say the least) a simplistic analysis, that ignores the focused media impact in a binary plebiscite, compared with a multi-party election.

Writing provocatively for The Telegraph within 24 hours of the General Election results being finalised, Bruce Anderson had a hilarious piece harrumphing away at the presence of the Scottish electoral choice in Westminster, declaring that Scotland needs time to “calm down”, that Westminster should “stop appeasing the Scots”, and the wonderfully insulting “when the Nats launched their offensive the Labour high command found out that their party was almost extinct. Some Glasgow constituencies had a nominal membership role of a hundred, half of whom turned out to be dead: another quarter, in Barlinnie Gaol. The rest were often some of the most primitive socialists ever known. As no-one had told them that the Warsaw Pact was also extinct, some of them were still hoping for the arrival of Stalinism”. So, no stereotypes or cliches there, then: with such a grasp for politics (and the Labour Party) in Scotland, it is a wonder that Anderson is not considering running for First Minister next year.

In another interpretation, you can also say that in May pro-independence parties secured 51.3% of the vote in Scotland, but – as much as there is an increasing receptivity to the idea – the majority of people understood that the General Election was not a rerun of the Referendum, that this was about opening up a new front in the campaign for Scotland to take charge of its own future. I would argue that this is demonstrated in a number of ways – and not merely by the SNP saying it, because, well ‘they would wouldn’t they?’ What is telling is not the numbers of independence supporters that voted for the SNP, but the ones who are not yet convinced by independence, yet know that the SNP has that long-term objective, and still saw a good reason to support them going to Westminster. In a way, supporting the SNP in spite of – not because of – the longer term goal.

I have referred before to the October 2013 poll that indicated how much Labour support in Holyrood was projected to fall in the event of a ‘No’ vote in the Referendum (47% of their 2011 voters, see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/all-those-wee-things-the-loss-to-labour/ ), and the latest TNS poll of 1,031 makes even gloomier reading for them: 60% of those planning to vote next May would now vote SNP (45% in 2011), Labour would get 19% (32% in 2011, so 59% of that vote rather than the 47% predicted two years ago), which would leave them only marginally ahead of the Conservatives on 15%…and then there would be the LibDems on 3%. This result would mean zero Holyrood Constituency seats for Labour (they currently have 15). For the Holyrood List section vote, the results are lower at 50% for the SNP (which actually might, through the PR system, lead to them losing their majority in Holyrood), with Labour still on 19%, Conservatives 14%, Greens 10%, LibDems 5%, UKIP 2%. Also, the TNS poll (from the end of May, therefore predating Charles Kennedy’s death) shows that among under 35s, 80% say that they will be voting for the SNP, with only 6% going for Labour.

Poll results like this, the successful crowdfunding of the Carmichael money, the continuing popularity of the First Minister as well as sites like Wings Over Scotland, all suggest that the appetite for change is not restricted to elections…and it has not gone away after returning 56 SNP MPs out of 59 possible constituencies, no matter how much the enemies of change might wish to rationalise it otherwise – or be unwilling to countenance the result in other terms such as ‘a political sea change’.

As much as these figures all seem to show that support for the SNP – and trust in them, even from ‘No’ voters – is strong, the bigger question remains what this may or may not mean for the question of independence. Arch-Unionist George Galloway, launching his campaign for London Mayor a week ago, declared that he thought independence could probably ONLY have been stopped from happening within the next five years by a Labour government winning last month. Not exactly the most credible of political commentators, Galloway’s expressed view echoes Salmond’s comment just after the General Election, that (when asked directly) he thought the result in May had brought independence closer for Scotland. At the time, this was seized on with howls by the media in an attempt to show a ‘split’ between him and Sturgeon (who had clearly said that a vote for the SNP was not a vote for independence at this General Election), his successor – in much the same way as they have tried to misrepresent the SNP MPs Sheppard and Kerevan as descrying Full Fiscal Autonomy, when they were very explicitly criticising the idea that FFA could happen overnight as opposed to being a phased process, and supporting the argument that it would take time to change over. After all, we have just seen how badly botched a rushed constitutional modification can be, with the Smith Commission translating into the limp rag of the Scotland Bill. Nobody would be arguing for FFA of all proposals to happen swiftly, without negotiation…but I digress.

When Alex Salmond says that this Westminster result brings independence closer – of course it does: just not in the way that some of the southern commentariat appear to be thinking, not as part of some plan to achieve it through a devious plot enacted by a Westminster bloc of SNPs orchestrating some dastardly scheme. In a post-election poll, almost 50% said that last month’s Westminster success for the SNP made independence more likely, with 39% saying that it made no difference. It brings independence closer in exactly the same way as the SNP becoming the largest party in Holyrood in 2007 brought independence closer, as it led to them subsequently gaining a majority government in Holyrood in 2011 – which again brought independence closer, as that has (along with their performance in the Referendum) in its turn brought this Westminster landslide. Each of these stages is symptomatic of the people in Scotland placing more representational responsibility with the Scottish National Party as their trust in them slowly grew, in the absence of any credible alternative in the wake of Iraq. Last month was another stage in that growth. After a while, there will be few other ways in which the people in Scotland can invest further trust in the SNP – apart from voting for independence. According to a recent poll, 80.4% of Scots want another Referendum on independence, with 58.6% wanting it within the next ten years. It may not be the EU referendum that provides the ‘material change in circumstances’ that warrants another independence referendum within 5 years rather than 10, but perhaps in that regard Galloway might yet prove to be unexpectedly prescient after all.

 

“I think independence is probably nigh. The only way it could have been stopped is if we had got a Labour government last month and if that Labour government had begun to make a difference. But these next five Tory years are going to be very cold, and the SNP leadership seems to have the ball at their feet and know what to do with it. So I’d be very surprised if there wasn’t another referendum in the course of this next five years, and I’d be very surprised if we managed to repeat the result we got last year. I’d take the same stand that I did last year. But I wouldn’t be expecting to win.” (George Galloway, 14/6/2015)

Nicola has Fun in America: Baggage-free and Palatable

It has been an interesting week in the broad sense of Scottish politics. Monday June 8th was the most potentially stressful day – as part of Nicola Sturgeon’s grand tour of the US (Ok, NYC and DC), she was a guest on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. As confident as you can be in Nicola, that could so easily be a step too far…and yet she did brilliantly. For those of you who have not seen the full 14 minutes, I commend this link: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2tabx8_the-unexpurgated-sturgeon_news which will give you the 7 minutes broadcast, and another 7 shot for web content. The desperation of her political opponents to attack her being such that they relied on saying ‘Stewart compared her to Saddam Hussein’ as their strapline for commentary on her appearance – in other words, they were relying on people not checking the actual show for what was really said, but just take the commentariat’s word for it. It was very clear from the show that Stewart had a great deal of warmth for her as a guest – and far from being misrepresented by the show’s website (which had initially billed her as a comedienne), she was funny…and also promoted Scotland extensively, even announcing that she had secured Jon Stewart’s agreement to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe next year. Even when she is going out there to get grilled on political chatshows, Nicola is still procuring ‘investment’ in Scotland…what an absolute star. Perhaps even funnier was her modest assessment of her performance on the show in her trip diary (published in today’s Sunday Herald): “it seems to go Ok”. Aye…naw bad, hen.

I watched at midday on Tuesday June 9th, as the crowd-funder for the legal case against Alistair Carmichael under the 1983 Representation of the People Act broke through its £60,000 target in just under two weeks. Supported by some 3,900 donors, the campaign launched by 4 Kirkwall residents in Orkney now has the required sum of money to take in a possible series of legal defense teams…although the LibDems are still refusing to say whether they will fund Carmichael’s defense. I find it heartening to see that the new politics in Scotland lives and extends beyond a simple general election – the expansion in support for independence (as well as the SNP) since the Referendum has been that of a Scottish people that takes particular exception to being openly lied to by its politicians – whether through the tissue-thin lie of ‘The Vow’, or through Carmichael happily lying about his involvement in and knowledge of the leak of the ‘FrenchGate’ memo, as a rather transparent strategy to not jeopardize his campaign to retain his Orkney/Shetland seat. Commentators might do well to recognise that this is not an ‘SNP witchhunt’, but something much broader and more publicly-owned. Regardless of what happens with the legal case (and I would cynically expect it to be unsuccessful, simply because of its direct opposition to the Establishment), or even if he secured a win in a rerun by-election, it is hard to see how Carmichael does not come out of this as a major liability for the LibDems – and the Union more broadly: his defense appears to be that his lies were “purely political”, therefore did not reflect on his character, and that he did not lie about when he first heard about the memo, he (wait for it) ‘misdated’ when he heard about it. I love that – hardly a robust opposition to the case, that will renew faith in him as a constituency MP of impeccable character.

That night, I watched Evan Davis interviewing Alex Salmond in the studio, reflecting on Nicola’s tour de force on the Daily Show, Davis putting it to Salmond that Nicola was “less divisive” than he was. I felt that Davis was slightly missing the point – Salmond was forced as party leader and First Minister to be the lightning rod of every anti-independence writer since 2008, and has a lot of baggage directly attached to him from that relentless six year onslaught. Nicola presents an alternative second figure to his – and the ‘second figure’ makes a huge psychological difference to the wide audience. It changes the dynamic (to use an analogy of the white American position during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s) from being either for or against Martin Luther King, to having a choice between King and Malcolm X. People could more easily support King after Malcolm came to the fore, as they could feel that they were still opposing Malcolm by supporting King; before that, they had no such choice, and it was easiest to simply go with mainstream opinion and oppose King. Similarly, Nicola does not have that legacy (yet) of the UK media constantly attacking her for years to build up this attendant baggage – so she becomes the ‘palatable’ option. I think this is demonstrated in a number of ways – not least in the YouGov post election poll, where (as noted by James Kelly in ‘Scot Goes Pop’): “The most intriguing finding is that English respondents are now much more supportive of independence than they were prior to the referendum. Across Britain, support has increased from 19% in mid-September to 30% now, and opposition has slumped from 65% to 51%.” I would suggest that a lot of that has to do with it not being the successfully demonised Salmond that is now the figurehead of Scotland and independence – but it is our equivalent of MLK – the palatable baggage-free alternative.

And then, the week ended yesterday with Jim Murphy’s departure as Labour leader. With his ‘reforms package’ doing nothing to propose autonomy from the London party (just more autonomy from the unions), there is little to say. He came, he failed, he left to make room for the next leader to repeat the same identical cycle in time for Holyrood next year – Labour’s resolute determination to neither listen nor learn is now simply boring. This morning on Andrew Marr’s show, Tessa Jowell, the Labour candidate for London Mayor was describing the London Mayoral Election on 5th May next year as the next real test for the Labour Party recovery. The Scottish Parliament elections are on the same day – but I can kind of see why Tessa and others are not holding their breath for any miracle to take place in that regard for Labour in Scotland in the next 11 months.

 

“The argument [from Labour] is that nationalism has replaced class as the driving force of Scottish politics. But here’s the thing; if that was the case then you wouldn’t expect to see such a close mapping between the size and nature of the swing from Labour to the SNP and the class profile of the seats where those swings were biggest. Put simply, SNP won biggest and most impressively wherever class politics are strongest. So could Labour perhaps at least consider that this is the most class politics-driven election since the 1980s? And should they not dwell on the possibility that they lost Scotland because they gave up on class politics in the Blair years?” (Robin McAlpine, May 8th 2015)

Slain in the Ratings: The death of another Kennedy, and yet another assassination attempt

There has been a – deliberate, naturally – obfuscation regarding what is so objectionable about Alastair Carmichael, sole remaining Scottish LibDem MP, and former Scottish Secretary.

True, he comes across as a buffoon. He is also an audacious hypocrite, calling for the abolition of the position of Secretary of State for Scotland, because he regarded it as pointless, before taking the ministerial salary for himself…and allegedly having forced dismissal of his LibDem predecessor Michael Moore in order to achieve that end. And as for Carmichael’s cynical leak of a note alleging that David Cameron was Nicola’s preferred choice of Prime Minister to Ed Miliband? He did not even realise that saying ‘I did not read the memo’ does not give him plausible deniability – it instead adds to his buffoonery, giving him a generous helping of incompetence.

The subsequent ethics investigation launched by Kathryn Hudson, the parliamentary standards commissioner, seemed to be a surprise to many, and perhaps raises some doubts as to whether a further police inquiry might also go ahead. Defenders of the Union have been desperate to tie Alex Salmond into this argument – ‘but Salmond lied about advice over EU status, so it is no different’, they say – omitting to note that Salmond submitted himself to a standards investigation into the matter, was fully exonerated, and did so BEFORE he stood as an MP for Gordon…with a 14% swing to the SNP in that constituency delivering him as their MP. A little different, in terms of openness and transparency, then…indeed, some might argue that the fact that the swing was 14% as opposed to in the twenties or thirties, is an indication that he suffered a setback in the polls, in comparison to the bulk of the seats taken by the SNP on Charles Kennedy’s “Night of the Long Sgian Dubhs”.

Carmichael not only authorized the release of a memo to happen within the purdah period of the election campaign, but he denied knowing anything about it, allowing the idea to grow that it was some junior civil servant that had done it…similar to the CBI’s excuses for accidentally coming out as campaigning for a ‘No’ vote in the Referendum last year. Except, as with the CBI, under closer scrutiny it became clear that that decision was authorised by several senior members as opposed to the office coffee-gopher. Alastair personally authorised the memo being sent out, so willingly not only tried to damage another political party’s campaign (by saying they would quite like his coalition prime minister to stay in power), but then refused to be honest and take the consequences of possible damage himself before he defended his own seat in the election. Orkney and Shetland had noted a swing towards the SNP amongst council places, and Shetland voted SNP last month, leaving Orkney to vote Carmichael back with a majority in the 800s, down from over 10,000 at the previous general election in 2010. Validation – yet again – of how willing the LibDems have been, to lie while in government (the memo which he read before authorising the leak was dated March 6th, some weeks before parliament dissolved and he effectively ceased to be a minister), not just for tuition fees.

The ‘FrenchGate’ memo was discredited within hours, and seen as a desperate kneejerk response to Nicola Sturgeon’s tour-de-force the previous evening on the Leaders’ Debate, where UK-wide audiences voted her as the winner of all seven parties…including the incumbent prime minister and the leader of the opposition. And one cannot but help see that same desperation to attack opponents of the Union at all costs, in the willingness for critics to attack Alex Salmond yesterday over his generous comments about Charles Kennedy in the wake of his sad demise. Any opportunity for a bitter attempt to character assassinate Salmond is not to be missed by the general press, and so his observations that Kennedy’s heart was not really in the Better Together campaign are not presented as an attempt to rehabilitate a man so fondly regarded by the electorate, so that history does not consign him to being behind the curve of Scottish politics, but an attempt to ‘appropriate’ him as an independence advocate (see the actual quotes below). In truth, Salmond’s remarks may be over-generous, to those of us who remember Charles Kennedy being quoted some months ago as saying that no politician, journalist or academic had any clue as to why the losing ‘Yes’ parties were on a roll since the Referendum result – he may well have recognized that Better Together was damaging the support for the Union, but his bewilderment does not really fit with a man who was in touch any longer, and perceived what had happened over the previous 12 months in Scotland.

Accusations have been shamelessly hurled that Kennedy died because of something called ‘SNP Greed’ (I wonder, do they countenance the existence of the idea of ‘LibDem Greed’? Say, being prepared to lie as a Cabinet Minister in order to hold on to your own constituency salary?), therefore desperately trying to make the party that was the people’s choice in not just last month’s General Election, but also the 2011 Holyrood election, and even won the popular vote for the first time in the Scottish council elections, somehow responsible for his demise….except that who you are blaming with that attack is clearly that same electorate. The voters chose – and you cannot blame the other political parties for being a more palatable choice. Masquerading your attack on the electorate’s choice under the guise of it being an attack on ‘the party’ that defeated him still damns the voters: if anyone, Kennedy was executed by his constituents. Still determined to be behind that political curve, in the face of these three plebiscites, Unionists should take greater care of whom they launch attacks on – and whose death they attempt to bitterly exploit in an attempt to give their existence meaning.

And I cannot but think that the venom of their comments are yet another attempt to distract and deflect from their own wounded compatriot – Carmichael, the LibDem Scottish panda, still trying to limp out of the harsh and unrelenting limelight.

 

“In terms of the independence campaign, I don’t think his heart was in the Better Together campaign…His heart would have been in a pro-European campaign – that’s the campaign that Charles would have engaged in heart and soul… As early as the beginning of last year, Charles was one of the first unionist politicians to realise that the result [in the Referendum] would be close and said publicly that he felt that the actions of the No campaign were contributing to this.” (excerpted from Alex Salmond’s tribute to Charles Kennedy)
“Don’t hate the media; become the media.” (Jello Biafra, Dead Kennedys)

Conservative Apocalypse – the Meaning of the 2015 Result for the UK

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

As much as we can celebrate such a wholesale rejection of Labour in Scotland, by a people consistently a second (at best) priority in the plans of the Labour Project, we can only look with dismay south of the border at the party’s failure to win the favour of an electorate that was absolutely its priority to win. The striking yellow of hope clothing one electoral map, the striking blue of despair cloaking the other.

This contrast was brought into sharp focus by my return to FaceBook on the morning of the results, where so many of my friends were bemoaning the Conservative majority. Lots of people are criticising the supposed ‘polls failure’ – with no real reason, as they were showing the result within the margins of error on the average of the last 25 polls. From the stats, Miliband was never perceived as convincing prime ministerial material, and the contrast between his and Cameron’s ratings told that story for years, even when Labour’s lead in the polls was double digits. Perhaps this ultimately explains the reluctance (or paucity of numbers?) of the English left to support Miliband – because he was less convincing than Blair had been as a prospective statesman: that Conservative-incubus looked ministerial, at least, before the Scooby Doo reveal of his true nature.

One friend in particular commented about how many selfish people there were in the country – and I know that she was not talking about Scotland voting for an anti-austerity agenda en masse.  People like to talk about that ‘shy Tory’ phenomenon – perhaps ‘ashamed Tory’ would be more accurate this time around – with people reluctant to divulge their true voting preference when asked…and one can easily imagine that in a time of economic pressure, the incentive to seriously place yourself and your family’s direct financial interests first might well be much greater. So, in the same way as likelihood to commit crimes increases with poverty and economic threats to one’s family, perhaps – if one really buys into the vanishing myth of Conservative fiscal prudency with their current ideologically-motivated incompetence – one also is more likely to commit as similarly selfish and destructive an act as voting Conservative.

Certainly, according to Ashcroft’s post-election poll, 49% of Conservative voters believe they are already feeling the benefits of an economic recovery. Most LibDem voters said they weren’t feeling an economic recovery yet, but were expecting to…and then we have voters of all the other parties. The majority of Labour, UKIP, Green and SNP voters all declared they were not feeling any sign of the economic recovery, and were not expecting to do so – and that is hardly surprising: in the last year, in Edinburgh alone, the referrals to foodbanks have increased from 35 a month to 350 a month. That threat is increasingly present within people’s circle of experience, and likely to be an influence – yet something seemed to speak louder than accelerating social decline to those that returned a majority Conservative government last week.

One wonders if there is a darker reason – maybe in some of the lashing out of Scottish Labour after Thursday’s rejection by their taken-for-granted electorate. Perhaps this is predictable: despite the SNP offering to be a genuine force for social justice and moral conscience for a Labour Party with a track record of being rather good at losing its way once in government, there have been attempts by the remnants of Scottish Labour to blame the SNP for Labour failing to get enough seats to form the government. A first cursory analysis dismisses this argument – even if all 59 seats in Scotland had gone to Labour, they would still only have had 291, still far away from the required majority, or even capable of making a significant coalition with anyone else. But there is another narrative that argues for the rise in the Scottish bloc vote as a repellant to Labour voters in England.

Put simply, is the decline in the Labour vote in England since 2010 a direct response to ‘anti-Scottish xenophobia’? That was the language that The Venerable Gordon Brown used to condemn Cameron’s campaign in the last two weeks. In that time the SNP was compared to the Third Reich, Salmond presented on giant posters as the stereotypical Scot pickpocketing an English voter… One important point is that criticising the SNP surge without evidence that they have actually lied to the electorate (because a clearly deceived electorate – as we were with Blair in 1997 – is not culpable) means directly criticising the electorate that is planning to vote for them, rather than the party itself. At the best of times, this is a dangerous move for any politician, as exemplified by Farage attacking one of his studio audiences during the debates – but a Scottish audience is likely to react even more contrarily to such an attack. ‘Thrawn’, as they say. ‘Oh, you bluddy think so, do ye?’ as Billy Connolly puts it.

It is true that this may simply have been a strategy by Cameron for immediate post-election gain: as Lesley Riddoch noted on polling day “English voters are being primed to overreact hysterically should Labour try to form a minority government on Friday – whether it’s a formal deal that includes the SNP, discreet dialogue or semaphore signals at dusk.” But the Conservative-supporting press campaigned to vilify the people of Scotland (by virtue of their electoral choice), making clear that when the Conservatives talk about ‘OneNation Britain’, we now know exactly which ‘one nation’ they are talking about. It is unclear whether this campaign had traction by bringing underlying chauvinisms to the surface, or created those chauvinisms anew, but one reporter from Nuneaton made clear that benefits claimants, immigrants and Scots were now seen as the three undesirables – perhaps because Scots fulfil stereotypes of the first two groups perfectly adequately down in the shires…

Paul Kavanagh neatly summed up the inherent genius of Labour embracing this strategy on results day: “Labour blames the SNP for its defeat. The Unionist parties went around screaming to anyone who would listen – which would be the BBC and Fleet Street – that the SNP would eat your babies. Labour smiled indulgently on the antics of Ian Smart when he called the SNP fascists and supporters of the Nazis. Labour looked upon a mildly left of centre social democratic party and it saw a scary monster. Then they blamed the SNP because voters in England were afraid of the imaginary monster that Labour had invented.”So Scottish Labour contends that even the possibility of SNP influence was sufficient to scare voters in England from Labour – and if that is the case, then perhaps the Union is more finished in the hearts of England than we previously thought. As Ian Bell put it yesterday: “If true, what does it mean? That Scottish voters should have declined the choice of a lawful party and declared themselves subordinate to the prejudices of English voters? If that’s the case, there’s no place for us within the UK. Does it mean, equally that voters in England will simply not countenance the participation of properly elected Scottish MPs within a government they regard as theirs alone? If so, the road is the same and it leads in one direction only.”

That Labour failed to contest the narrative of a ‘threat’ from Scotland, thereby falling neatly into a Conservative trap, is perhaps the saddest aspect of this. It is not hard to dismantle the argument of the ‘Scottish threat’: England has 82% of the MPs, therefore an automatic veto with a ‘majority’ of 533 votes. This was an obfuscation of a constitutional issue/problem as a political issue/problem: English MPs have total control of Parliament, and always have had – no vote counter to that would happen without 219 MPs in England choosing to vote with Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs. One of the very reasons why there is such widespread support for English Votes for English Laws in Scotland, is not because of widespread support for Scottish Conservatives (at this general election, despite a strong campaign by Ruth Davidson, their vote share fell to 14.9% – its lowest ever since they were founded in 1965): as Neal Ascherson put it yesterday in The Guardian “I think most Scots feel their MPs should not decide purely English issues. After all, before devolution they had 292 years’ experience of English MPs outvoting the Scots on Scottish issues.” Surely, given his arguments for the Union in the run-up to last September, Miliband could have come out fighting AGAINST the ‘othering’ of Scots, pointing out the basic arithmetic that undermines the portrayal of Scottish electoral choices as an ‘external threat’, and making Labour the party of an actual United Kingdom. During the Referendum campaign we were told ‘Scotland should lead the UK – not leave it’. Apparently that leadership is very much not wanted – and indeed any idea even of influence is to be shunned.

Personally, I prefer not to think that ‘fear of a Scottish vote’ was really a strong motivating force, as I would rather not think that we were so reviled by an electorally significant portion of England. Because if so – why is there still a Union? And – as an equally logical corollary – can we stop referring to it as a Union, and just say it is an Empire? (The definition being, ‘Supreme political power over several countries when exercised by a single authority’. A contentious question for another post, I think…)

As McWhirter put it “the entire post-war edifice of Scottish politics was pulverised into dust” last week. Nor were Labour and the Conservatives the only parties punished in Scotland: with less than 5% of the vote, LibDems paid out £170K due to lost deposits in 340 seats (my sister was apparently one of those candidates, when none of us knew she was even standing: ‘shy LibDem’ syndrome, perhaps?). Ascherson, again: “the meaning of last week is that the SNP has been adopted as ‘Scotland’s party’, not least because it has no strings to London.” If parties were smart, they would reconstruct themselves as autonomous units, in order to produce the required clear water for the electorate in Scotland to trust them again. If they simply don’t care, they won’t. Which will send its own message.

Does this election, as some have said, truly mean the launch of a trajectory towards a federal UK? Unlikely – as noone is interested in federalising England. Is it really so ‘impossible’ that Scotland’s vote for home rule will be ignored? Yes, of course – regardless of how much this vote was a clear mandated call for more powers for the Scottish Parliament than Smith was offering, the arithmetic is clearly on the side of the Conservative government. But such a strategy of turning a blind eye is somewhat fraught, if you truly are intent on preserving that Union, as opposed to consolidating short-term political advantage, creating, as it does, many avenues that fast-track independence.

As Alan Bissett noted, Scotland having to suffer another five years of Conservative-led government is a direct consequence of the ‘No’ vote – I don’t think that is an unfair observation, as one of the most resonant arguments in the Referendum campaign was that independence was the only way that Scotland could guarantee having no more Conservative governments dictating to it from London without a Scottish mandate. With a ‘No’ vote in place, it was only a matter of time before it happened – but what I find particularly distressing is that the left vote seemed to take a vacation in England, when the incumbent government had such a poor record on the economy (massively increasing the debt, failing to get the deficit down to 65% over the time period that it originally said it would completely eliminate it), and was promising to continue its savage cuts to a welfare state that were ideological and irrelevant (if not actively counter-productive) to getting the economy to recover. The positive attributes to what Eddy Robson dubbed “The best crisis since the abdication” were body-swerved in favour of Austerity Max.

A week before the Referendum was lost last year, Robin McAlpine of the Common Weal wrote the following on Bella Caledonia: “A butterfly rebellion is coming close to winning Scotland away from the forces of the British state. I think we’ll do it, but either way, they can’t beat us. We are already half of Scotland and we keep growing. They are weak and we are strong. When the people of Britain see their titans defeated by a rebel army who used infographics and humour, what is there to stop them following? England needs its butterfly rebellion as well.” That conclusion seems hauntingly prescient now, as we ask the question: is there any potent left remaining in England? Labour was hardly a radical left platform at this general election, but if an underlying xenophobia was really more powerful than the prospect of an unleashed Conservative government, indeed was strong enough not just for people to go to the Conservatives but to move straight to UKIP instead of a fundamentally right of centre Labour party, then what hope is there for any longevity for the concept of Britain?

Cameron can be bold – but it is hard to see how anything that he does is going to do other than pass the historical title of ‘Last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’ to his successor.

 

“For the long dark decades of Tory rule, Scotland was told that getting a government we didn’t vote for was simply the price of the Union. Now the tartan high heels are on the other foot, England might get the government that Scotland votes for. Ed, Davie, Nick and Nige scream that Scotland’s choices are illegitimate and unwelcome. But to no avail, no one in Scotland is listening to the four hoarse men of the Jockalypse.” (Paul Kavanagh, 7/5/2015)

 

Disparate Thoughts from the Wee Sma’ Hours…a Troika of Pandas Coming Over the Hill

….5 hours sleep later, and leaving my bedroom I felt a little like Judy Garland approaching the doorway, wondering if it was going to be technicolor on the other side or not.

I checked my phone – a text from my brother gave me a small heads-up ‘Bye Jim Murphy, we won’t miss you’. Well, that was one scalp. But there were others on the list.

Putting on the television, and it was clear that the exit poll was looking pretty much spot-on, with the Conservatives heading towards a majority, as the SNP had cleared 50 seats in its own majority. Perhaps as part of the new realpolitik that his former classmate was not going to be deposed as Conservative leader in order to make way for his predicted ascendancy, Boris Johnson was making noises offstage that some kind of offer of ‘federalism’ had to be made to Scotland in the wake of his ‘Ajockalypse Now’ prediction.

Stats were being reeled off in the BBC studio, with the biggest single party vote in Scottish political history of 1.4 million for the SNP; Alex Salmond notes that the results in Scotland represented the biggest political swing in the UK since records began in 1835, with an average of 24% from Labour to SNP; within that, Willie Bain, architect of ‘The Bain Principle’ (The Bain Principle, the old Royal High School building on Calton Hill, and 30% of Labour Party Members going for Yes or http://wp.me/p4SdYV-1c ), predicted just over a week ago to be the last Labour MP standing in Glasgow NE, had fallen with a 39% swing to the SNP, producing Sturgeon’s ‘magnificent seven’ in a clean SNP sweep of all of Glasgow; Brian Taylor noted 60 years ago a 50.1% Scottish vote for the Scottish Unionist Party has now been eclipsed by a 50.2% vote for a pro-independence SNP.

6am saw a revision of the 10pm exit poll: Conservatives 325, Labour 232, SNP 56, LibDem 12, UKIP 2, Greens 1.

I scanned the results with some mixed feelings – although turnout was apparently up by 10% in some constituencies, figures of 70-74% turnout are disappointing after the Referendum turnout at 85%.

At the pundits table, Kevin McKenna of the Observer comments on the loss of very able Scottish MPs as part of this near-wipeout.

In the studio, Paul Sinclair (‘SpAd-U-Like’: Paul Sinclair Talks Openly of Labour’s Westminster Navel-Gazing or http://wp.me/p4SdYV-5L), former Labour adviser to Johann Lamont and Douglas Alexander (the Labour campaign manager beaten by a twenty year old student for the SNP) acknowledges that over the years the SNP had done two things very successfully: firstly, to convince Scots that Scottish Labour wasn’t Scottish, secondly to convince them that it wasn’t Labour either. Which was pretty much how the Conservatives were dismissed from Scotland in the past.

Eventually, there was only one seat still to call, as Berwickshire went to a recount. Michael Moore – the LibDem Secretary of State for Scotland – had acknowledged that he was no longer in the running for his seat, which was now being fought over between the Conservatives and SNP…and it fell, ending 50 years of liberalism in the area, begun with David Steel: Calum Kerr, the former chair of ‘Yes Borders’ wins the recount with 328 votes. [I noted Jessie Rae – eighties one hit wonder with ‘Over the Sea’, check it out on YouTube, it’s good for a laugh – if only to see how far Scottish identity has moved beyond this in 30 years: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOad0FU9zF8 – acquired 131 votes in that constituency.

With the final tally of 59 MPs in Scotland, 56 SNP, and one each of Labour, LibDem and Conservative, Carolyn Leckie (whose writing I do enjoy in The National) refers to the Troika of Pandas in Scotland, reflecting the old joke that Scoaltnad has more pandas than Conservative MPs. Except now, that honour can also be extended to two other parties: David Mundell remains the only Conservative Panda MP in Scotland, and Alistair Carmichael the incumbent LibDem Panda Secretary of State for Scotland retains his Orkney and Shetland seat. Perhaps, within that, the final irony or insult is that the last Labour MP standing is Ian Murray – in Edinburgh South, the constituency where I did most of my (admittedly limited – on this occasion) campaigning. Murray had the slimmest majority of any Labour MP (albeit not over the SNP), and retained his seat with an enhanced 2,500-odds majority. Despite the plethora of little tactical voting wheels (guides that told you who to ‘lend your vote to’ in order to keep the SNP out) distributed beforehand, it may only have been in Edinburgh South where they were actually employed, with the Conservatives appropriately propping up Murray’s seat for him to become the Labour Panda. That would be preferable to the idea that three year old misrepresented tweets (‘Thick and Fast They Came at Last’: Labour Unhinged in the Incoherent End of Days for the 2015 General Election or http://wp.me/p4SdYV-9e) might have swung anything against him.

All of which begs the question, with a Conservative majority government about to be confirmed, what does it all mean?

Before Holyrood, it was taken as gospel that if the SNP won a majority of Scottish MPs, then it had a mandate to call for a referendum on independence. With the Scottish Parliament in place, and the established process of 2011-2014, that is no longer the case, and the SNP can convincingly campaign for a stronger voice in Westminster without calling for a referendum. If you go along with that, and don’t accept this SNP surge as a ‘de facto’ declaration of independence or for a referendum (which, to be fair, has continuously been stated by Nicola throughout the campaign, when the other Scottish parties were trying to make it a general election issue) – then you have to accept that this vote is very far from an endorsement of what the Smith Commission came up with as proposals for ‘enhanced devolution’.

One can argue that it is a second chance for the Union – yet another one, after the botched Smith Commission proposals were watered down. It is the ‘feet to the fire’ that Alex Salmond called for before he stepped down as First Minister and party leader – a call for significant rather than token devolved powers. Of course, Westminster can ignore a Scottish voice, as always – but can it really afford to, if it truly genuinely does value the Union? Cameron has the arithmetic on his side for a Commons majority – but it means that his euroskeptic backbenchers are empowered by his majority being so marginal, and this hints at a more anti-Europe sentiment in the run-up to the promised EU in-out vote scheduled for 2017.

The scale of the Labour collapse in England, although regrettable, does make it clear that even if Scotland had given every seat to Labour, they would not have stopped a Conservative majority. Can one blame the SNP for this? Is the late Conservative surge very much part of a xenophobic anti-Scottish push, as orchestrated by Cameron with his poster campaigns featuring the SNP as pickpockets and thieves? Perhaps…but if that is the case, then Cameron has to think carefully over how to deal with those fears that he has stoked to win an election – does he maintain them, and risk alienating even more Scots in the process? With one poll saying that 54% of Scots had noticed a more hostile response from UK politicians and media towards Scotland SINCE the Referendum, Cameron will have an interesting balancing act to retain that fear in the public for his own support, yet ameliorate it for more practical government – and in the longer term interests of preserving the Union.

Labour has been rejected as ‘the party of Scotland’ as Miliband boldly claimed it to be barely 24 hours ago, when he made himself the only party leader not to visit Scotland the day before the election. Both Labour and the LibDems will have lost their leaders by lunchtime, I would guess – and even Jim Murphy should be gone over the weekend.

As ever, the UK gets the government that England votes for – the difference is that this time, Scottish MPs are not sunk within a party where the party comes before the constituents’ wishes. That is positive. In the meantime, a lot of new SNP MPs have to go to London and keep their noses clean, as part of the run-up to the (in many ways) far more important Holyrood elections next year. Their London stock is untried and therefore vulnerable, and as such critical for how the party will be viewed this time next year.

And yes, now we have to look to those Holyrood elections next year. A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times said that 1 in 8 ‘No’ voters intended to vote for the SNP yesterday – and they probably did. It also indicated Labour losing 7 seats at Holyrood next year, with the SNP taking 70 of the 129 MSP places available. Again, you have to look back to that October 2013 poll (All Those ‘Wee Things’: The Loss to Labour or http://wp.me/p4SdYV-1h), which suggested that only 47% of 2011 Labour voters would vote again for them in the next Holyrood election in the event of a ‘No’ vote in the Referendum, as opposed to 55% with a ‘Yes’ vote. Now that the old guard is well and truly gone, Labour have to move fast to start rebuilding – even although this morning Paul Sinclair was saying Labour has to effectively give upon Holyrood for next year.

If Labour were smart, they would devolve their party in Scotland to a similar relationship to the one that they have with the SDLP in Northern Ireland – a ‘sister party’ – and give them that clear water necessary for Scottish voters not to think that Labour have a ‘conflict of interest’ with regard to Scottish representation.

IF they were smart.

 

“English colleagues should consider the reasons why Scotland demanded a Scottish Parliament in the first place: it wasn’t for reasons of nationalism or national identity; it was because it was patently unfair that our contingent of MPs could easily be outvoted on any issue by even a small fraction of English MPs. England could never, ever be in the same position. Even if every Northern Irish, Welsh and Scottish MP wished to foist an unpopular policy on England, they could not do so unless they were joined by at least 209 English MPs. And the occasions when Scottish MPs have made the difference in policy areas affecting England have been so vanishingly rare [21 Commons votes out of 5,000 since 1997], they hardly justify such a constitutional upheaval.” (Tom Harris, Labour MP)

 

 

May the Fourth Referendum Be With You: Stall Wars, and the Return of the Rebel Alliance

I flew back from working in China over the weekend, getting into Edinburgh Airport early Saturday evening. A day to chill on Sunday (and briefly adjourn to BrewDog), and I was checking if the Stall was back on Monday.

Yes, the Stall – the one on the Meadows for ‘Yes Marchmont’ that I had helped staff throughout August in the run-up to the Referendum last year. I knew that there were plans to get something in place regularly for the run-up to the election, but was unsure how well those plans had been realised. Sure enough I got a response back – it was running in the afternoon, 2 till 4.

So I went back to The Meadows with some trepidation as to what I would find.

The Yes stall was always staffed by a disparate group from different parties. Last year, following the result, there had been talk of parties standing under a Yes Alliance banner in this General Election – but that was before Johann Lamont became the story with her stinging departure as head of Scottish Labour at the end of October, and launched the SNP’s stratospheric rise to switch its 20-odd% position in the polls with Labour’s 40+% in Scotland. (It is somewhat ironic that Lamont’s departure was allegedly precipitated by Murphy – who ironically now holds the poisoned chalice to his own shouting and protesting lips.) At that point, with such a clear leading party, the idea of an alliance seemed less obvious – in particular for the SNP. It was no longer as though they were a minor party in the run-up to Westminster that could help others in a similar position, and vice versa, as proposed by the tactical voting Unionist advocates: suddenly they were the clear and logical primary ‘Yes’ party in every seat in Scotland, to which votes should be lent.

So, in the absence of an a-party ‘Yes’ stall, were the same faces still there?

Reassuringly – ‘Yes’. A couple of Green activists were not only in evidence, but one of them was actually organising the stall…which was 50% SNP, 50% Green/Scottish Socialists/CND. Non-aligned Kay was there, retired ‘Faslane Frances’ from the Western Isles, Paddy – it was good to see. I felt all fingers and thumbs – all those valuable ‘skills’ of responding to individual questions while deploying badges and asking if any children wanted balloons…those assets needed to be renurtured, and it does not look like there will be time to do that. Rain scheduled for Tuesday, meant only Wednesday remained as a stall option before the day.

Amongst the encouraging numbers of visitors regularly coming to take and display material – stickers to adorn a ‘Revolution’ brand bike, a balloon and badge for the kid riding pillion behind its mother – there was an interesting issue that raised itself, perhaps relevant for that initial broader question of the proposed ‘Yes Alliance’ platform for the vote. It was raised by one somewhat aggressive (?)student individual who approached the older women on the table to challenge the presence of ‘Yes’ imagery as an indicator that there was a secret agenda for a second referendum. As his targets began to answer, he interrupted (in classic troll, Murphy-aping style) with other questions – what about the ‘decision for a generation?’ Was that a lie? I started to answer that I did not believe that it was Nicola that had said that, but Alex – and I understood that was the reason why he had resigned after the result, to free up the possibility of as many further referenda as were necessary. The troll looked confused – I don’t think he expected to be challenged about Nicola, let alone have Alex’s resignation presented in that fashion – then an SNP man moved in to start insistently offering him a leaflet, which he kept refusing, until he moved on.

Of course, it isn’t really a ‘second’ referendum – it would be the fourth one on constitutional change in a generation. The first was in 1978 for the Scottish Assembly, the second the 1997 one for the Scottish Parliament, the third was last September on independence. And perhaps that is a more realistic way to look at it.

In the wake of this encounter, it became evident that there had been a couple of similar (if less aggressive) queries earlier that day. We debated, and decided that it might be simpler – if the presence of ‘Yes’ symbolism was being deliberately misconstrued as a sign of a (poorly) hidden agenda – simply not to display such iconography. But this particular species of attack relies on criticism of ‘the neverendum’, that idea of ‘oh how terrible it is’ that the question was ever asked once in over 300 years, just think how it paralyses the Scottish Government while that happens. It is predicated on the idea that any Scottish Government so committed to such a referendum would just be doing that and nothing else…when actually the reverse appears to be true. While the majority government preparing for the Referendum, the SNP were an extremely dynamic government in office, very much showing how Labour and the LibDems should have been doing it in the first years, and effective and efficient in governance and legislation. Perhaps actually being in office to fight for a single imagination-capturing political issue as the main focus of your time in government should actually be obligatory, if not mandatory, because it is a concrete reminder of why you are in office – and it stops holding office being simply power for its own sake, a lesson that Labour have failed to learn during their stewardship of Scotland.

But it did make me reflect on how problematic it might have been, had the SNP not become such an emphatic frontrunner, and the Yes Alliance had indeed been launched for the General Election: it would have been impossible to deflect the accusation of a hidden agenda – although in the immediate wake of September’s result, many of us were admittedly fired up for exactly that – a second independence one straight away. Under Nicola, we keep the powder dry, and restrict the question to manifestoes for Holyrood only – and if support then delivers a system-beating majority for the SNP again, then a second referendum will happen. In contrast, for Westminster, Nicola Sturgeon is now – following her astonishing individual success on the televised leaders’ debates – campaigning credibly as a UK politician, talking about policies for the whole UK as a result of the potential influence of the SNP on a Labour government – not just Scotland. Even the Labour-supporting Sunday Mail and Sunday People delicately came out in support of Nicola at the weekend….That all builds a perception that does much to ameliorate the anti-SNP (arguably anti-Scottish) propaganda distributed south of the border during the Referendum by the press. It also hints at the possibility of SNP-allied candidates standing in England in the future. Previously unthinkable, that is indeed an exciting prospect.

The Fourth Referendum spectre might well have been the negative aspect of the Yes alliance concept, and certainly for where we have got to now – without at all disputing that we would welcome another one as soon as practicable – it would be a distraction. We have other more immediate fish to fry. I took two new campaign badges from the stall, one in ironically UKIP purple saying ‘Hey, where’s my powers?’ The other one was in Labour red – ‘Labour No More’.

I’m keeping that one – with crossed fingers – in hope for Friday morning.

 

“Scotland reloaded appears to be a nation prepared to challenge the establishment in all its guises, to shine a light, to demand and to do different, to call for and create change, seemingly content to create uncertainty in doing so. We are a country suddenly confident in our choices and challenges. Gaun wirsels.” (Kate Higgins, Women for Independence, 20/3/2015)