I was due to address the hundreds of Yes activists who attended the rally outside the Scottish Parliament on Saturday afternoon (1 February). Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties I was unable to make that speech. The following is what I had intended to say.
I don’t want to be making this speech. Or, to be more precise, this is not the speech I want to make. I would prefer to make a different speech.
It would be much easier to make one of those speeches in which I say something rude about Boris Johnson and everybody laughs.
Or perhaps a speech in which I say wise-sounding things about Boris’s position being “unsustainable.
Maybe a speech in which I go for resounding rhetoric about how we’ve “never been closer to independence.
But I can’t make those kind of speeches. I can’t dismiss Boris Johnson as a buffoon because he’s a buffoon who wins. Stop laughing at him – or raging at him – for a moment and think about it. He’s got everything he wanted.
People will point to him losing the court case on proroguing of parliament. But even then he got the delay and distraction he wanted.
Boris Johnson is now the British Prime Minister leading a Tory government with a substantial majority that has been purged of his opponents. And he’s ‘got Brexit done’. If that’s buffoonery, we could do with some in the Scottish Government.
Nonetheless, Boris is irrelevant. He will not be delivering independence for Scotland. Our independence will not be restored via Westminster. Why would I waste my energies trying to undermine his credibility. He has none. Why would I talk to him or about him when he has no business interfering in Scotland’s constitutional debate?
Boris Johnson doesn’t have a vote in a Scottish independence referendum. Other, that is, than the effective veto afforded him by the Section 30 process. And he’s already used that vote. By his own rules, he shouldn’t get to vote again until everybody who was alive for the first referendum has died.
I can’t talk about Boris Johnson’s position as being unsustainable. Because he is sustaining it. The reality is that it costs him absolutely nothing to keep on refusing a Section 30 order. If anything, it wins him favour among the constituency from which he draws the bilk of his support – the proudly ill-informed British Nationalists.
I can’t talk about how we’ve ‘never been closer to independence’ because not only is it not true, it’s a stunningly stupid claim to make. I could make a very strong argument that we were closer to independence in 2015 – when the SNP enjoyed an unprecedented and possibly unrepeatable landslide in the UK general election and we should have had our eyes firmly fixed on a referendum in September 2018.
And we certainly aren’t closer to independence than we were at 7am on the morning of Thursday 18 September 2014 when, for the next 15 hours the people of Scotland held in our hands total political power.
Regardless of the fact that the people of Scotland ultimately decided to hand that power back to the British political elite does not alter the fact that, as the polls opened on that day we were only 15 hours away from independence. Nobody can sensibly make the claim that we are closer now than we were them. Those who do are treating us as fools of the kind that will be influenced by a bit of witless, vacuous political rhetoric.
The best that can be said of the time since the first referendum is that the independence campaign has stood still. Which is not to say that Yes activists have been idle. Far from it! The Yes movement has been working as hard as ever. We’ve had a series of marches and rallies which attracted huge support. And scores of Yes groups the length and breadth of Scotland have been busy organising and keeping the momentum going for a new referendum
The trouble is that all this effort was to no avail so long as the Scottish Government was more concerned with stopping Brexit than with working to ensure Brexit couldn’t be imposed on Scotland.
The cause of restoring Scotland’s independence has made not one millimetre of progress in the five years since the first referendum. Despite the fact that circumstances were almost ideal and the British government was almost daily providing opportunities, no progress was made. All those opportunities were squandered. The ideal circumstance were not exploited.
Which brings me to the First Minister’s speech yesterday morning [Friday 31 January] in which she had promised to set out the “next steps” for the independence campaign.
As it turned out, she announced no steps at all. Just more running on the spot. To say the speech was disappointing would be an understatement. It may well have been the most important speech of Nicola Sturgeon’s political career. Although she gave no indication she was aware of this.
I shouldn’t have been disappointed. Having spent the period leading up to the speech trying to damp-down expectations because I knew there was nothing significant that the First Minister could say, the reality should not have been an anti-climax. But it was.
I expected little. I got nothing. I should have expected less when the speech was moved from the Wednesday to Friday, when the various events marking Brexit would provide a distraction. But, cynical as I was – and remain – I still held a glimmer of hope that Nicola Sturgeon would give the Yes movement something. Even that small hope was dashed.
The fact is that the approach to the constitutional issue adopted by the First Minster has failed.
A few days ago I watched as people celebrated a poll showing Yes at 51% and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about when the polls should have been at least ten points higher.
The approach taken by the Scottish Government has failed to gain a significant lead in the polls despite the most propitious circumstances. If you don’t exploit opportunities offered by Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister and Brexit being imposed on Scotland, your ‘strategy’ has failed by definition!
The approach is still failing. Despite all the fine rhetoric about a referendum in 2020, those who look at the situation absent the rose-tinted spectacles recognise that the chances of such a referendum are vanishingly small.
Even the superficially appealing idea of a new independence convention loses its sheen when one realises that it is at least two years late. It loses even more of its polish when one views the announcement in the context of all the other initiatives that have been announced over the past five years only to fizzle out like a damp squib.
The approach taken by the Scottish Government was always bound to fail. Serious concerns about Nicola Sturgeon’s unswerving commitment to the Section 30 process have never been addressed. The fatal flaws in this approach have been identified. But, if the First Minister heard those concerns there is no evidence that she heeded them.
My time is short today. So I will mention only one of these fatal flaws. Nicola Sturgeon’s entire approach to the issue, as typified by her commitment to the Section 30 process, is critically dependent on gaining the full, willing and honest cooperation of the British government. That is never going to happen.
No British Prime Minister will ever facilitate or cooperate with a process which might result in the dissolution of the Union. Should they choose to grant a Section order – and there is no way they can be compelled to do so – it will only be because they know that the process can be sabotaged at a later stage.
The independence campaign has been driven into a cul-de-sac. The engine may still be running. But the vehicle is going nowhere. Nicola Sturgeon insists that this is the only route to a new referendum and independence. But it is not a route at all. It could only become a route if the British political elite could be persuaded to demolish their own house and build a road. But even if they could be persuaded to do this, they would insist on putting a series of barriers across the road
It’s not clear where the Yes movement goes from here. But the one thing that we can take from Nicola Sturgeon’s speech is that, if we are to make progress, it must be despite the Scottish Government rather than in company with it.
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