Lesley Riddoch is correct, of course. The stock of trust that the Scottish Government has built up over the past months and years must be used. But Lesley doesn’t go so far as suggesting how that substantial nest-egg of trust might best be employed. She rightly points out that matters are coming to a head. Again! Surely if it is time to deploy that stock of trust it must also be time for frankness about what must be done with it. Surely, if time is against us as it certainly is, then we can’t afford to be at all mealy-mouthed in the advice we offer to Nicola Sturgeon – or the demands we make of her.
The not-too-distant past offers lessons that are relevant. What is true of the political trust to which Lesley Riddoch refers is also true of political momentum. Indeed, the two are cousins in the family of political dynamics. Although it is perhaps more intuitively obvious why momentum must be used before it is lost. We all can easily imagine a car, for example, rolling to a stop when the engine is turned off. Newton’s scientific insights have great explanatory power because they express in words what we already know to be true.
In the period between the tragic result of the 2014 constitutional referendum and the EU referendum in 2016, Scotland’s cause had momentum in spades. It can be persuasively argued that this momentum peaked at the 2015 UK general election which saw an SNP landslide. Although some would say the peak came in the wake of the EU referendum when Scotland’s voters were told that their votes only count if England’s voters agree. Whatever! It cannot sensibly be disputed that the momentum was there. In the months immediately following the tragedy of Thursday 18 September 2014 that momentum was palpable. Scotland was thrumming with an energy just waiting to be harnessed and applied to the cause of restoring our independence.
It didn’t happen.
I don’t need to tell you it didn’t happen. Every thinking person in Scotland is aware that it didn’t happen. Everybody in Scotland who thinks for themselves remains to this day angry and bitter that the momentum we had back then was so casually squandered by our political leaders. Unused, the momentum dissipated. It succumbed to other political forces – the friction of time; the air resistance of events; the political inertia of the SNP.
Two years on, the loss of momentum was felt in the UK general election of 2017. By all relevant metrics, the SNP came out of that election as it went in. But the SNP is held to a different standard. The British apply different standards to themselves and others. It is an identifying characteristic. So, despite the fact that the SNP remained the largest party and all the rest, by the special ‘British’ standard it was a defeat for them and a victory for the Tories. Go figure!
I recall at the time the effort I and others put into countering the British state’s Goebbels-style portrayal of Ruth Davidson as the new ‘Hammer of the Scots’ and ‘Queen of the BritNats’. McBoudicca, anyone? But always in the back of my mind as I struggled to hold the bright banner of truth above the roiling mire of British propaganda was the thought that instead of the new referendum that was made possible by the momentum we’d had, we got this election. Instead of being on the front foot in an all-out attack on the Union, we were on the defensive yet again. Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!
We shouldn’t get hooked on the the past. It’s not a trusted source of news. It is a questionable reference. We cannot replicate the past. History does not so much repeat itself as do impersonations which are often only convincing to those who want to be convinced. But there are lessons we can learn. We can find some guidance in the past. Memory is one of the inputs to the process of creating the mental maps by which we navigate from the present to the future. History may provide clues to the best route. It may also offer hints about paths we definitely should not follow.
The path chosen by the Scottish Government/SNP four, five or six years ago – according to preference – led to the loss of the momentum Yes had after 2014. The lesson to be learned is that the trust the Scottish Government/SNP has now should not be similarly squandered. Momentum can be restored. Trust, not so much! The former is, even in the political context, analogous to a mechanical force. The engine of the Yes movement is undoubtedly powerful enough to get Scotland’s cause rolling again. Trust is an emotional force. When trust is betrayed that betrayal is indelibly etched on the mind and heart of the betrayed. It may fade with time. It may be worn away by efforts to compensate. But always the betrayal remains as one of those historical warning signs telling us not to go there again.
There are more ways to lose trust than there are to earn it. And no way to fully restore it when it is lost. How wisely Nicola Sturgeon uses the trust she has banked – and it is very substantially personal – will determine Scotland’s future. It will determine whether Scotland has a future. If I am not being too cryptic, it will determine whether the future has Scotland.
Is it therefore not incumbent on those who offer analysis and commentary from the perspective of Scotland’s independence movement to ensure that the ways of losing trust are properly signposted in order that they may be avoided? Do we not all have a duty to ensure that our analysis and commentary aims to identify what is a wise course of action – both in terms of using the fund of trust for the benefit of Scotland’s cause and in the hope of retaining that trust for further use in Scotland’s interests?
Many of you will be aware that in the period of maximum momentum discussed earlier, I strongly favoured a new referendum in September 2018. The 20/20 vision of hindsight allows us to see the advantages. Critics respond by declaring with strikingly misplace certainty that we would not have won a referendum in September 2018. But this foolishly supposes that nothing is changed by the fact that the referendum has been called. Had the momentum counter-intuitively born of defeat in 2014 not been squandered it would have been available to be utilised in a referendum campaign. Calling the referendum would have increased that momentum. I am firmly persuaded that it would have been sufficient to take us across the line. Circumstances were never going to get better. They could only get worse. As they have. As they are still doing. Lesley Riddoch acknowledges that the SNP is heading for some difficult times. This was inevitable. It’s what happens in organisations unless the management is remarkably talented.
Just as political momentum can be lost to the various forces that work against it, so trust can be destroyed by errors of political judgement and other ingredients of the political explosive known as ‘scandal’. For this reason as well as the urgency imposed by Scotland’s worsening predicament under the Union, it is essential that Nicola Sturgeon acts quickly. It is also essential that she act as boldly and assertively as her stock of trust allows while that stock remains at her disposal.
Nicola Sturgeon is perfectly placed and well armed. The circumstances are amenable. The time to confront the British state is now. I’d love to say I trust Nicola Sturgeon to do so. I’d be delighted if she were to prove that she is worthy of my trust. It’s up to her.