A headline in the online edition of The National snagged my attention this morning. Nothing remarkable in that, I hear you say. After all, it’s no more than what headlines are supposed to do. Indulging the facetiousness with all the good grace I can muster I wait patiently for you to finish congratulating yourself on your cleverness, and move on.
The headline reads,
Devolved nations join forces to urge Westminster for respect
It was the word ‘respect’ that drew me in. Reading the article I find that there’s rather more to the story than is suggested by the headline. Nothing remarkable in that, I hear you say, again. Give it a bloody rest, I respond testily having already spent my daily budget of forbearance, and return to the article.
It seems our feisty Finance Secretary Kate Forbes has joined forces with Welsh minister Jeremy Miles to demand that the UK Government “step up and respect devolution by honouring its commitment to replacing EU funds in full“. Good luck with that I say to myself with wry sarcasm markedly less in the way of playful banter than your interjections. When it comes to the annexed territories British politicians tend to be considerably more stinting with their respect than I am with my tolerance for smart-arse interruptions to the creative flow that’s like my bladder but only in the sense of being difficult to start so keep the snide remark about pish to yourself.
What was I saying? Oh aye! Respect! Lack of! Demand for! That’s the gist of it. Kate Forbes and her Welsh colleague are seeking from the British government respectful behaviour towards the administrations of their respective chunks of England-as-Britain’s poorly regarded periphery. Seeking rather than expecting, I don’t doubt. I know nothing about Jeremy Miles but my assessment of Ms Forbes is that she is of sound mind. So it is unlikely that hers is a hopeful plea. It is more of a political request made not for any effect it might have on the UK Government but for the purpose of demonstrating the gulf between the respect that is asked and the disdain that is forthcoming. It’s a request for respect that isn’t supposed to be respected. It would throw Kate Forbes into some small confusion were her request granted. Not that there’s any chance of that happening.
There are, of course, some SNP politicians who still cling to the belief that the British government’s lack of respect for Scotland’s elected representatives is just a lapse and that the Brits will shortly get their act together sufficiently to make Kate Forbes’s wish come true. Pete Wishart MP was spouting his customary fantastical nonsense in The Herald [archive] yesterday. Much to the amusement of Tom Gordon, I’m sure. Wishart believes – in the sense of a faith position – that the British state can be forced to respect both principles of democracy and the rules of common decency. He reckons the SNP can “grind down” the British political elite until they grant permission for Scotland to exercise our right of self-determination; and “browbeat” them into cooperating with the Section 30 process in order to facilitate a free and fair referendum which will almost certainly end the Union. He’s a fool.
He’s also a fool who hates to be questioned about his fantasy politics. Try asking him why if the SNP has the power he claims to “grind down” British intransigence, why has this power not been used already? What is the reasoning behind keep this power in reserve for the last six years or so? Why did the SNP not get to work with its grinder after the 2015 landslide? If he merely blocks you on Twitter or unfriends you on Facebook it’s because he doesn’t have access to more lethal means of demonstrating his displeasure at his naive notions being subjected to polite scrutiny.
Having long since rejected the idea of magic I naturally find these notions to be delusional. Being something of a hard-headed political realist, I recognise that the British state must inevitably use the SNP’s commitment to the Section 30 process against the independence movement. Being a pragmatist and a person of normal intelligence, I realise that even if Boris Johnson did grant a Section 30 order this would most certainly not lead to a free and fair referendum.
All of which is ground that I’ve already covered many times. The point I wish to make here is one I have only rarely raised in the past. The question of whether we actually deserve the respect our elected representatives demand on our behalf. Are we – the people of Scotland – entitled to demand respect? Have we earned it?
The following is taken from a speech I gave in Dundee in March 2014. It is rather long. But I hope that won’t prevent it being thought-provoking.
We refuse to accept that we are less than the people of other nations who take their independence for granted. So, if the kind of nation we are depends on the kind of people we are, what kind of people are we? In a very real sense, that is what will be determined by this referendum and the campaign leading up to the vote. How that campaign is conducted will say a lot about who we are. Which is why I so deeply resent the way that the British parties in Scotland are behaving. But that is a whole other topic.
Let’s consider instead what the vote says about us. Think about the question we are being asked.
Should Scotland be an independent country?
Can you imagine that question being asked in any other country? Can you conceive of the people of any other nation even considering the possibility of answering No to that question? The fact that we are asking this question of ourselves tells us what kind of people we have been. People who have, for too long, been meekly content to accept a subordinate status within a union that was contrived in a different age for purposes that were never relevant to us.
A union that we, the people, had no part in creating or sanctioning. An anachronistic, dysfunctional, corrupt union which serves none of the people off these islands well.
A union which was always intended to serve the purposes of the ruling elites. A union which, in that regard if no other, has not changed one iota in the last three centuries.
A union that sucks the human and material resources out of our nation and in return gives us government by parties that we have emphatically rejected at the polls.
A union that imposes policies which are anathema to our people. Policies which have been rejected by our democratically elected representatives.
A union which, were we being given that option now, not one of us would vote to join – but which we are nonetheless being asked to vote to remain in.
All of this and more is what we have accepted in the past. And our acceptance of all this has defined us in the eyes of our neighbours, the world, aye! and ourselves.
Ladies and gentlemen, I put it to you that the fact that we are asking ourselves this question says nothing very flattering about who we have been in the past.
The way in which we answer the question can change all that. It can change the way we see ourselves in the future. It can change the way others perceive us. It can change who we are. And by changing the kind of people we are and how we think of ourselves it can release the forces which will change the nation.
Or it can do the other thing. We can vote No and confirm that we are to be no more than that which we have been. That we will not be what we aspire to be. That we choose not to be all that we might be. I ask you again, ladies and gentlemen, can you imagine the people of any other nation making such a demeaning choice?
Among all the other feelings which swept over me and passed through me when the result of the referendum became known there was a strong element of embarrassment. Even shame. I was ashamed of Scotland. We had embarrassed ourselves in front of the world.
In all that then ensued – the smug announcement of EVEL; the sneering ditching of ‘The Vow’; the casual contempt of Brexit, I was always beset by the thought that we deserved the treatment being meted out to us. As a nation, we had asked for it. Literally asked for it! As a nation, we voted for it! For the fifteen hours that polls were open on Thursday 18 September 2014 the people of Scotland held in our hands political power such as is seldom obtained by the people of even the most effective democracies. In a very real sense we held total political power on that day. The fate of nations really did hang in the balance.
What did we do with that power? We handed it over to the British political elite along with a blank mandate to do whatever they pleased with Scotland and its people. That was the effect of the No vote. It was an episode of national debasement. A public exhibition of constitutional self-harm. It was embarrassing and shameful.
So I ask Kate Forbes and her colleagues in the Scottish Government and all the SNP MSPs and MPs, do we deserve respect? Have we done enough since 2014 to repair the catastrophic damage done to our reputation and standing by the No vote? Have we done anything at all to make up for that moment of self-degradation? Are we entitled to complain if we are held in the low esteem earned by those who choose to be less than they might be?
The best we can hope for is that it may not be too late to regain our right to ask that we be respected. The 2021 Holyrood election could start the process of restoring Scotland’s reputation. But only if the SNP plays its part. Only if the SNP goes into the election committed to bold, decisive action to end the Union will there be the possibility that we might once again be capable of commanding respect.
To be the nation to which we aspire we must first be the people who are worthy of such a nation.