Be honest! When you read the words “calling for a referendum in this way in the middle of the pandemic is not right” at the end of this piece in The National, do you immediately think of the British Prime Minister’s official spokesman? Or is the first name the pops into your head Nicola Sturgeon? In fact, with only minor changes, the entire statement from Boris Johnson’s mouthpiece could have come from the First Minister. I don’t know about you, but that worries me.
But what did Sturgeon actually say?
If people in Scotland vote for a party saying ‘when the time is right, there should be an independence referendum’, you cannot stand in the way of that – and I don’t think that is what will happen.
Cue uproarious applause and rapturous cheering from the Sturgeon claque filling the front stalls. Well, maybe not quite filling. Time was there wouldn’t be a seat in first six rows that wasn’t occupied by the Sturgeon faithful. I doubt that would be the case now, supposing a proper conference wasn’t impossible due to a combination of the public health emergency and the SNP leadership’s reluctance to face the party’s rightful owners. You’d have to be an unthinkingly devoted follower to cheer such faint-hearted, mealy-mouthed pabulum. You’d need to be pathologically credulous to believe the individual who uttered those words is somebody who’s ready and willing to confront the British state in the fight to restore Scotland’s independence. You’d have to be devoid of critical faculties to hear this from the de facto leader of Scotland’s cause and not at least wonder if maybe she could show a wee bit more enthusiasm. I mean, it’s hardly William Wallace’s address to Scottish army, is it?
Aren’t we lucky some camp follower captured that historic moment on their phone.
It is just such insipid, uninspiring language which prompts Alex Salmond to criticise Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional issue for its lack of urgency. It is just such lawyer-speak laden with conditions and qualifications which justifies Salmond’s criticism. Well, that and six-going-on-seven years of timorous inaction which has seen the independence movement driven up the Section 30 blind alley and abandoned there.
But what about Alex Salmond? His rhetoric may be more stimulating. But he has the advantage that he is not going to be obliged to deliver. If we are listening critically to what Sturgeon says then should we not be at least as cautious about accepting at face value what Salmond says? If he is attacking Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional issue for lacking urgency shouldn’t we immediately examine his suggested approach to get a measure of his own sense of urgency? After all, doesn’t experience tell us that politicians are never more vociferous in their condemnation of some aspect of another’s character or behaviour than when they are seeking to divert attention from similar failings of their own? As a general rule, do we not tend to assume that the politician(s) most loudly condemning incompetence and/or corruption in their rivals are the ones most guilty of incompetence and/or corruption?
In condemning Sturgeon’ lack of urgency, Salmond says,
…it is fundamentally true that Boris Johnson will find it substantially more difficult taking on a Parliament with an independence supermajority representing a country than he will in framing the debate as party against party, Prime Minister against First Minister.
When a politician says that something is “fundamentally true” alarm bells should sound. As when the guy in the pub with twelve watches on each arm tells you they’re genuine Patek Philippe “Honest!”, you should be wary. There’s just a chance they could be fake.
Of course, we don’t want to think a friend would try to sell us a dodgy Rolex. Neither do we want to think our heroes lie to us. Alex Salmond is a hero of the independence movement. If he tells us that the dial being inscribed ‘Roleks’ only makes the watch more valuable, we want to believe him. When our hero tells us that something is not merely true but fundamentally true, the only thing left to ask is what kind of stone the tablets are made of. It’s only the exceptionally sophisticated political commentators and cynical old bastards who are appropriately sceptical.
I fit into latter category. So I naturally wonder if it really is “fundamentally true” that a supermajority of pro-independence MSPs in the Scottish Parliament will make it “substantially more difficult” for Boris Johnson to be the anti-democratic British Nationalist arse that he has always been. What is it about a supermajority that causes him particular problems? What new power does this supermajority bestow on the independence movement? What existing power does it augment in such a ways as to make it problematic for the British Prime Minister when it never was before?
Nothing obvious springs to mind. Which is odd, given that we’re talking about something which is supposedly “fundamentally true”. You’d think that if something was “fundamentally true” then the truth of it would be readily apparent. But I am bereft of ideas as to how this supermajority affects the political dynamic in ways that would make it “substantially more difficult” for Boris Johnson to continue as before. It’s not as if this supermajority can actually do anything that would affect the British political elite. It is almost entirely symbolic. An ineffectual political gesture. It would be different, perhaps, if the media were to lend force to this gesture by demanding that Johnson respect the will of Scotland’s people. It might be different if the British parties in Scotland were less contemptuous of the Scottish Parliament. But none of that is going to happen.
The truth is that the Union gives the British state such overwhelming power that the makeup of the Scottish Parliament hardly matters at all. The British parties being ousted in 2007 was a matter of considerable concern to the British establishment. This was not supposed to happen. But the SNP in government has turned out to be far less of a threat to the Union than it was thought it might be. And, of course, the British state has taken steps to negate any potential threat to the Union. The process of stripping powers from the Scottish Parliament has begun. Control of funding and procurement is being tightened to secure the British state’s stranglehold on the Scottish Government. Most of the infrastructure is in place for an unelected and unaccountable shadow administration which will take over many of the most important functions of government in Scotland. Scotland’s democratic institutions are to be dismantled. Scotland’s distinctive political culture is to be eradicated. Scotland’s identity as a nation is to be erased.
What can a supermajority do in the face of such overwhelming power? The Alba Party approach to the constitutional issue states that when a supermajority is returned the Scottish Parliament will instruct the Scottish Government to open negotiations with Whitehall with a view to restoring Scotland’s independence. What is the Parliamentary procedure for this? Is it even possible given an SNP controlled Scottish Government which we must assume will be unwilling to go along? If Alba can’t explain in some detail how they’ll make good on this promise, why should I believe them? More to the present point, why would Boris Johnson be worried? Why shouldn’t he just dismiss it as nothing more than claymore-rattling?
Alex Salmond’s approach certainly sounds to be imbued with a greater sense of urgency than Nicola Sturgeon’s. But then, that’s not difficult given that the latter evinces no sense of urgency whatever. Is there any reason to suppose that the former’s approach is significantly better in this regard? What’s the action plan? Here’s what Alex Salmond says follows on from that rather dubious thing about instructing the Scottish Government to open independence negotiations..
That should happen in week one of the new Parliament. A standing Independence Convention can then be established, drawn from all of Scotland’s elected representatives, to give support and substance to the Scottish Government’s independence negotiating position.A section 30 referendum could be part of that, as could a plebiscite, or another democratic test as could domestic legal action or international and diplomatic initiatives, as could peaceful and popular demonstration.
Other than saying the Scottish Parliament should, by some unspecified process, force an unwilling Scottish Government to open negotiations with what we can confidently predict will be an even more unwilling British government within a week, there is no time-scale for the things that might ensue. Salmond is a bit vague about this. No less vague than Sturgeon is about how she intends to proceed. Both put a Section 30 referendum at the top of their agenda. So we must take it that neither is too troubled about ensuring the exercise of our right of self-determination is free and fair. Both seem to think the Section 30 process will serve Scotland’s cause. There is nothing to pick and choose between them on this point.
Similarly, neither seems to have much of a plan for when the Section 30 request is snubbed. And no plan at all in the event of it being granted. Sturgeon says she will proceed with a referendum regardless. But she provides no further details. Salmond talks of “domestic legal action or international and diplomatic initiatives” as well as some kind of “peaceful and popular demonstration”. No further information is offered. And none of that seems to suggest any more sense of urgency than Sturgeon. We are not told what form the domestic legal action might take. But we can safely assume that it won’t be a speedy process. Although it might look faster than a speeding bullet compared to those diplomatic initiatives. Talk of a civil disobedience campaign – if that is what is what is being implied – suggests action which can’t even start until the pandemic is over and its aftermath dealt with. Again, exactly the same time-frame as Sturgeon. So where is the greater sense of urgency Salmond implicitly lays claim to when he criticises Sturgeon?
What is ‘fundamentally true’ is that neither Sturgeon nor Salmond is offering what Scotland’s cause requires. It is fundamentally true that both are seeking electoral success. It is fundamentally true that Sturgeon relies on the carrot of a new referendum and the stick of the British parties in her pursuit of votes. It is fundamentally true that Salmod relies on the stick of an SNP government with a record of failure to advance Scotland’s cause and the carrot of a supermajority.
It is fundamentally true that both those sticks are real.
It is fundamentally true that Sturgeon’s carrot is looking less tempting having been dangled before us for such an inordinate length of time.
It is fundamentally true that Salmond’s carrot is like showing a starving man a glossy picture of a double fish supper. It will tempt him, but do nothing to satisfy his hunger even if he gets hold of it..
It is fundamentally true that neither Sturgeon nor Salmond shows any sign of fresh thinking on the constitutional issue.
It is fundamentally true that neither evinces the sense of urgency Scotland’s predicament demands.
It is fundamentally true that Scotland’s cause continues to be poorly served by Scotland’s political leaders.