Relax! I’m not going to do one of those ‘look back at the year’ things. Mainly because, if the BBC is to be believed, the best 2019 had to offer was a wean spewing on the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon changing the date on her referendum promise again and something about butterflies. There was a UK general election in December which confirmed – as if further confirmation were needed – that Scotland would be a very different place from Tory England-as-Britain if our votes actually counted for anything. But look at all the pretty butterflies!
Reviewing the year just gone has become a particularly disquieting exercise for an unabashed Scottish nationalist like myself because I cannot help but observe the carnage and think how different things might be had Scotland not bottled it so badly in 2014. We should have been celebrating three years of constitutional normality. We should have had some successes that we could look back on with satisfaction and perhaps a little pride. We should have been enthused by the prospect of further achievements in the new year. A past we can live with and a future we can contemplate with something less than dread. Is that so much to ask for?
The only reason for mentally rerunning 2019 is the hope that it might end differently. There’s little comfort in knowing that it could have been worse. That probably means only that the worse that might have been is now the worse in prospect.
Not that everybody is so downbeat. If you read The National or listen to SNP politicians or follow the Yes movement on social media you might well suppose that 2019 has brought Scotland to the verge of independence. Not the same verge that we were on at various points in most of the last ten years. A new verge that is somehow more vergey than any of those other verges. This, we are assured, is The Verge. The ultimate verge. Parent to all other verges.
Taking a slightly less rose-tinted perspective, 2019 was more like a gap year. In terms of the two big constitutional issues – the UK’s relationship with the EU and Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK (rUK) – nothing changed. Or if it did change it went backwards. Brexit is still happening. And nobody knows what will ensue. Which could have been said at any time since the EU referendum in 2016.
The project to restore Scotland’s independence is still becalmed, sails flapping uselessly in air stirred only be the random gusting of political rhetoric. I am frequently castigated for being ‘negative’. But if two plus two must equal four then two minus three must, by the unforgiving rules of arithmetic, equal negative one. Strip away the happy-clappy positivity and the wishful thinking before totting up the numbers in the progress and regress columns and you just as unavoidably get a negative result.
Compare and contrast!
In 2011 we knew for a fact that there would be an independence referendum. We don’t have that certainty now.
With all that we’ve learned since about how the Union works and how the British state responds when its structures of power, privilege and patronage are threatened we now know that the confidence we felt back then was rather misplaced. We now know that we only got that vote because the British political elite was convinced that the referendum posed no threat to the Union. Having been disabused of that notion, they are now determined that the sphincter-slackening experience of 2014 should never be repeated. And we are learning that, absent thinking outside the box of the British political system, the Scottish Government has vastly fewer ways of making a referendum happen than the British government has of preventing it. Do the math! In terms of the probability of a referendum in 2020 as promised we are well into negative territory.
In 2012 we had an agreement with the British government and the assurance from the Scottish Government that the referendum would be held in the autumn of 2014. We have neither of these things now.
We not only don’t have the equivalent of the Edinburgh Agreement, we have a yawning gulf of ideological difference and mutual animosity that looks to be unbridgeable. And while we have the political promise of a new referendum in the second half of 2020 we also have awareness of the mechanisms and procedures involved and, unless we’ve succeeded in deluding ourselves, the ease with which the British can throw a variety of spanners in the precariously delicate works.
In 2013 we had a precise date for the referendum. We don’t have that now.
Nor is there the remotest possibility of us being given a precise date. Too many things have to be in place before that can happen. And every one of those things is an unknown variable. There is a vast sea of uncertainty between now and the announcement of a date.
In 2014 we had a clear route to independence. We don’t have that now.
Back then, we had a timetable for the restoration of independence. The dates may have been adrift by a few months either way. But we saw no reason to doubt that independence was coming. And sufficient reason to suppose that it would be delivered sometime in 2016. There is no such timetable now. It is undeniable that we have moved backwards from the position we were in then. The Scottish Government has no timetable. No programme. No plan. If we can’t be sure te referendum will happen, how can we foresee independence happening? In 2014 we knew precisely what we had to do in order to achieve our goal. Now, the route-map to independence is mostly blanks that can only be filled by resort to magic.
In 2015 we had an SNP majority in the Scottish Parliament. Now, we don’t even know that there will be a Scottish Parliament by the time of the next elections.
Such is the measure of the uncertainty we face. Since 2011 we have learned a huge amount about the strategies, tactics and methods by which the British state defends established power. The lessons of often very harsh experience. And yet the Scottish Government’s approach to the constitutional issue has not changed in the slightest. The last decade might as well not have happened for all the impact it has had on the thinking of the SNP leadership. They are totally committed to using the same process as for the 2014 referendum. And, should the referendum ever get to the campaigning stage, they are absolutely determined that the second Yes campaign should emulate the first one in every significant way.
Alex Salmond was a dancer. He respected his political opponents but had no illusions about them. He knew when to lead and when to swerve and when to go with his partner/opponent. He that it wasn’t enough to know the steps, you had to be able to improvise. He was conscious of the fact that the dance could very easily turn into a wrestling match. And he was aware that, in a wrestling match with the British state, Scotland almost certainly couldn’t win unless we could match them gouge for gouge and low-blow for low-blow.
Nicola Sturgeon is a marcher. A different kind of leader altogether. Not necessarily a lesser leader. Just different. She sees the goal, knows the cause is just and supposes that resolve will succeed. Nicola Sturgeon knows the “case for independence” inside-out and back-to-front. She is well prepared – and better able than any others I know of – to play the game according to the rules. But she seems to expect that the game will be played by the rules. She will steadfastly march the route defined by those rules regardless of her opponents’ ability to change those rules or their willingness to wantonly breach them.
Just as I decline to perform a post-mortem on the year about to pass, I offer no prognosis for the year to come. As noted, there are far to many unknowns – known and unknown – to make prediction anything other than an idle exercise. We can only speculate. We can only say if this then probably that – or perhaps the other. For such speculation to be at all interesting or useful, however, our ifs must be grounded in a realistic appreciation of what really is and what actually might be. No resort to magic. Thus constrained, any speculation I attempt must be far too gloomy for what is supposed to be a time of hope.
One thing I will say with, if not absolute certainty, then certainly a high degree of confidence. 2020 will be a decisive year for Scotland’s cause. By this time in 2020 Scotland will either be set fair on a course to becoming an independent nation again, or it will lie smashed and stranded on the reefs of unscrupulous, unprincipled, unconscionable British power.
The choice, and the responsibility, lies with us – the people of Scotland. In 2014, for fifteen unprecedented hours on Thursday 18 September, we held total political power in our hands. As a nation, we made the choice to hand that power back to a British political elite which, inexplicably, we trusted better than ourselves even in the knowledge that they had used a campaign of lies, threats and false promises to keep their grip on Scotland. In 2015 we had ourselves a wee rethink and, again as a nation, we decided to lend a big chunk of our democratic power to the SNP in the hope and expectation that they would help us rectify the mistake made the previous year. We’ve renewed that loan at every opportunity since.
In 2020 the SNP must justify the trust that we have invested in them. They must use the power that we have loaned them for the purpose intended. They must know that we are capable of calling in that loan. And willing to do so. Because that is how we exercise our power over those to whom we entrust it.
2020 will be an unprepossessing bairn that will grow into an exceedingly ugly creature unless we take hold of it and shape it, Let our New Year message to Nicola Sturgeon be this:
Get independence done! Get it done in any way you can! Resort to whatever methods you must! No more waiting! Just get it done!
A Happy New Year is not in prospect. Not as things stand. What I will wish whatever friends I have left in Scotland’s independence movement is the wits to know who can be trusted, the awareness to recognise what must be done and the strength to do it. And roll on 2021.
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