Monday, 20 February 2017

Asking The Question

Last week on BBC Parliament, there were a series of one man shows by the Independent & Guardian columnist Steve Richardson. In these talks, on the six big Prime Ministers over the past half century, there are trends that emerge, Rules if you will. What was new was the talk about space.  Richardson talked of Thatcher knowing when she had no space to do the things she wanted to do (at the start of her time in No 10, when she only had a 40 odd seat majority and she hadn’t managed to manoeuvre her like minded people into key positions yet), but instinctively knowing when she had the space to do things (Richardson pinpoints the formation of the SDP as the start of Thatcher’s ‘Imperial phase’ rather than the win in the Falklands the following year). Conversely Richardson talks of Blair not being aware of the space he had to do the radical things he could have done. Richardson in effect thinks of Blair as being overly cautious at the start of his time as PM – though interestingly he doesn’t expand on this during the Blair programme.
Sturgeon's conference announcement that the Indyref bill will be
written, 13th October 2016

Richardson's talks may be about UK Prime Ministers, but the lessons can be applied elsewhere. No more than here in Scotland where the talk is of a Second Independence Referendum. The pro-Indy fundamentalists firmly believe that the First Minister should call the referendum, preferably as soon as possible but are happy with the sainted Alex Salmond’s own preferred timetable of an Autumn 2018 plebiscite. There has, it is argued, been a "material change" in Scotland's circumstances which invalidates the last referendum so we should have a new one now. This is how the logic goes.

The big glaring problem with this argument is that the First Minister does not have the political space at this moment to ask the question once again of the Scottish people.  There are two reasons for this.  Firstly you might remember that in last years Holyrood election, the SNP failed to gain a second overall majority.  It is notable that for all the hype surrounding the “both votes SNP” online and real world campaign that it was the huge wins in the FPTP elections which cancelled out the SNP’s huge second vote.  If anything the SNP’s progress was checked by losing seats in the east to the Lib Dems and to the Tories.  In effect the SNP no longer have the right to vote for themselves for a referendum.  Granted there is now a pro-Independence bloc in Holyrood if you count the Scottish Greens.  However their leader Harvey has a reputation of being the sensible, moderating voice on Independence.  At least that was the case… well before the EU Referendum anyway. 

Just before that referendum, I’d argued that for the First Minister to successfully make the case that a material change had taken place in the event of a Leave vote, then the pro-EU vote here in Scotland had to be at least 65%.  Given that the majority of the Scottish Political classes advocated a remain vote, given that Remain voters also constituted people who voted to remain in that other union in September 2014 and given that 35% of her own voters voted to leave the EU, then the eventual 62% result gives Sturgeon no space whatsoever to demand a second Independence referendum.  Apart from one outlier, polling has since backed this theory up with a majority of Scots outside or blocked off from the Indy fundamentalists twitter echo chamber not keen on a second Independence referendum at the moment and with no sign of a pro-Independence majority.

That’s not to totally dismiss the SNP’s arguments about Westminster disrespecting the SNP totally.  However in spite of the SNP’s arguments about the EU referendum, nothing has changed and a re-run of 2014 would result in…  well a re-run of the 44.7% – 55.3% result.  If the SNP were to ask the question again however, I think their best chance of winning will be after the UK has left the EU.  By then we will know the terms of divorce, we will know whether Johnson, Fox & co’s boasts of countries lining up for trade deals are hot air or not. And we will also know if the EU itself survives.  For all the siren voices from the EU supporting an Independent Scotland’s not even on the drawing board yet application to join, those same siren voices might turn sinister if they are too vociferous about ‘punishing the UK’ for leaving their club.  Brexit is a two way process and while we may speculate how this will impact on the UK, the EU could fracture as well, especially if the leadership persist in the ostrich book of leadership.

Another reason for waiting for a better opportunity is that the current Westminster government will provide much better, and more obvious, “material changes” than the EU referendum.  Next on the horizon will be Theresa May’s policy pledge to scrap the ECHR from law and replace it with a UK bill of rights.  This policy will be akin to wanting to remove a supporting wall from a house because it’s not liked.  The ECHR is, of course, a key foundation of Devolution Britain, with it being key to the foundation & workings of the Stormont Parliament, the Cardiff Bay assembly as well as the Holyrood Parliament.  The fear here is that the First Minister, having overplayed her hand over the EU referendum will have shown her opponents how a very real material change will go down and they will be able to change their arguments appropriately.

Lastly, I’m not sure that the SNP or anyone else on the pro-Independence side are anywhere near ready to win this referendum. There has been, as far as I’m aware, no post mortem on what happened in 2014.  There has been no discussion or debate over the reasons for the loss, while the Common Weal director Robin McAlpine has said that many of the pro-Independence organising groups are not ready, or more specifically “chaotic, unorganised and… not yet prepared”.  It took two years fore the SNP to acknowledge that they might have made a mistake over their Sterlingzone policy but no real understanding about why exactly it was such a bad idea.  In his column in last week’s Sunday Herald, Iain McWhirter wrote about what pro-Independence campaigners could learn from the Brexit campaign and came to the conclusion that Yes-2 should be a deliberately vague campaign.  This is entirely the wrong lesson.  Leave won the economic argument by talking about the effect of freedom of movement on communities in terms of living standards.  If there’s any lesson, it is that economic arguments are not just confined to dry, remote, treasury statistics but to real anecdotes.  Having said that, it’s surprising that the SNP haven’t made a successful argument about the £9bn/£15bn deficit figure – their argument should be that this is an election issue not a referendum issue.

The new case for independence needs to be bomb-proof.  It needs to prove that an Independent Scotland can work, most importantly on an economic basis.  This is the most important roadblock to Independence, so for Indy fundamentalists to wilfully ignore or, worse, contemplate the use of UKIPesque/Trumpist “fake news” tactics displays a disrespect of the electorate.  There are elements that could be vague, explained under the banner of “This is an issue for when we become independent”, but that assumes that the new campaign is a genuinely cross party affair and not an SNP led and run campaign.  Economic arguments do not fall within those parameters so those above all else need to be utterly bomb proof.

Even in this fluid political climate, honeymoon periods must end.  Nicola Sturgeon’s has pretty much lasted for two years.  While there are now growing questions about her government, the prospect of a second Independence referendum is a double edged sword. It acts as a distraction to many SNP supporters, something that keeps the pro-Independence supporters united.  It also looks like a crossroads for the Sturgeon administration.  If they manage to hold the referendum when they can best win, Sturgeon will claim her place in history.  Unfortunately it looks like the pro-Independence fundamentalists will win the day and a vote will be held within the next 18 months.  If this happens it makes a second consecutive referendum defeat pretty likely.  

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