Friday, 3 October 2014

What now?

I've deliberately avoided writing about the Scottish independence issue for the last week or so. I spent most of the weekend following the referendum feeling numb, angry and completely hopeless, with the double whammy of losing the vote followed shortly afterwards by Alex Salmond's snap decision not to stand for re-election as leader of the SNP in November leaving me devastated. (And how galling it was to watch the man who'd safeguarded our NHS, delivered free prescriptions, university tuition and care for the elderly announcing his resignation, while war criminals, expenses frauds and proven liars smirked and patted themselves on the back.) I wanted to take some time to let my emotions settle and to mull over the main question that must be on every single pro-independence campaigner's mind -- namely "What now?"

It seems reasonable to suggest that the independence movement will not go quietly into the night. In fact, I've been surprised by just how quickly so many people came to terms with the crushing despair of having lost the referendum and immediately began to regroup, speculating as to what the next step should be for the movement. It will undoubtedly change in terms of its immediate goals and tactics, but the long term aim -- independence for Scotland -- remains firmly on the agenda. It certainly remains my aim, though I'm pragmatic enough to assume that, at present, it's off the menu for at least a few years. The people have spoken, and all that. Many of them may have been cajoled, intimidated and deceived into voting No, but vote No they did, and as democrats we have to accept (I almost typed "respect", but decided against it) the result.

That said, I was intrigued that Nicola Sturgeon, when launching her bid for leadership of the SNP (and there can be little doubt that she'll succeed, given that so far no-one has come forward to challenge her, with every other potential candidate giving her their backing), refused to rule out calling another referendum in the future. It would be absurdly unwise for the SNP to go into the next election with the promise of another referendum in their manifesto -- I expect they would be slaughtered at the ballot box by an electorate that's had its fill of rederenda after two and a half years of argument -- but keeping it on standby as a potential weapon to whip out in the event of a dramatic change of circumstances is a wise move.

What would constitute such a change of circumstances? Well, for one thing, the three Westminster parties reneging on the vows they dreamt up on the back of a fag packet in the final weeks of the campaign. For another, the looming EU in/out referendum the Conservatives are promising in 2017. If a scenario were to emerge whereby England voted by majority to leave the EU and Scotland voted by majority to remain (as the polls tend to suggest), then in my view the Scottish Government would be entirely justified in calling a snap independence referendum on the grounds that the tectonic plates had shifted. And they'd probably win it comfortably.

In the meantime, the SNP's immediate goal appears to be holding Westminster to account over the grandiose promises it made in the run-up to the vote. The words "DevoMax" and "federalism" were trotted out several times -- words with specific meanings, but which both the politicians and the media cynically used to make what they were offering sound more impressive than it actually was. "DevoMax", for the avoidance of any doubt, means maximum devolution, i.e. full control of all matters except defence and foreign affairs. Nothing the three Westminster parties have offered (and all are proposing different packages, with Labour's by far the most feeble) comes even remotely close to fulfilling those criteria, but DevoMax we were promised, so DevoMax we will demand. There can be little doubt that Sturgeon will be all too willing to remind them of the language they used when the negotiations begin.

Apparently, in the most recent issue of the Sun on Sunday, David Cameron stated a desire to give Scotland the power to raise and spend all its own money. I have my doubts that he really means this, as it would mean saying goodbye to all those lovely oil revenues. However, let's take these comments at face value for a moment. Realistically speaking, Cameron has little to lose by offering Scotland as much autonomy as possible. There is, after all, only a single Tory MP north of the border, so in a sense Scotland is already a write-off from the Conservative Party's point of view. Any significant transfer of powers would undoubtedly mean reducing Scotland's presence at a UK parliamentary level to compensate, but something tells me Cameron wouldn't lose much sleep over axing a single MP. On the other hand Labour, with its 40 Scottish MPs (at least until the 2015 general election), has far more to lose, which probably explains why Labour's devolution proposals are so toothless. Indeed, Cameron's "English votes for English laws" drive, announced the morning after the referendum in his victory speech, looks more and more like a cunning trap laid for Ed Miliband and his party.

(Incidentally, I have absolutely no problem with the idea of "English votes for English laws", and indeed I commend the SNP's Westminster MPs for adopting the principled stance of not voting on matters that are devolved to the Scottish parliament. That said, there are certain caveats, the most significant one being that the budget Scotland receives is set by Westminster, and a situation could potentially arise whereby Scottish MPs are unable to vote on motions that impact on the Scottish budget.)

Allow me some pie-in-the-sky thinking for a moment. Imagine a scenario by which the UK moved to a truly federal settlement whereby each of the four nations was completely financially autonomous. If such a situation came to pass, then in many respects the question of independence becomes a moot point. I'm not a hard line Scottish nationalist, and wouldn't have too much of a problem with the idea of a union called the United Kingdom continuing in some form, provided Scotland was allowed to govern its own affairs within that union. The only downside (and it is a major one, I admit) is that it does nothing to extricate us from the UK's disastrous foreign policy or resolve the presence of nuclear warheads just miles from our most populous city. That's why, at the end of the day, while I would take DevoMax or federalism as the next best thing, it's still a lesser alternative to true independence, which I believe must remain the ultimate goal. For the time being, though, I believe the immediate task must be to, as Alex Salmond put it, "hold Westminster's feet to the fire" and ensure that they deliver on their promises.

Crucial to this is going to be getting as many pro-independence MPs sent to Westminster in the 2015 general election as possible. Scotland currently has 59 MPs, of whom a mere six are SNP. The rest consist of 40 Labour, 11 Liberal Democrats, and a solitary Tory in the rather weird Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale constituency. The Lib Dems are, it's safe to assume, pretty much toast, barring in their strongholds in the Highlands and Islands, so the main priority must surely be to unseat as many Labour troughers as possible. That's a hard ask -- many of them have massive majorities, and in many constituencies the SNP came third or fourth in the most recent general election. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see Labour annihilated in Scotland -- words cannot express how much I despise them and the way they cynically wrap themselves in the flag of social justice while doing nothing to alleviate the poverty the blights their strongholds -- but I'm pragmatic enough to accept that this is unlikely. The "ah vote Labour cuz ma da voted Labour" force is still strong.

That said, the ground appears to be shifting. The Labour citadels of Glasgow and North Lanarkshire both voted Yes by majority (in fact, every single constituency in Glasgow recorded an overall Yes vote), so it may be that the idea of the safe Labour seat is coming to an end. YouGov president Peter Kellner published an interesting article the other day speculating as to the likely makeup of the 2015 parliament, going to far as to suggest that the SNP could potentially hold the balance of power in the same way that the Liberal Democrats did in 2010. If that's the case, then the main precondition for any sort of coalition or confidence and supply arrangement must be a guarantee of full DevoMax.

When 2016 and the Scottish elections swing around, the picture is slightly different. The SNP already hold an absolute majority in the Scottish parliament under a system of proportional representation -- an anomaly that was never supposed to happen. It's feasible that they could return to being a minority government, which they previously managed successfully between 2007 and 2011, but I wouldn't like to suggest that a second majority is completely out of the question. It's certainly highly unlikely, barring some sort of scandal that rocks the incumbent government, that Labour will be back in power in 2016, and as for the Tories and Lib Dems -- forget it. The Tories might just cling on, as there's a core bloc that continues to vote for them come hell or high water, but the Lib Dems have already been reduced to a rump of five MSPs, and are for all intents and purposes irrelevant. The Greens currently only have two MSPs, but they stand a strong chance of increasing their presence, and the fact that the vast majority of their new members will be disillusioned Yes voters (membership has trebled since the referendum) means that the party is unlikely to abandon the pro-independence stance that it only reached after considerable internal debate.

So for the time being, the primary goal seems to be to pack both parliaments with as many pro-Yes MPs and MSPs as possible, and to use that position to agitate for a far more impressive package of new powers than what any of the three Westminster parties are currently proposing. I believe we should dismiss any thought of planning to hold another referendum in the immediate future, but to retain it as an option should (a) Westminster renege on its vows and/or (b) we find ourselves being dragged out of the EU against our will. The matter of independence has not, despite the wishes of the No campaign, been settled, and it's entirely possible that we could find ourselves at the ballot box once again within the next decade.

UP NEXT: My thoughts on why the Yes campaign failed.

No comments:

Post a Comment