The union is crumbling

Sunday National, 7th June 2020.

I find myself wondering whether they may – just – be beginning to panic. We’re not dealing with a case of the full Kermits. Not yet. For now, the reaction is limited to just a little flailing. But like a spider’s web trembling in a gentle morning breeze, the tremors are small but perceptibly there, the pattern of rising anxiety unmistakable. Since the UK government’s ratings began to tank over its handling of Covid-19, Scotland’s unionist diehards have begun to exhibit heightened degrees of agitation, desperate to stick Sturgeon with some of the mud which is now so readily attaching to Boris Johnson and his administration. With a little reflection, it isn’t hard to understand why. 

Last week, Ipsos-MORI reported that just 30% of Scots thought Boris Johnson was still making a good fist of responding to the Coronavirus outbreak, compared to a whopping 82% who thought Nicola Sturgeon was generally making the right calls. This wasn’t just a personality competition. When the pollster asked how Scotland’s two governments were doing, just over a third gave the UK administration a positive rating, with a full half of Scots reckoning they’d fluffed it. By contrast, 78% reckoned the Scottish authorities had made a decent job, with just 11% giving them negative scores. These figures aren’t only counting diehard Nats. By any fair reckoning, this is a huge cross-over appeal for the SNP leader. 

While Professor James Mitchell of Edinburgh University cautions that while perceived “governing competence helps win elections but does not necessarily translate into support for independence” – the idea that the UK government is not competent – that you’re as likely to slip off its “broad shoulders” as to be carried to safety – is not one which thoughtful unionists should be cheered to see such a large proportion of Scots entertaining. After all, when you’ve lost the cold edge of your competence, even a callous kind of competence, what exactly are you good for? When you cut the figure of a laughable bungler rather than the formidable but unlovely outfit you used to be –. Well, put it this way: what emperor survives being laughed at for his missing clothes?

For Scots who have their doubts about whether the mother of parliaments is still in possession of all of her marbles, this week, Jacob Rees-Mogg buttoned up his double-breasted jacket and summoned our MPs to appear in London for inspection.  One unionist friend was moved to poetry by the sight of the Tory party’s chief prefect superciliously inspecting the snaking plantations of MPs littering the parliamentary estate as they prepared to vote by walking past a throne after an hour standing around in the palace’s crumbling corridors.  

“Not with a bang 

Not even with a whimper

With a queue. 

How very f*ing British.”

In the end, independence is about one simple question: “who should decide how Scotland is governed? Who would you prefer to be responsible for deciding how we live together?” Although there remain powerful and important questions for the SNP leadership about how the case for independence is framed in the aftermath of this crisis, and the material change Brexit represents – it is difficult to see how either challenge has strengthened our precarious union, and unionists know it. 

Back in March, Carlaw tooks an unexpectedly emollient line on Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership. “I have every confidence in her to lead the country’s response to this crisis at this time,” he said. The Scottish Tory has since come to the realisation that this kind of patter did his chances of becoming First Minister no favours – and so has been doing his best in the weeks that have followed to find things to be outraged and scandalised about, before falling curiously mute when Dominic Cummings’ sickly and potentially visually-impaired tour around beauty spots in the northeast of England threw Boris Johnson’s administration into the soup. 

Yesterday, Panelbase published the findings of its latest poll. Things are still nip and tuck, but the pollster found 52% of Scots would now vote Yes to independence. Lift your eyes to the hills – and just in sight, peeking over the horizon – you can just make out the jagged edges of the next Holyrood election next spring. That may seem far off at the best of times – further given the prevailing circumstances – but coronavirus or no coronavirus, no political party in Scotland with ambitions to shape the future of this country can be indifferent to how the ground the next election campaign will grow from is being tilled. 

Elections are one day in the holding, and months and years in the making. And thanks to the pandemic, those months are cycling by at some lick. The growing season isn’t looking great for Jackson Carlaw or Richard Leonard. Nothing suggests either party leader has used the thinking time more than a decade of opposition might provide productively. For opposition politicians hoping to seize the opportunity of power – time is oxygen. With every day that passes, the two fairly anonymous gentlemen leading Scotland’s two biggest opposition parties lose another opportunity to impose themselves upon the public imagination.

 But beyond that, the political space they might grow into currently does not exist. Governments own crises, for good and for bad. The legislature has a legitimate role, without question, in scrutinising what the government is and isn’t doing – but crisis management is essentially an executive function. 129 people can’t do it simultaneously in Edinburgh. 650 souls can’t do in London either, no matter how long you make them queue. 

The next Holyrood poll is set down for the 6th of May next year. The final call on whether it will take place to schedule will apparently be made this October – but I can’t fathom any good reason, now, why it shouldn’t proceed as planned. Postal ballots can facilitate the participation of folk who cannot or don’t want to leave their homes. As a sometime haunter of polling stations, I can’t mind a single polling day when voters and staff couldn’t maintain a good space between them, even on the 18th of September 2014, when turnout was just shy of 85%. Counts are usually more of a scrum – but with 12 months in hand, the difficulties can’t be insuperable, can they?  

This has been a long parliament by Holyrood’s standards – as was the last one. The Brexit vote and the Tory party’s self-serving schottische with the Fixed Term Parliament Act has thrown Holyrood’s political calendar into disorder again and again. This week, MSPs set the seal on Holyrood terms being five years long, rather than the four-year window first envisaged in 1998. It’s beyond time for Nicola Sturgeon, Jackson Carlaw, Leonard and the rest to face the public.

From the perspective of his UK party, Jackson Carlaw now has one big job. For God’s sake: do us a Davidson. Big Jock’s first order of business is depriving the SNP of a majority, if he can. If possible, ensuring the Greens and the SNP hold less than 50% of Holyrood’s 129 seats would be a triumph. 

The Tories aren’t alone in finding the current phase of Scottish politics inconvenient. Yes, the Scottish Conservatives had their hopes pinned on a period of internal bloodletting in the SNP in the wake of the Salmond trial, but so too did a number of internal and semi-detached critics of the current SNP leadership. Both groups have watched powerlessly as Coronavirus sucked the oxygen out of the story, despite the best efforts of some to keep it alive. 

Remarkably, I discover Richard Leonard has now led his party in Holyrood for almost three years. I have been trying, without success, to remember the last time Richard Leonard said anything memorable. I know the words must be there. Thumb through Holyrood’s official report and yes, meeting you square on the page, you’ll find the Scottish Labour Leader’s weekly effort to harry Nicola Sturgeon – but most Scots would still walk past him on a busy high street without stopping to think “who was that guy in the red tie?”

Since 2007, Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats have embraced electoral irrelevance. This is so normalised in Scottish politics, we don’t notice how strange it is. In most democracies, political parties are power-curious at least. They aren’t content to malinger on the opposition benches forever, generally achieving bugger all, left to preen themselves on the beautiful savagery of their press releases. The dominance of the SNP and the long straits separating them from the nearest opposition contender made two spells of minority government viable – but in normal democracies, folk with Willie Rennie and Richard Leonard’s jobs aren’t addicted to the life of powerlessness and halfwit snark which fills the life of life of your average opportunistic opposition politician. But this is Scotland. Wha’s like us? Gey few. And they’re a’ deid. Thank Christ. 

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