Looking back over this strange year, when much else feels like it is in permanent stasis, one major shift the last twelve months has been the mainstreaming of pro-independence majorities in Scottish polling. When YouGov first reported a 2% lead for the independence campaign on the 6th of September 2014, Downing Street went into meltdown and every feather in Better Together was ruffled. It even prompted the Queen the break her supposedly “strict” neutrality when it comes to politics. And now? Now, the idea independence in the lead and a union in retreat is a banal fact of Scottish life.
The union has had a bad crisis. Some of this can only be laid at the door of the current Westminster government and the incumbent Prime Minister. But is that really as far as it goes? Is it just a question of personalities and style, of political miscasting during a rough year? I rather doubt it.
For me, the appeal of independence has always been the appeal of responsibility. As we’ve all had the opportunity to observe in abundance during the last twelve months, irresponsibility has it charms too, irresponsibility has its freedoms.
When you aren’t spending your every waking hour trying to work out how to deal with an unprecedented global pandemic, it is easy to point the finger. The opinionated and the pass-remarkable, the hot-takers and the confidence tricksters, the bloviators, bullshit-merchants, press-releasers and the opinion formers have had rich pickings this year. But listen carefully through the noise, and I think you can hear another lesson landing in many people’s minds: it matters who takes decisions. It matters who wields power and who just has to lump decisions taken elsewhere. Scots have experienced both this year.
“Show don’t tell” is a mantra of good storytelling. When Alex Salmond coaxed David Cameron to Edinburgh to sign the Edinburgh Agreement, it was a little picture of what a future Scottish foreign policy might look like. When Nicola Sturgeon stands up, day after day, at the lectern discussing the latest developments in Scotland’s response to coronavirus, it looks a lot like the work of a sovereign state responding – as all over the world governments are responding – to this crisis. Are these weathervanes or signposts? I’d hope the latter.
The cynical and worldly amongst you may be inclined to wave these examples away as photo-shoots and meaningless political puffery. You might argue stagey set-pieces certainly don’t address the profound issues our country is facing and that media events don’t change the underlying dynamics of policy, or resolve the competing interests and practical challenges of building a new state.
I’d agree with you, as far as it goes. But to impatiently swat aside such symbolic moments is, I think, to miss the quiet weight these things can have. For an independent Scotland to be credible, the idea has not only to be believable, but imaginable, banal even. Before devolution, seeing an independent Scotland in your mind’s eye required a powerful suspension of disbelief. Even with the democratic and administrative infrastructure devolution has created, every step which is taken to make the abstract idea of Scottish independence more concrete is an important one.
There are ironies here and political choices which will loom larger in retrospect. You might well think that all of the decisions Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon have been making around the pandemic are rooted in the existing devolution settlement – but this is not the case. The key legal instrument which has facilitated, amongst other things, the restrictions on movement, the closure of shops, regions and borders, the tiers and distinctions which have been drawn – is Westminster’s Coronavirus Act, passed in March 2020 as the first wave of the virus swept through these islands.
Devolving these responsibilities to Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff was entirely in keeping with the basic principles thrust of devolution and the modern infrastructure of government in these parts of the UK – but I am sure it is a decision which some folk in Whitehall are now regretting. It has been that experience of responsibility and the new political geographies coronavirus has created which has been so eloquent.
The basic fact is this: in a complex and populous country like the United Kingdom, subject to a range of competing social and economic interests, Scotland’s particular priorities are never going to be at the forefront of the UK government’s concerns. In utilitarian terms, I can understand why they prefer to pay attention to those parts of the country which powers their parliamentary majority, which returns their MPs, and on which the careers of any ambitious Tory with a taste for power inevitably turns.
What I object to is being obliged to accept being collateral damage in this utilitarian calculation. What I object to is the insistence that I should be grateful – and must submit to – the persistent marginalisation of our political interests and preferences in an unbalanced union. What I object to is the persistent efforts to convince the population of this country that the demand for greater self-government is a badge of small-mindedness rather than evidence that I take the real material and social conditions which prevail in this country seriously. What I object to is the idea this is manufacturing grievances – rather than an effort to transcend them, and to take responsibility for our own successes and failures, opportunities taken and missed.
Despite the best efforts of the sadomasochists in the Scottish Conservative Party, the motto “vote Scottish Tory to cease being brutally ignored, marginalized, sidelined, sacrificed” hasn’t caught on. A surprise, that. To be a Scottish Tory is to be perpetually hunched up before headmaster, saying “please, sir, may I have another?”
I am, frankly, embarrassed for anyone whose political horizons are so limited, whose political aspirations are so paltry, whose self-respect has so attenuated, that the opportunity for summary discipline from a junior whip could ever strike you as a fair exchange for hanging around to promote a political creed inimical to most of the people you represent.
As Scottish Tory MPs who trip biddably off to London discover, day and daily, the particular interests of their constituents are of no particular interest to the UK governments to which they swear fealty. To survive in that occupation presumably requires a particular measure of gormlessness, a singular lack of self-reflection, or a devotion to flag, family and empire which no kind of evidence or experience is likely to be able to dent. I’d hope most folk in this country had a little more self-respect.
If you have elected Scottish politicians, subject to the preferences of the Scottish electorate, then you can expect to elect bodies who have a lively appreciation and concern for our particular political, social and economic interests and who can be relied to act on those concerns.
You cannot reasonably expect the same from the MP representing Saffron Walden or Bassetlaw. The Honourable Members for Uxbridge and South Ruislip and Surrey Heath are bound to look at the world differently to folk representing the Upper Bann or Swansea West or Stirling. This allegiance to a more limited electorate may seem small-minded to the cloud-compellers in Boris Johnson’s cabinet who want to go finger-painting on a bigger canvas, their heads full of bad history and nostalgic imperial fizz, but trying to govern your own affairs to ensure that what happens to you political better aligns with your interests and your values strikes me as nothing to be ashamed of.
Danish or Finnish politicians don’t think of themselves as having limited political horizons by prioritising policies which actually impact on their people, and taking those decisions seriously. I’m sure Jacinda Ardern doesn’t think her political life is meaningless or narrow, because she’s only been able to spare 4.8 million New Zealanders from the continuing strictures which Covid-19 continues to wrap around our own lives. I doubt you find many – any – TDs in Dáil Éireann, longing for the chance to give speeches in the House of Commons in exchange for the wonderful opportunity of the First Lord of the Treasury screwing up their country and trading away their interests in the way Boris Johnson and his predecessors has been able to screw up and trade away ours for decades.
Honk away about separatism. Give it your best “I have more in common with a worker in Liverpool” routine if you fancy. Scotland has collective interests which I believe are poorly served by this union: economic, social, cultural. Independence is and has always been about taking responsibility for our predicament, and working to work ourselves out of it rather than lying back and thinking of England, wondering what wonderful roulette the Westminster government will play with our interests this time. 2020 has been a year in which we’ve seen responsibility in action. We’ve seen that it matters who takes decisions, and who is just subject to them.
In 2021, I hope Scots remember the lesson.