Political parties should beware their myths. I was in Old College on St Andrew's Day in 2007, when Wendy Alexander presented her "new agenda for Scotland". The event was overshadowed by the piffling financial scandal that eventually laid the lady low, but my abiding memory of her speech was the long byway it cut through the history of the Labour Party's attitude to Scottish home rule.
Alexander clearly felt this was important material, and her gist was not difficult to discern. Drawing strength from her party's history, she hoped to locate her proposals - which would eventually spawn the Calman Commission - in the van of Labour's tradition, reasserting itself after the bruising 2007 election as the "party of devolution". To my twenty-one year old self, the address struck a tin note. Her potted party history felt inward-looking and self-indulgent, addressed more to blacksliding colleagues than persuading the interested punter at large.
This sort of preoccupation with your sectional history isn't a phenomenon unique to the Labour Party. Many and most institutions and organisations have their touchstone moments, their defining events and tales, held in cherished memory. The great mistake, however, is to assume that everyone else shares your backstory and preoccupations. I'm worried that the SNP and YesScotland are at risk of forgetting this elementary proposition.
As we discussed on the most recent edition of the podcast, last week saw Ruth Davidson volte face on the constitution. There's no longer a line in the sand on devolution, she says. Let the constitutional debate continue. It remains to be seen whether she and Johann Lamont will pull on their wellies with Willie Rennie before 2014, and cobble together a convincing devosomething alternative to independence before polling day. It's certainly a possibility.
Thus far, the SNP's response to these devolutionary hints has been to dismiss them out of hand. Perfidious Albion, like the leopard, doesn’t change its spots. Remember 1979! Jam Tomorrow! Remember Douglas-Home! "The UK’s ability to re-invent itself is spent!" Whatever Ruth, Johann or Cameron might say, their promises are moonshine. The thought might be developed somewhat, drawing inspiration from Tom Nairn's account of the sclerosis of the British state. And as I have argued here before, there are plenty of good reasons from the recent history of the Tory and Labour Parties to doubt the sincerity of their devosomething rhetoric. I'll believe it when I see it, and not before.
That said, is it convincing that most folk will find it inherently implausible that devolution might be extended after a “no” vote? I think not. The problem with this otherwise charming Nationalist story is that it presupposes that people remember the events of 1979 more keenly than 1997. And while this might be a reasonable calculation amongst grudge-bearing Nationalists, suspicious of the British State in all of its manifestations, it's a startlingly unlikely account of what your average less-partisan Scot might make of the recent constitutional history of this country. It's the politics of the echo-chamber, with the sting that we're only fooling ourselves if we believe it.
If you stumped up to many doorsteps and muttered darkly about promises reneged upon in decades gone by, many and most would likely retort, "who the hell is Alec Douglas-Home" anyway? This sort of patter may prompt a cheer from the crowd at the SNP conference. For them, the event may be written in fiery letters in the book of life. But most voters seem much more likely to take it for years-old grudge-bearing barminess, of remote pertinence at best to our current constitutional controversy. It’s the SNP version of Wendy Alexander’s dreary roll call of home rulers.
Yes, the British state is given to unprincipled strategic trimming. Yes, the Tories exhibit no principled reason to support more devolution. Yes, the recent history of all three parties has exhibited considerable reluctance substantially to extend Scottish powers in areas of taxation and welfare, or to embrace some sort of settled federation. Yes, defeat in the referendum would go a long way to eliminating the "political need" for more devolution, weakening rather than strengthening any devosomething argument.
But what are the advocates of independence to do if the three opposition parties - somehow - produce a compelling, reasoned, credible devolutionary alternative? The first answer is ornery cynicism, the Nationalist parallel to Johann Lamont's demands for absolute certainties about the character of an independent Scotland. Where are your guarantees? That might convince you, in your mistrust of the Better Together campaign. But you can bet your last shilling that there will be plenty of Scots who will want to believe that a credible, achievable, more extensive devolution of power is possible within the United Kingdom, who are willing to take the wager and vote "no".
Here the pro-independence argument is in danger of planting itself in treacherous terrain, all the more perilous given its superficial fertility. As I read it, their reasoning goes something like this. We believe in independence, come what may. Most folk don’t. At least, not yet, and probably never a majority as a first order preference so soon as 2014. So what is the calculating nationalist to do? You look around and you notice, per the opinion polls, that this other nebulous creature – devosomething – seems to be the popular ticket. The challenge then becomes, how to mobilise that soup of pro-powers feeling in the service of independence?
We might detect two moves in the SNP’s recent rhetoric around this. Firstly, find ways to represent independence as a logical extension of devolution, a way station of a "home rule journey" that leads to independent sovereignty for Scotland after 2014. While the idea of a spectrum of self-government is not trite, some figures in the party have recently taken the theme far too far. Just last week, Stewart Hosie MP put out a statement dismissing the possibility of Holyrood being invested with more powers, which argued that:
"... it is absolutely clear independence is the only route now open for the devolution of any substantive powers to Scotland."
Conceptually, this is a right muddle, a category mistake. Independence can’t be a route for devolution of power from the British centre to the Scottish periphery. The thought is incoherent, but Hosie’s conflation serves the obvious purpose of eliminating sharp distinctions between independence and devolution, of muddying the difference.
The second rhetorical move has seen the Nationalists doing their darndest to frame the referendum in terms of change against the status quo, of more powers against no powers, dynamism against inflexibility. Sure, they say, independence might not be your instinctive or intellectual first choice, but look at the alternatives. If you favour more powers, independence is the only way to gain them. The message: if you are pro-devolution, vote for the referendum alternative which comes closest to your real aspirations.
The petard-hoisting potential of this argument for independence supporters ought to be obvious. This contention only holds together so long and insofar as support for independence answers this conundrum, and seems to fit best with the hitherto frustrated preferences of supporters of greater devolution. Take us forward a few months. Say the Unionists distinguish their fundaments from their arm-joints and produce some adequately convincing devosomething offer. You may hae your doots about is credibility, suspect dirty tricks. But why the devil should we expect the Scottish people – hazy in any case about where power over a number of issues are situated – not to believe them?
What’s the pro-independence argument now? “Pro-devolution? Er. Vote for independence because … um … well I admit, our ambitions are a bit different to yours and our opponents’ offer looks much closer to the sort of thing you want than independence but... Ah… Be a dear and just ignore what I’ve been saying for the last half year, could you?”
Instead of harping on the string that the Better Together campaign can't and won't adopt a credible pro-devolution position, shouldn't we evade the elephant trap of them actually producing one? Achilles didn’t send Paris a billet-doux and a bow and arrow before the battle saying “sir, kindly refrain from shooting me in the heel.”
Instead of dredging up decades-old tales about faded patrician politicians signifying sod all to most people, hoodwinking ourselves with our cherished history and waiting for the snare to close about our ankles, why not anticipate this obvious development now, and start making the case why independence would be categorically different, categorically better than any form of devolution? Save for Trident, and their recent Iraqi invasion retrospective, the SNP has arguably declined to make this case in any sustained way.
For your pessimistic independence supporter, who sees the result of 2014 as a forgone conclusion, this strategy is not without its attractions. If the consequence of defeat is luring your opponents into extending the powers of Scottish democratic institutions, all to the good. For the optimist, given to think that the 2014 poll is winnable, however, the way we're framing the pro-independence case at the moment looks decidedly precarious. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about Better Together's amorphous constitutional promises without resorting to 1979, and to Alec Douglas-Home. The SNP are right to make that point, but let's not blunder into a rhetorical snare of our own making, and hew through our hamstrings in the process.