The 2014 referendum was a premature confrontation between Scottish Nationalism and its ambitions. In a long campaign, Yes Scotland managed to achieve something remarkable. The Yes campaign was defeated and defeated handily, but support for Scottish independence roared into the mainstream of political opinion. Even victors are by victories undone. Short term advantage is sometimes bought at the expense of a disaster tomorrow. The Better Together campaign is a case study in the perils of short term thinking.
Last Friday, we observed the aftermath of a stricken Scottish Labour Party, sinking beneath the waves, demasted in the crosswinds of political opinion, hull bust, lifeboats swept away, leaving a sole survivor in Ian Murray. Now the ship's skipper has finally done the decent - and probably necessary - thing, leaving the battered boat directorless and directionless heading into the long campaign for Holyrood in 2016. For the partisan SNP supporter, a squirming feeling of schadenfreude may attach to Labour's immediate challenges, but we must continue to take a longer view as the People's Party are gripped by their own internecine conflicts and disputes.
The brutal fact remains -- if we held another independence referendum today, tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year -- we would still be defeated. Scotland is not awash with people feeling buyer's remorse. The poll wasn't fixed. The anxieties which delivered a No majority on the 19th of September have not been answered. The doubts of the folk outside the enclaves that supported independence by a majority - Clackmannanshire, Aberdeenshire, Perthshire, the Highlands - have by no means been allayed.
Any indisciplined rush into a second referendum can lead only to disaster. Exuberance in the wake of an exciting General Election campaign, I can understand -- but it must be checked and scrutinised cold-bloodedly. I would suggest that that scrutiny urges only one conclusion: the fundamentals are still agin us. Vital, it may have been, stimulating and new. But we must be honest with yourselves: on too many issues, the intellectual case for Scottish independence was never won in the long referendum campaign of 2013 and 2014.
One of my long lasting anxieties about the 1998 devolution settlement has been the kind of politicians it would produce. As a party which has rooted and grown in Holyrood since the turn of the century, the SNP has historically been particularly exposed to the limits of devolved thinking. A national parliament with an important range of powers, but one shorn of responsibility for economic affairs, for monetary and international affairs, defence and welfare. For the unionist majority in the Smith Commission, the problem with this set-up is the lack of "responsibility", connecting decisions on spending with decisions on taxation. But for an independence-supporter trying to take a longer view, the issues are different.
Devolution risks producing politicians with attitudes towards a great swathe of state policy which is at best intellectually underdeveloped and at worst empty oppositionalism and sloganising. These "big things" become someone else's problem. This attitude may cut the mustard in the forgetful ordinary run of politics. In the compressed formats of telly and radio, your spokesmen will find things to say, outraged soundbites to coin, but a slogan is not a policy.
Slogans may work day to day, but they are bound to be seriously shown up in something as fundamental as a long referendum campaign. By no means am I suggesting that the SNP is the vacuous party of empty protest its opponents sometimes suggest -- but these reserved areas have often been our weakest suit. There is no shame, and no downside, in being frank with ourselves about that.
Take one example. You can understand the thinking behind the White Paper's currency policy. Folk wanted to keep the pound. The focus groups urged it. So the Scottish Government decided to back it. But in practice, the policy amounted to giving your deadliest enemy a loaded revolver and saying, "please don't shoot me with this". The rest is history. Osborne pulled the trigger. Salmond foundered in the first debate with Darling. Credibility was never demonstrated or gained. We lost. I could go on.
The election of the 56 is no mandate for independence, or even another referendum, but it is a remarkable opportunity to begin working quietly on these tricky fundamentals and to resist the narrow field of policy vision which devolution sometimes encourages. The Short Money is flowing in, up from a modest £187,000 to £1,200,000 a year, excluding any additional party levies on the new MPs' salaries. That is a formidable war chest which the SNP must put to work in pursuit of its short and longer term aims.
The intellectual, technical case for Scottish independence must be strengthened in the longer run if it is ever to be won. The target is moving. The issues are not static. But if -- when -- a second referendum comes along, we now have no cause and no excuse to run a campaign which is vulnerable on critical questions of reserved policy. Tough choices will, inevitably, have to be made and policy battlefields selected. But for the first time in its history, the party now has a formidable Westminster machinery and staff, scrutinising the reserved issues, with resources to think fundamentally about its approach to central issues in the economy, and choices in monetary policy and regulation, defence, welfare, international affairs. That's an opportunity which cannot be squandered.