13 April 2014

Green shoots & silver linings

I've always been a bit more pessimistic about the likelihood of carrying the referendum than many of my independence-supporting fellow travellers. But as I argued on BBC Good Morning Scotland on Friday (from around 02:08:00), there are increasing reasons for pro-independence folk to be optimistic.

Winning independence this time around always seemed like one of politics' longer shots. Any realist couldn't but think otherwise. It is sometimes easy to forget that the 18th of September 2014 represents a premature encounter between Scottish Nationalism and its ambitions. On Holyrood polling day in May 2011, it was clear that Scottish Labour was in its dumps, but the extent of the drubbing they received surprised everyone, themselves not least.  It was assumed that whatever national trends formed in the polls, Fortress Glasgow and urban west central Scotland would continue stubbornly to resist the appeals of a Nationalist government in Holyrood. 

Not so, it transpired. The proportionality of our electoral system coughed, sputtered and died, and the SNP returned to power, winning 53% of the seats on 45% of the vote. Factoring in the pro-independence Greens and the late-lamented Margo, parliamentary support for a referendum vaulted from its status as a minority enthusiasm between 2007 and 2011, into the dominant feeling in the chamber. But out in the country, by contrast, support for Salmond's administration could not be taken as an unproblematic endorsement of the First Minister's constitutional ambitions. 

On polling day in 2007, on the doorstep out in Govan, I met an anxious old dear who was clearly tempted to lend Nicola her support, but who remained unconvinced by independence. "If I vote for her, if they win, we won't become independent right away will we?" The SNP's commitment to a referendum gave us an easy answer, alleviating her concerns. Before it was seriously in prospect, polls continued to show that little over a third of Scots willing to endorse the party's constitutional goals.  While the installation and credibility of an SNP government in Holyrood has undoubtedly done something for the plausibility of self-government in an independent state, the continuing popularity of the Nationalists has not - as some hoped - straightforwardly powered forward support for independence.

In parallel, internal debates in the SNP between "fundamentalists" and "gradualists" have essentially petered out, replaced by an orthodox commitment to constitutional salami-slicing, gaining more and more power for Scottish institutions by slow degrees. Regard for the caution of the Scottish public undergirds this strategy. Without a parliament, government or a distinct Scottish exchequer, embracing independence really would represent a leap in the dark. But accrue more power, establish distinct and credible political institutions - and the gulf between independence and the status quo requires only an imaginative hop skip and a jump - and a little bit of luck - to bridge.  

Tam Dalyell argued, notoriously, that devolution put Scotland on a motorway towards a separate state, with no turn offs and no exits. That's much too fatalistic for my tastes, but Nationalist gradualism strives to keep us in the constitutional fast lane, applying judicious force to keep the engine at full throttle. But in some respects, September's referendum sits uneasily with this incrementalist thinking towards independence. While Holyrood has extensive powers, substantial authority over taxation and welfare continues to allude it. The political leap we are inviting the Scottish people to make in the autumn is narrower, far narrower, than the case made before devolution, but it'll still significantly exercise the hamstrings.

Although a loss would represent a generational set-back, the constitutional penny-shaving can continue unabated. Without the referendum, it is unthinkable that Labour and the Tories would now be talking about and committing to further redistributions of power.  For the gradualist Nationalist, utterly fatalistic about our chances of victory in the autumn, the referendum process performs critical tasks, irrespective of its outcome. It has clamped their - less than enthusiastic - fellow drivers' feet down hard on the accelerator taking us along Tam's highway.

More diffusely, win or lose, this referendum also represents a generational mainstreaming of the idea of independence.  No longer the crackpot scheme of Culloden-addled gentlemen in marmalade tweeds, by the 18th of September every citizen from coast to coast will have been invited to take the prospect of an independent Scotland seriously. Even on the worst of the opinion polls, many and most will do so. That thought is unlikely to butter many parsnips in the Nationalist gloom and despond after a No vote, but seen through the wider historical lens of the last eighty years, that too is an achievement on which future generations can campaign and build.  Even this gloomy worst-case scenario is not without some delicate motes of light.

But increasingly, I find myself more optimistic, less in need of these consoling thoughts. The conjunction of factors is such, that the case for independence is looking as healthy as it ever could be at this stage of the campaign.  That this is the case is, partly, attributable to the wily calculation of Nationalist strategists, but we're also proving lucky in our opponents.

The coalition's miserable and alienating government programme continues. The SNP have nabbed the "no mandate" argument which Scottish Labour MPs used to toss Maggie's way, framing the debate around a simple question, about who you would prefer to take the key decisions on taxation, social security, and the rest. Their opponent's motto - Better Together - suggests similar questions. Better in what ways? Better how? Set against the background of the current Westminster government, that is an awkward question for the Labour-dominated No campaign to answer convincingly. And as I've argued here before, the undefered UK general election campaign cannot but put massive pressure on the internal congeniality of the No coalition in the last stages of this campaign.

On the radio on Friday, the Guardian's Severin Carrell argued that we've seen nothing yet, and the sinewy, crouching tiger of the Scottish Labour campaign is poised to spring into life. But the underground grapevine tells it differently. Committed Labour cronies tell a consistent story of activist disaffection and disengagement. Pro-Union Tories bitch about their hated colleagues' uselessness and inactivity. While the Union clearly has some ardent partisans in the People's Party, the enthusiasm for No is anything but general. We didn't enter politics to talk about the constitution, we're not going to campaign till our shoes are hulled and our feet are callused and broken for it either.

Irrespective of the electoral mathematics, gelatinous Ed Miliband continues to look an improbable candidate to lead the nation, and certainly no shoo-in after the next UK general election. Labour's devolution offer, a crucial opportunity to reclaim a bit of ambition and initiative, foundered on the shoals of its own small-mindedness, partisanship and incoherence.  A critical opportunity for the No campaign, squandered. The waxen form of Nigel Farage looks set to stub out his fag on all of the other UK parties in the European elections, putting pressure on the policies of both Labour and the Tories, tempting both towards UKIP's brand of right-wing, "right-thinking" populism.

The pat answer to these factors is that Scots aren't terrifically bothered about devolution, and don't give a fig about the European elections, which perhaps has a pinch of truth if you consider the electorate en bloc. But winning this referendum is about accumulating the 50.1% coalition. If 5% of folk care about the European ideal, and can be persuaded to attach that ideal to support for independence, we inch forward. Many and most may not have clear ideas about how devolution distributes powers between institutions in these islands. But if 5% can be persuaded to endorse independence in the absence of a substantial and credible alternative offer, we nose ahead.

You could feel the green sap rising at the SNP conference this weekend. Horrid, dirgeful cynic that I am, I can feel it too. Darn tootin', comrades. We might just win this one.


  1. "Without the referendum, it is unthinkable that Labour and the Tories would now be talking about and committing to further redistributions of power."

    But they're not, are they? They're tying themselves in knots trying to devise things that SOUND like redistributions of power but really aren't.

    Having to collect your own taxes is not a boon but a ball and chain - it's a new and substantial cost in bureaucracy, without any benefit. It's designed to trap the Scottish Parliament into having to eliminate some of the awkward differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK - free prescriptions, tuition fees etc - by making them unaffordable.

    A Scotland within the UK levying higher rates of tax in Dumfries than in Durham is first-order insanity. No party standing on such a policy would be elected, and any in power attempting it without it having been in their manifesto would be chased up the Royal Mile with torches and pitchforks.

    The tax-raising "power" proposed by Labour and (it seems likely) the Tories is, then, an administrative chore, an unwelcome new cost that will inevitably lead to spending cuts, and politically impossible to use even to redress that shortfall, let alone raise extra revenue.

    That's not a "power" in any meaningful sense of the term, which is of course why the media constantly insists that it is - only last week the Scotsman sneakily described Labour's shambolic "Devo Nano" plans as "devo max", and they're not the first to do so (see also Hamish "The Red Menace" Macdonell). It's also no coincidence that Better Together has taken of late to polling not on the indyref question but on "independence or more powers".

    I do think we should beware of falling into their trap by echoing that language. Being the lawyerly sort I see why you might wish to do so in the interests of scrupulous honesty, since even a power that can never be used is in a strict technical sense, just like Trident is a "weapon" even though it can never be fired.

    But it just allows the dangerous fiction to seep into people's minds that a No vote means anything other than "the status quo, IF WE'RE LUCKY".

    1. In a twist of unintended irony, any proposed flavour of devolution will have the effect of making Scotland MORE like the rUK, rather than distinctly different from it.

      It's a convoluted trick of appetising versions that the three Jokers of the Union are playing in an attempt to inelegantly squeeze the Devolution genie back in the bottle.

      Unfortunately, someone lost the cork.

    2. RevStu,

      As you know, overall, I agree with your diagnosis that the critical weakness of Labour's offering (amongst many others) is that it doesn't and wouldn't devolve the level of powers over taxation and social security which I believe we require. That said, that's surely a qualitative objection to the scope of powers it is being proposed to devolve, which is different from the idea that the pro-union parties are not talking about expanding Holyrood's powers (however modestly). And there are, of course, other ideas on top of the wonky income tax proposals. As you say, however, it is a ridiculous distortion in terms to talk about this as "devo max" in any sense other than "the maximum fiscal devolution that the Labour party is currently prepared to countenance." It remains to be seen what the Tories will come up with in May.

    3. "which is different from the idea that the pro-union parties are not talking about expanding Holyrood's powers (however modestly)"

      That's the thing, though - this ISN'T a tiny, trivial, feeble expansion. It's not even NO expansion. In every meaningful sense it's actually a CONTRACTION, because the tax-varying powers simply can't be used.

      That was the case already with the 3p variation we've had since 1999, which is why it never WAS used, but there's a key difference - that power could just be left dusty and ignored in the vaults. This one can't. It MUST be utilised, even as a sham merely to keep things the same, which means it incurs substantial administrative costs, which ties the Scottish Government's hands elsewhere.

      Holyrood will be able to do less than it could before - because it will be less able to afford to - and that *in practice* is a reduction in power, disguised in the clothes of an abstract, theoretical extension.

  2. "Without the referendum, it is unthinkable that Labour and the Tories would now be talking about and committing to further redistributions of power."

    Actually not. Donald Dewar said devolution was a process not a destination. Henry McLeish was on your side but you hounded him out over a trifle. Wendy offered a referendum but you chickened out.

    It's nice to see your side taking comfort from the idea of a neverendum, but Quebec shows the perils of that.

    As for riding to power on confusion about the EU. Dishonesty never pays in the long run. I sincerely hope you don't even think about it.

    1. Was it not Ron Davies who said that?

    2. Dishonesty never pays in the long run, now that is a phrase which should be quoted at the Better Together Campaign on the whole. I have yet to hear one honest word be uttered by them. Even after asking for clarification from "Scottish" Labour with regard to their tax ideas after a NO vote, it is as devious and as clear as mud and this is intentional given the remarks made to the North East of England but that doyen Johann Lamont at the weekend.

    3. Braveheart,

      What can I say? I make it my business, wicked fellow that I am, to harass politicians over revolting cream and jelly based puddings. And I didn't say neverendum, but like yourself, I'm a young man. As Jefferson once said, "the earth belongs in usufruct to the living". That principle goes for every generation. And you can take much comfort from the legal situation. Because of the way in which the s.30 order was framed, it is now more questionable than ever whether Holyrood now enjoys the power unilaterally to call an independence referendum at any point in the future.