AS IT SEE IT: TERRY MURDEN on the case for political reform
The Scottish Tory leader is in full battle cry, beating his chest and challenging Nicola Sturgeon to the next best thing to a fight outside. Of course, if his challenge to the SNP leader comes about there’ll be nothing much more physical than strained vocal cords. Douglas Ross wants a debate. Though not just any debate; it will be the mother of all debates, the only one that seems to matter.
Mr Ross is demanding that his SNP counterpart distances herself from the “roadmap to independence”, the party’s strategy for holding another referendum as early as this year. He says that if Ms Sturgeon is “not prepared to disown this plan, then she should be prepared to defend it.”
Well, one thing of which we can be certain is that Ms Sturgeon would have no difficulty doing the latter. Mr Ross may believe there is an argument to be won, but his opponent only has to whisper a few B words….”Boris”, “Brexit”, “bungled trade deals” and “broken promises” in order for her case to be heard and for her adoring supporters to put Mr Ross’s head on a spike.
The Tory leader is kidding himself if he thinks he can change opinion by constantly reiterating the “once in a generation” argument which has only gained a hollow ring in post-Brexit Scotland. He, together with other opponents of independence, have to rethink their entire approach to the ‘I’ word – and that should start by the opposition parties withdrawing their constant demand that the SNP stop talking about, or planning for independence.
That’s right, let the SNP have its say. Independence is the central goal of the party – the reason it exists. It is every bit as important to its supporters as Brexit was to those Tories who campaigned for and secured it. We may be in the middle of a pandemic but that is not a reason to put a halt to discussion of other issues. If independence is a distraction, then why not education, mental health and drugs which have absorbed a lot of parliamentary time and energy?
Mr Ross wants a debate because he believes he can shift the independence dial. He’ll need some strong arm tactics to move it at all. The arguments are well rehearsed and positions firmly entrenched. Hardcore nationalists will not be swayed as they believe the goal of “freedom” is within their reach and many will pursue it at any price, including bad, even corrupt, government. Nothing else matters.
The battle for hearts and minds, of course, will be fought over the waverers, the Don’t Knows and, crucially, those who say they will vote for independence simply because they have lost hope in the union. The least worst option.
‘A proper federal consensus would have removed the political squabbling that dilutes the collective effort’
It should never have come down to a binary solution. Even among unionists there is an acceptance that the UK is too centralised. The UK should have adopted a form of federalism, like the Germans, many years ago, and not one based on the emotional and sentimental attachments to ‘nationhood’, but around economic regionalism; one that recognised that power needed to be de-centralised to all parts of the kingdom. A union of strong regions would have created a ‘sum of its parts’ UK instead of one constantly drip-feeding those beyond London and the south east.
The pandemic has shown how four nations acting in concert can form the basis for a federal structure, especially as the “UK” government has effectively played the role of an “English” government. The distribution of funds from Westminster has also shown the strength of a central and uniting government. A proper federal consensus would have removed the political squabbling and confusion that has diluted the collective effort.
Only the Liberal Democrats fully embrace the federal concept and now they are preparing a new campaign, seizing on former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s involvement in constitutional reform.
In the meantime we are where we are and the senseless arguments will just continue, with the unionists proclaiming the benefits of togetherness (while keeping the UK hinterlands firmly in their place) and the nationalists aggrandising Scotland without fully evaluating how the country would really fare in the global economy.
Nationalists are fond of drawing comparisons with Denmark, New Zealand, the Czech Republic or Estonia arguing that if they can be independent, why not Scotland? But these countries have either a long history of independence and of growing their institutions organically over many decades, rather than have them torn out of an existing union, or they were created from failed regimes such as the USSR.
Devolving power to economic regions is a far better way to spread and create wealth. It may hurt the pride of many Scots, but defined by economics and business metrics Scotland is compared, not with England or Denmark, but with Yorkshire and Humberside, the West Midlands and other areas with similar populations, GDP, and so on. It is an economic “region” and one that often struggles to compete with Manchester and Leeds, let alone independent nations. A new study published by the London School of Economics spells out how Scotland would be harder hit by leaving the UK than by Brexit. This is lost in the SNP mantra that argues the opposite view.
As we plough on regardless of these emerging trends the battle will be fought over the the dislocated UK, rather than how it should be. So those fighting to save the union must ditch their reactive, defensive strategy and take the case to the public. They could make a start with international trade.
Despite denials, a No Deal Brexit would have been perfect for the nationalists, a chaotic departure proving that the Tories are not fit to govern. They didn’t get it, so they’ve been busy trashing the deal that Boris Johnson did secure, almost unchallenged by the unionists. The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford has been issuing lists of failures on seafood exports and border controls, but says nothing about Nissan’s renewed commitment to the UK or the EU’s heavily-criticised intervention on Covid vaccines.
‘There is no guarantee that Scotland would be re-admitted to the bloc, at least not for several years. What then?’
He has led the accusations over the fishing deal, but has never given details of the SNP’s own plan to renegotiate the Common Fisheries Policy. If it was such a good plan how come no one knows about it? I’ve asked three SNP MPs to tell me what the party would have demanded from the EU that would have given us a good fishing deal. Not only have I not received details of that plan, I have not even had a reply. Truth is, they don’t know. It’s enough for them just to rubbish Boris’s deal because it plays well to the party’s supporters, and the unionists are hopeless at arguing for what they did achieve.
On wider international trade, those who plan to support independence had better hope the SNP secures at least a provisional guarantee of re-entry to the EU before anyone is asked to cast their vote. After all, there is no guarantee that Scotland would be re-admitted to the bloc, at least not for several years. What then?
An independent Scotland would find itself cast adrift, not only from the EU, but from from the rest of the world, given that it would also be cut off from the rump of the UK and therefore unable to share the deals that Westminster is currently agreeing. Tiny Scotland, shorn of the bargaining power of the UK, would be left trying to tie-up trade deals with Japan, the US and hundreds of other nations. It is a scary prospect, but not one that gets much of a mention from Mr Blackford or Holyrood’s chief flag-waver Michael Russell.
But even with these arguments favouring the case for the union, the time is approaching when the opposition must accept that, independent or not, Scotland and Scottish politics no longer fit comfortably within the strait-jacket of Westminster rule, just as Northern Ireland and Wales have always voted for political parties that do not exist anywhere else in the UK.
‘Sensible people should realise that the current state of affairs is bad for Scottish democracy and for the economy’
This is not an argument for or against independence but a recognition that the arguing has to stop, not just with the SNP, but among the opposition parties whose hostility towards each other weakens them all.
If federalism is not the answer, then there has to be reform of the current party system. To mount an effective challenge to the SNP the opposition has to unite around a new party that is relevant to Scotland. The alternative is that the country drifts towards a one-party state. Should it evolve into an independent state, the opposition parties, with their unionist allegiances and headquarters in London, would be even less relevant. So reform from within has to come soon or it will be forced upon them.
Meanwhile, Mr Ross will keep banging the drum for an unyielding union and the Scottish Labour Party’s leadership roundabout will keep spinning until the next one falls off.
The inevitable outcome of the May poll, pushing Scotland ever closer to that one-party state, should be enough to make sensible people realise that the current state of affairs is bad for Scottish democracy and for the economy.
Independence campaigns are driven by a desire to be free from oppression, or a failed system. It need not be the outcome that is best for Scotland, but a fundamental shake-up of the way Britain is governed is essential if the constitutional arguments are to end with stability rather than more strife.