I’m not about to get into discussing the merits of candidates for the SNP Depute Leader job. It’s far too early for that. Although the fact that nominations aren’t even open yet hasn’t prevented some people making up their minds and the media declaring at least two ‘favourites’ – neither of whom has declared their candidacy and one of whom has actually ruled himself out. It’s all in danger of becoming rather ridiculous. So I’ll just bide my time.
The issue of a new referendum is another matter, however. It seems to have become bound up with the Depute Leader contest in a manner and to an extent that may not be helpful. Some things can’t be helped, I suppose. On this, at least, Julie Hepburn talks some sense. Up to a point.
““It’s important to note that whoever becomes depute leader will not be deciding unilaterally what the strategy is and when the decision will be.”
This is important. I see a lot of ill-informed comment along the lines of suggesting that the SNP needs a Depute Leader who will ‘challenge’ Nicola Sturgeon on various issues. That is NOT what the job entails. The Depute Leader is, as the name suggests, a stand-in for the party Leader. They have to be the Leader’s shadow. They have to be able to step in and speak for the party precisely as the Leader would. There cannot be any significant disagreement or conflict. Certainly not in public.
It is this consideration which may rule out certain candidates. Those who are aware that the Depute Leader role imposes significant constraints on the incumbent’s freedom to speak and act according to their personal beliefs may be disinclined to elect to the position someone whose value to the party and the country lies in their ability to be something of a thorn in the side of the SNP leadership.
It is good that Julie Hepburn reminds us of this. Although I fear her words may too readily and too soon be forgotten.
Having got off to such a good start, it is all the more disappointing to find Julie’s comments on the subject of a new referendum reflecting the same woeful lack of urgency found in a recent article in The National by her old boss, Pete Wishart.
Whatever Louis Armstrong may say, we do not have all the time in the world. While it would be great to be able to wait for the optimum moment (although how you’d know it was the optimum moment is a mystery), we can’t. While it would doubtless be a fine thing to have absolute certainty about the outcome before we even launch the campaign, that’s not how it works in the real world.
And now, more perhaps than ever before, we desperately need some hard-headed realism in the Yes movement. If we have not settled the constitutional question within a year, then the entire terrain upon which the independence battle is being fought will have altered. And not in ways that favour the Yes side.
It isn’t only about what we do. We have to be aware of moves being made on the other side. When, for example, David Mundell talks of ‘UK-wide common frameworks’, we cannot afford to dismiss this as mere political jargon. We have to consider what it means. We have to work out what it implies for Scotland. We have to assume the worst. We have to proceed on the basis that he is talking about an entirely new structure; set up initially to take on powers repatriated from the EU, but capable also of taking powers removed from the Scottish Parliament. And if they can weaken the Scottish Parliament then we have to assume that they will. We cannot afford to be complacent.
It’ll start with things like agriculture and fisheries. The argument will be that this needs to be dealt with on a UK-wide basis. The Scottish part of it will be handed to the Scotland Office on the grounds that this will better facilitate coordination of policy with the UK Government. They will claim that it’s not really taking powers away from Scotland because the powers are going to the Scotland Office. And it has the word ‘Scotland’ in it. So stop being such a ‘grievance-monkey’ and get on with the day job using the powers you have. You can just hear it, can’t you?
Then it will be argued that, in order to make the ‘UK-wide common framework’ more efficient, the Scotland Office needs to have further powers. It will be argued that it makes no sense to have agriculture and fisheries responsibilities split between the Scottish Government and the Scotland Office. So they all have to go to the latter. Because that’s where the ‘common framework’ is. Right? Duh!
Thus begins a process of attrition. With the help of the media, and regardless of the reality, these ‘common frameworks’ will be hailed a stupendous success – at the same time as the Scottish Government is being loudly and repetitively accused of failing at everything it is responsible for. There will be a clamour for more powers to be transferred to the pure dead brilliant team at the Scotland Office. Resistance to this process will be portrayed as putting ‘narrow nationalism’ before the needs of the economy.
At the same time, it will be maintained that the new arrangements need to be secured. There needs to be ‘certainty’. So the ‘threat’ of independence must be eliminated. Legislation will be passed at Westminster prohibiting constitutional referendums. Or introducing a requirement for the approval of both the Commons and the House of Lords. Or stipulating a qualified majority. Or some combination of these and, perhaps, other measures. The ground will have shifted. The possibility of a referendum will have receded almost out of sight. The chances of winning will have diminished to near-zero.
This is not a story about some hypothetical scenario for a remote future. This is actually happening. And it’s happening now. By the end of 2018 the British government will have everything in place to make a new referendum, and/or a Yes win, as close to impossible as makes no practical difference. By October or November the post-Brexit shape of the UK will be settled. It will be a fait accompli.
Of course, given the present UK Government’s record, it’s all but certain that they’ll screw this up in some way. But do we really want to pin all our hopes on their incompetence?
#Referendum2018! This time it’s urgent!
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