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Monday, May 9, 2011

The State of the Union

Before the ink was even dry on the ballot papers, the losers of last week’s elections went into full panic mode and, as if as one, simultaneously unleashed a chorus of petulant screeching, demanding that an independence referendum be announced by dinner time and held by the end of the week. Their post-election comments were clearly written before an outright majority was considered a possibility as they sounded as if they thought they were speaking from a position of strength. Their media interface software was missing a crucial update, hence the compatibility issue between their imaginations and reality. The responses to events were as considered as those of a Venus flytrap, snapping at anything that disturbs their hair-triggers, unable to distinguish between a mosquito and an elephant. The snarling, hissing tenor of their argument is its own downfall as it amounts to accusing the electorate of being idiots who have no idea what's good for them and need protected from themselves. They kent wur faithers; we shouldnae get ideas ahead o' wursels.

Nothing can happen without a debate. What they quite wilfully fail to acknowledge is that the debate on independence has never been intelligently held in Scotland and, moreover, that this is largely because they themselves have consistently refused point blank to entertain it, as if to do so would be seen as dignifying some revolting slur. The idea of independence was beneath contempt. Nationalism was to be discussed only with held noses and closed eyes. For decades, defence of the Union amounted to "la la la, we can't hear you, la la la." They have to listen now.

The British Union’s track record on fighting on the back foot is not a good one. If they continue to behave as they have up until now, they’ll lose their argument as surely as they lost this election. Their main fear may well be that when they actually start to discuss the matter, there is a risk that a few of their own might go native. Many Scots previously entrenched in unionism have clearly bitten the bullet and done just this. It may be temporary and the massive swing to the SNP can't automatically be construed as popular demand for independence, but the unionists take the converse for granted at their peril. There are no defaults left in Scottish politics.  

To date, defenders of the union have treated the debate with such unthinking disdain that they don't even argue. They simply recite the same lines over and over, defending themselves rather than their case out of tribal instinct. They were not ready for this and they'll need to make this distinction soon if they are to stand a chance. Their contribution has not even served their own purposes: I think it would be fair to say that the return of a thumping SNP majority to Holyrood, contradicting the finely tuned mechanisms of their very own bespoke electoral system, probably goes down as both a failure of practise and a pronouncement on their stated purpose. If their practises change, their purposes might evolve. Who knows where they might end up?

If Labour, Tory and Lib Dem are to recover in Scotland, they could do worse than to recognise the idiocy in their petty obstructionism during the last parliament. This is where it has got them. The absurdity of Ian Gray and others accusing the SNP of breaching manifesto pledges on minimum alcohol pricing and a referendum on independence, when it was they and they alone who blocked these bills, was as breath-taking as it was insulting. Every time they said this, they looked more ridiculous and the fact that they don’t even seem to recognise this suggests they have a poor opinion of the electorate’s intelligence.

What is worse is that they didn’t even recognise a golden opportunity when it presented itself. But for this block sulk by their opponents, the SNP would not be where they are. The opposition parties deserve their banishment and impotency for this one act of political ineptitude alone. If they’d had any sense, they’d have introduced their own bill loaded with pro-Union pejorative and forced it through, thus probably sending independence the way of proportional representation. If these parties represent the quality of argument to be expected from unionists in the referendum debate then bring it on. 

This infantile attitude permeated all the opposition parties’ election campaigns. Why should we be surprised? The same high-pitched shrill dominated proceedings throughout the last parliament. Policy issues were only a small part of this election. If policy had been the sole arbiter behind each vote, the result would have been a four-way tie as over 90% of all party policies overlap. Something else was at play, possibly the SNP's matching their campaign with a very refreshing respect for the electorate. Labour seemed to base their election strategy on an L.S. Lowry painting, the devout huddled masses standing in orderly lines voting for the Peoples' Party by default. The Lib Dems are reduced to a nomadic tribe of political plague victims, being turned away from every door, cast into an ideological wilderness bereft of any  abiding political purpose. The Tories at least haven’t changed much and simply serve to remind us how far we’ve come since they were last relevant. The unionist parties are now in such disarray that their nanny-knows-best attitude no longer washes; they clearly can’t look after themselves, let alone the country.

While it is to be welcomed, the present political settlement has to be transitional. Nobody wants to see an independent Scotland with only one party in sight. We need an able opposition as much as we need an able government and we don’t presently have one. By joining the independence debate with open minds, some might just recover their credibility sufficiently to add the necessary dynamic for a healthy new democracy. And, lest any are still expecting to wake up as if from a bad dream, it is real. The Gnats won. George Robertson’s obituary on nationalism was premature and all bets are off. The unionists now have the choice between a civil voice or no voice. The onus is now as much on them to defend the union as it is on the SNP to promote independence. It is worth reminding ourselves here of that rare beast, the historical constant; once started, unless countered with armed suppression, independence movements tend to head one way only.

Independence should be discussed in the same spirit as devolution was and with even more attention to detail. We have earned the right to this. The many issues should be debated openly and politely. The usual suspects have already sneered at Alex Salmond for talking about forgiveness in his post-count speech. Careful, now. Considering the vitriol poured on him by some, they should be very quietly grateful and take the hint. Salmond was knocking the opposition parties into a cocked hat with only 47 seats for four years. Opting to go it alone looked like he was shouting “Look! Nae hands!”, but it worked and seemed to impress. Folks had better be getting up early in the morning if they’re going to take him on when he’s armed with a thumping democratic mandate. David Cameron and others feign statesmanship amongst weak competition. Salmond exudes it naturally with every breath. He's probably the best politician in the UK. Nicola Sturgeon impresses more with every passing week. They could run rings around the opposition if they wanted to and would if they needed to. They've made it very clear that they would sooner not, though. Considering how tempting it must be given the abuse they've been subjected to over the years, they should be commended for this approach. It's up to the unionists to step up the mark now. Ya boo sucks no longer cuts it with Scottish voters.

For 300 years, the mildest utterance on the subject of independence was shouted down by a reflex unionism reciting increasingly meaningless and specious mantras depicting hell on earth if Scotland became independent. Last week’s election results quite emphatically indicate that the will of the people is not settled by any measure. It is quite clearly very fluid.

If evidence were needed for the insecurity of the Union, look no further than devolution itself, unthinkable less than two decades ago, and the theoretically impossible absolute majority of the new SNP administration. Such seismic shifts dismantle previously trustworthy and unchallenged assumptions. Two articles of faith of the pro-union lobby, one a recent contrivance of their own designed to prevent this very eventuality, have been shattered. If this vote isn’t regarded as pregnant with dissent then this in itself will feed the independence argument. 

The Tories learned to their eternal damnation what happens when they mess with Scotland. Labour have just leaned what happens when they take Scotland for granted on the basis of there being a Tory government in Westminster. This used to work but that was then and this is now. The Lib Dems have learned what happens when they show themselves willing and capable of doing absolutely anything to get their feet under the table.  

There are many reasons why the SNP won so well. To cite slick presentation and Alex Salmond’s considerable political skills is to miss the point. The issues presented themselves and Alex Salmond and his team came across well because they are quite good at what they do and people like this. There was no slight of hand, just a good case which won on its merits. This clear mandate demands and deserves to be heard. Resistance will simply strengthen its resolve.

If the Holyrood opposition want answers to their own troubles, they should look at their relationship with their parent UK parties. They may well conclude that a good dose of independence might serve them better, too. Their problems lie in London and the solutions in Scotland. Any failure to find a constituency would answer its own question.

Scottish Labour, Tory and Lib Dems are in such a mess they don’t even constitute an opposition any more and this is not healthy in a democracy. Nobody wants to see an independent Scotland with only one party in sight. But they have only themselves to blame. They can read it any way they like, but all were punished because of their subsidiary relationship with UK wide parties; the Lib Dems because of the Coalition, the Tories because of who they are and Labour because of who they no longer are. The Scottish branches have stuck to their traditions while the Westminster parties reinvented themselves as market-driven parties with scant regard for their provincial cousins. There is a clue in there for them. This election result could actually be the making of them now as there is no longer any point in perfoming unnatural acts with their natural enemies as they did consistently throughout the last parliament.

The traditional broad sweep rebuffs will be trotted out ad nauseum in the coming few years and, tiresome though it may be at times, some tedious arguments and phoney comparisons will have to be countered. Those who support independence are at an advantage, having had to bite their tongues and keep their heads down on the issue for so long, but knowing, almost to the word, what is coming. Suddenly, it is not only safe to speak on the matter, it is mandatory (see; mandate) The SNP have been caught out by this, too, and they will need to rethink their strategy, which probably helps the debate as they’ll have to think on the hoof like everybody else. It may seem like Christmas to the SNP, but they shouldn’t unwrap their presents yet. Patience will be its own reward.

The usual loyalist cannons will be wheeled out and a barrage of distress flares will fill the ether. Andrew McKie writing in the Herald has just fired off what will doubtless be only the beginning of a series of hectoring, hysterical broadsides in defence of Queen and country. While he made some uncharacteristically insightful comments and almost showed good grace in his summary of  last week’s election, his reflex unionism trumpeted its own presence when he confused fact with conjecture by stating that the act of independence itself would be an administrative nightmare.   

A few questions here. Says who and since when was administrative difficulty considered sufficient reason to block democratic demand for political reform? More importantly, how disaffected can you get?

Furthermore, it isn’t even true. It could fairly easily be argued that moving from devolution to independence might be considerably less problematic than the setting up of Holyrood, when people were starting from scratch. Several large and unnecessary changes in local government provided administrative logistical problems aplenty over the last 4 decades, but the sky did not fall.

In devolution, Scotland and England absorbed a seismic political shift very quickly and without any great difficulty. Once the new lines were drawn, everybody just got on with it and it was utterly free of the mayhem and acrimony the nae-sayers had predicted. The mass exodus of business and celebrity alike didn’t happen. Steven Hendry, heaven forbid, has not left the country as he promised in 1997.

The necessary institutions of state are already in place and need recalibrated to a different command system. This would be as difficult as opponents make it. It doesn’t involve quantum physics. Our independent judiciary and legal system predate the union. We have a constitutional, ceremonial head of State. Military arrangements would continue. The collective and individual self-confidence the process of independence itself would engender, properly channelled by our brightest and best with the help of competent civil servants should be able to deal with procedure. If the political will is there, then it can and should be acted upon.  

Market-obsessed ideologues will wave scary puppets of Ireland, Greece and Portugal in the air, somehow suggesting that Scotland too is simply a country only recently unshackled from a life of agrarian poverty and, in the case of Greece and Portugal, not long out of fascist military dictatorship. We didn’t suffer the ridiculous growth they experienced when they joined the E.U. and our economy was therefore not conditioned to expect mass subsidy in perpetuity. Other small west European democracies are doing a lot better, but these are never cited.

As for the economic security offered by the union, that one has rather answered itself and disappeared into its own logic; what economic security? Are we really going to listen to people who somehow believed that buying up dud mortgages on shacks in Alabama constituted investment admonishing us with rehashed and abridged accounts of the Darien Expedition? Is this economic siege, which we are all expected to endure for a decade until the sunny uplands of market-based prosperity hove into view again, the best we can do? Could the land of Adam Smith, James Watt and Burns not conceivably make a better fist of it?

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