Joyce McMillan: Dear Nicola, you must show courage
The independence debate has, thus far, been disappointing. It will take a special politician to engage people, writes Joyce McMillan
ON WEDNESDAY, in the Scottish Government reshuffle, Nicola Sturgeon was appointed Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for government strategy and the constitution, becoming – in effect – the leader of the campaign for a Yes vote in the independence referendum. It is a momentous appointment; here is my open letter to the minister, on the task she faces.
Dear Nicola -
First, let me add my voice to all the many congratulations you will have received on your new appointment. Since 2007, you have been an outstanding cabinet secretary for health and wellbeing, defending the principles of public health care, and the spirit of the NHS, at a time when they have been under unprecedented political attack; you have put yourself in a strong position to lead a campaign for Scottish independence, which will be based on the substance of what an independent Scotland might achieve, rather than on empty nationalistic slogans. It will also be exhilarating and refreshing to see a woman at the centre of an independence debate which – unlike the devolution debate of the 1990s – has until now been dominated to an astonishing extent by ranks of middle-aged male politicians and commentators.
For it has to be said, once the congratulations are over, that the debate in which you now take up this role has so far been a profoundly disappointing one. The majority SNP government which took office 15 months ago, after its stunning election victory, might have taken a bold view of its constitutional options, and moved immediately to test the view of the Scottish people on independence in a purely consultative referendum, held – say – in spring of this year. Despite the possibility of a legal challenge under the Scotland Act, a well-advised UK government would have let the referendum go ahead, rather than seek to frustrate the newly-elected Scottish Government in fulfilling its key manifesto commitment. And by this time – the autumn of 2012 – we would either have been entering into a negotiation on independence, or – having voted “no” – would be debating the many alternative options for enhanced devolution, under the aegis of an SNP government with almost four more years to serve before it faces re-election.
Instead, though, the SNP government opted for caution. First, it declared a preference for a late referendum, to be held in the autumn of 2014; and then it accepted the Westminster government argument that an independence referendum should be “binding” rather than consultative, and would require Westminster legislation to make it legally watertight. The first decision was debatable enough, on democratic and strategic grounds.
It was the second decision, though – to opt for the “binding” referendum, and the long negotiation with Westminster over the details of it – that seems to have plunged the debate into such a morass of tedium, and such an arid series of headlines about whether or not David Cameron and Alex Salmond are approaching a referendum “deal”. In the 1990s, when Scotland roused itself to campaign for devolution, a wide range of organisations across the nation came together to imagine a better constitutional future, to set their own agenda, and to change the terms of the debate, in ways that many Scots at the time found relevant, exciting, and inspiring.
Yet today, 20 years on, we wait for a deal struck behind closed doors, among a small group of leading politicians, to tell us how the key question about our constitutional future will be framed, and what choices we will be allowed. Small wonder that the vast majority of people in this country feel excluded from the debate, bored by its detail, and paralysed by its technicalities; and all this for an idea of a “binding” referendum that is both politically vacuous – for who exactly would be bound to do what, in the event of a No vote? – and constitutionally questionable in a UK where parliament is still sovereign.
In the real world, of course, the SNP government has probably travelled too far down the road towards a Westminster-sanctioned referendum to be able to reverse now; so that option for bringing the debate back home is not open to you. Once the date and form of the referendum is agreed, though, radical thinking will be required to reframe the debate in more positive and interesting terms; nor will it work, if the SNP government are seen as the only driving-force behind the discussion. You will need allies in civil society who are prepared to sponsor big, rowdy, wide-ranging discussions about what people want Scottish society to achieve in various policy areas, and whether independence is necessary to those goals. You will need visions of possible futures – from Nordic Horizons to Caledonian Tiger – that people can discuss, endorse or reject. You will need alternative plans for enhanced home rule, in the event of a “no” vote; and you will need to find ways of supporting and fostering this culture of a living debate about Scotland’s future, without always being able to control its outcomes.
And if you can achieve that, or even half of it, then you will become that rarest of things in 21st century politics; a political leader who understands that, as Kenyon Wright said back in the 1988, real political power is like love, and can only by won by those who are prepared to give it away. A disempowered, bored and alienated population produces a weak, introverted and uninspiring political class, dangerously vulnerable to the lobbying of high-powered vested interests.
A people who are fully engaged in debate about their own future, though, produce leaders who feel that strength behind them, and who know that given real popular support, astonishing changes can be achieved, even under difficult conditions. The current independence debate has made a poor start, reflecting all the top-down weakness of a bad decade in British politics. Your job now is to transform it, if you can, into a beacon of true debate about how government should work in the 21st century, and how Scotland might build itself an inspiring future, in that context.
I wish you luck, because you will need it. Not so much, though, as you will need courage, imagination and vision; without which the people perish, and their political leaders with them.
With best wishes,
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