This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the referendum that voted to establish the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.
It was a commitment promised by a Labour Party that had just won a famous general election victory, and was supported by all other parties in opposition to the Conservative government. Only supporting the Conservative government could prevent that process beginning, but the government lost. The referendum was then held, Scotland voted for devolution and the Parliament opened its doors two years later.
This week the Scottish Parliament will decide if it should apply to the House of Commons for a Section 30 Order to give it the necessary legal authority to conduct another referendum, the fourth in 20 years, this time on the proposal that Scotland should leave the UK to become an independent nation state.
If the Scottish Parliament votes in favour of the Section 30 Order it will confirm to me two political phenomena have taken a firm grip at Holyrood: the first is the Holyrood bubble formed by the MacChattering classes is more detached from the Scottish people than ever before, and the second is that the manifesto documents of Scottish political parties are worth less than a used ScotRail ticket and should never be trusted again.
I can state from my own experience of eight years in the Scottish Parliament – with its never-ending demands from the 24 hour news cycle, the countless meetings of committees, parliamentary bodies and ad hoc advisory groups, the lobbying by single issue campaigns, the briefings by agencies, quangos and third sector, the party rallies, the petitions, the motions, amendments and debates et cetera – that there is a natural tendency to believe that Scotland is focused on everything you do as an MSP. You might believe your own, your colleague’s or your party’s speeches to be the most important contribution, the motions the most persuasive and the debates the most illuminating. You might even think that because of this (self) importance the Holyrood Parliament is Scotland, that what happens there determines everything that matters and that because its members have been elected it is an accurate reflection of Scotland’s collective mind, if there were such a thing.
You could not be more wrong.
Such a position is a delusion; no matter what the individual merit or worth of what is said in Holyrood, people do not hang on every word of MSPs for what passes for debate, nor laugh at every belittling joke at each other’s expense or applaud the petty partisan politicking that passes for law making. Like a clock that is broken, Holyrood might get something right for two minutes of each day but, due to its holier-than-thou arrogance and its utter detachment from the economic realities that everyone else in Scotland faces, its own world view is as distorted as a fairground mirror.
Given that poll after poll shows that support for a second independence referendum is not only a minority pursuit but is continuing to shrink – and is now repeatedly less than a third of Scots – it is perverse for any MSP to believe there is a demand for a second vote.
Instead there is a demand for stability in our institutions, predictability in policies and consistency in decision-making; the very things that provide a healthy environment for investment, business development, job creation and economic growth. There is a demand for our Scottish Government to focus on its day job by sorting the public services that, mostly, it has by its own actions or inactions now broken.
Then there is the matter of some MSPs believing they have a “mandate” to deliver a second independence referendum.
Clearly the SNP leadership has never played whist or trumps, for if it had it would know that when Nicola Sturgeon told us the 2014 referendum was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” it must trump any other political vote held since. The reason this trump still holds over any political development since is because no party, including the SNP, has sought and won a mandate through its electoral manifesto to beat it. The trump has never been overturned.
The SNP claims there has been a clear change in material circumstances caused by the June 2016 referendum deciding the UK will leave the European Union. This claim is groundless because back in September 2014 it was well known that an EU referendum was always probable and the outcome of Brexit always possible. Ms Sturgeon can place her own spin on the referendum result, using phrases such as Scotland being “dragged” out of the EU to whip up sentiment for her highly divisive case, but the reality is that Scots chose the UK in full possession of the facts of what might happen down the road.
The SNP did not seek, as it could have, a clear mandate to call a referendum if there was a Brexit vote, because it cannot claim the support of No voters that voted Remain. We voted to stay in the UK in a turnout of 84.6 per cent by 2.0 million votes to 1.1 million – and that trumps the EU referendum and the SNP’s oblique and opaque manifesto.
Of course the SNP cannot win a vote on a Section 30 Order by itself, it has also lost its mandate of a parliamentary majority and must rely on the support of the Green Party. Surely it can provide moral backbone to the SNP’s case? Unfortunately it too did not seek a mandate for a referendum; indeed the Greens were quite specific that to have a further referendum would require the will of the people to clamour for one. Do Greens hear something that no one else can? Where is the demonstration of popular will they said would be necessary?
When pressed on the BBC yesterday, the Green leader, Patrick Harvie, was embarrassingly inept and unconvincing in justifying support for the SNP’s betrayal of “once in a lifetime”.
By comparison the Conservatives had set out their manifesto stall in clear and robust terms against a referendum and reaped the rewards by beating into second place a Labour Party that, riven with internal feuds, had decided to be more equivocal.
A petition to the Commons against a referendum has attracted some 200,000 Scottish signatures, more than the 150,246 the Greens had in 2016. What political will, what electoral mandate is there before we rush headlong into oblivion?
l Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org