Brian Wilson: stop the indyref2 ‘long game’, fix Scotland

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks during the launch of the SNP General Election manifesto at Perth Concert Hall. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday May 30, 2017. See PA ELECTION stories. Photo credit should read: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks during the launch of the SNP General Election manifesto at Perth Concert Hall. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday May 30, 2017. See PA ELECTION stories. Photo credit should read: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
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It’s time to move beyond identity politics by ripping up the rulebook for Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘long game’, writes Brian Wilson.

If there is one thing our own Nationalists do not like – and there are many – it is comparisons with European movements which have given the creed a bad name. This should make them careful of the imagery they adopt.
On its darker side, Nationalism relies on appropriating to “the Party”, virtues and cherished symbols of the nation or state. There is no more cherished asset in Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, than the National Health Service. It belongs to us all.

The health service has been rebranded as the NHSNP for the purposes of party political election propaganda

The health service has been rebranded as the NHSNP for the purposes of party political election propaganda

The people who built it, work in it and rely upon it embrace all political opinions and none.

Those entrusted with political control of it are, for better or worse, its temporary custodians. So why do Ms Sturgeon and her associates feel entitled to rebrand it the “NHSNP” for purposes of party political propaganda?

Answer that question and you start to explain why they have become such a divisive force, as bitterly opposed as they are unquestioningly supported.

For every Scot who buys into this attempted correlation between Scotland, its institutions and the SNP, there is at least one other who recoils at the arrogance of that assumption.

On the same day the “NHSNP” imagery was launched, it emerged that one in five Scottish patients is not being treated within target times.

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This exemplifies why scales may be lifting from eyes. The contrast between rhetoric and reality is, in so many respects, too great to cover up with glib platitudes, faux sincerity or shifting of blame.

Instead of addressing such difficult issues, the rather creepy party political broadcast which the SNP produced this week consisted entirely of child-props doing childlike things before concluding with the assertion that they would not want to be brought up in a society run by Theresa May.

That may well be the case. It might equally be true that they would prefer to be brought up in a society where they are sure of learning to read and write, where there is not a constant argument about the constitution and where politicians state their own case rather than attributing it to photogenic five year-olds.

The problem for Sturgeon and the SNP is that they now have a record in government and it is not a very good one.

They are no longer a novelty or safe haven for tactical votes and are increasingly seen as an outfit for whom everything is a manoeuvre aimed at reviving demands for a second independence referendum. Some people love that, others despair of it.

In response to Sturgeon’s falling poll ratings, her cheerleaders in the Sun newspaper yesterday pronounced her “the queen of the long game” who should lie low on independence, survive the general election relatively unscathed and then re-emerge to renew the call for a referendum.

Regardless of belated attempts to play it down, that is the strategy which every vote for the SNP will endorse.

This “long game” would result in Scotland continuing to be beset with a permanent campaign about the constitution to the subordination of all else. At a time when every sector of the Scottish economy needs constructive inputs into the Brexit negotiations, we would be represented by a phalanx of MPs whose vested political interest is in their failure, to sustain the referendum demand.

Margaret Thatcher relied on the principle that if she could keep more than 40 per cent of the electorate happy enough to vote for her, then the rest really did not matter.

It was a calculation which delivered three large Parliamentary majorities and left behind a deeply fractured society.

The same barrier will come into play next Thursday, both in Scotland and the UK as a whole.

It seems unlikely that the Tories will fall below 40 per cent, in which case they will secure enough seats to govern.

In Scotland, the Nationalists will keep most of their MPs if they stay above 40 per cent. That is how first-past-the-post delivers.

The contrast with Thatcher’s day is that both Prime Minister and First Minister could emerge wounded rather than invigorated by these outcomes.

For Mrs May, victory is not enough. If the result does not deliver a significantly more comfortable ascendancy in the House of Commons, to put her beyond the demands of the arch-Brexiteers, the whole exercise will have been a waste of time.

For the SNP, 40 per cent is equally significant. If they fall to that level, the case for a referendum will be even more widely seen as unreasonable.

That might give us a period of peace with a message delivered that the next Holyrood elections will be fought on issues for which it is responsible, rather than as yet another referendum surrogate. If they stay above 40 per cent, the Sun scenario kicks in – the “long game” of permanent constitutional argument.

Just a word on education. When in opposition, Sturgeon was forever calling for people to resign.

I particularly remember her nasty campaign against the late Sam Galbraith when the Scottish Qualifications Authority ran into difficulties which no minister could have pre-empted, unless he had gone around searching bureaucrats’ cupboards and computers.

Sam was having a much-needed holiday with us in Lewis when the problems emerged. He rushed back and worked day and night to ensure that no Scottish school leaver was disadvantaged by what had happened within his area of responsibility – all the time accompanied by Sturgeon’s demands that he should “go now”.

Then as now, all that mattered to her were the politics of opportunism.

In the interim, Sturgeon seems to have lost her enthusiasm for resignations.

Scottish education is in a mess which can, more credibly, be attributed to ministerial actions – on curriculum, on teacher cuts, on class sizes, on funding. The messengers are shot so that damning statistics and international comparators will no longer be published while nobody resigns and nobody apologises, least of all Sturgeon.

This is the consequence of government by a political party which was much better at denigration than delivery and which has got away with concealing its inadequacies through the shameless expropriation of Scottish identity. Next Thursday offers an opportunity to start moving on from that kind of politics – and that really would be “stronger for Scotland”.