FOR a’ that, and a’ that, it’s coming yet, for a’ that, That man to man, the warld ower, shall brithers be, for a’ that.”
Well, it is Burns Day, the 254th anniversary of the birth of the national poet; and if poor Robert Burns – dead of rheumatic fever at 37, and now, according to some, forgotten or rejected by most of his countrymen – could sustain a spirit of hope through all the gloomy Decembers and bleak Januaries of his life, then we, in our more comfortable times, should at least be able to do the same.
Gloom, though, seems hard to avoid, when we survey the horizon of Scottish politics on this particular Burns Day. In a sense, it was all predictable, of course, on the morning after the Scottish Parliament election two years ago, when Scotland woke up to find that – in defiance of its own electoral system, and in response to a particularly dire campaign from the Unionist parties – it had elected a majority SNP government. From that moment, against his own better judgment, Alex Salmond was doomed to hold an independence referendum which he knew he would lose; and sadly, instead of getting it over with quickly, he opted for delay, in the forlorn hope of maximising the “yes” vote.
Because he knew that he was likely to lose the referendum, the First Minister also made it clear that he wanted to see a third option on the referendum ballot paper; not a straight “no” to independence, nor an unambiguous Yes, but a plan for enhanced devolution, which happens to be the declared preference, in opinion polls, of most Scottish voters.
The Liberal Democrat and Labour parties in Scotland, though, decided that humiliating Alex Salmond was more important than giving the Scottish people a chance to vote for the solution they want; so they refused to put a devo-plus option on the table, sided with the Tories on the constitutionally fatuous idea of a “binding” Yes-No referendum, and stood around smirking while the Scottish Government was left with no option but to sign the Edinburgh Agreement with the London government, committing both administrations to the idea of straight Yes-No question in the autumn of 2014.
The result, three months on from that signing ceremony, is obvious: Scottish voters, in the depth of a frightening economic recession, are caught between an upbeat but vague Yes campaign which is failing to shift opinion, as the proportion of Scots planning to vote for independence slides to a post-devolution low of 23 per cent; and a No campaign so reactionary and negative that while its scare-mongering is likely to be effective, its long-term consequences – both political and psychological – can only be disempowering, and deeply damaging.
And increasingly, it seems as though the most likely outcome, 20 months from now, will be a referendum with an embarrassingly low turnout, as Scots turn away in droves from a vote which deliberately asks them the wrong question, and denies them their preferred political option. As the wiser old heads of Scottish politics said when the devolved parliament was first elected in 1999, devolution is not an event, but a process. The next step in the process should have been more powers in areas such as pensions and welfare, and real fiscal responsibility for taxes raised in Scotland; but our politicians have conspired to keep that option off the 2014 ballot paper, condemning us, in all likelihood, to a massive No vote, followed by at least a decade of stagnation.
So who, in this lamentable situation, will really speak up for ordinary people living in Scotland, and for their right to move forward, at their own pace, to a greater measure of home rule? For what it’s worth, I think that the First Minister did his best, in striving to keep an enhanced devolution option on the referendum table; he is an SNP strategist to his fingertips, but he also cares enough for Scotland to want to avoid the inevitable damage and depression of a huge referendum No vote, backed by no progressive alternative.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats, of course, will say that we should leave it to them; that we can trust Labour to win the next Westminster election, and both parties to support immediate legislation for a new devo-plus settlement, in the next Westminster parliament after 2015. Today in Edinburgh, representatives of both parties will line up in support, at the launch of the Institution of Public Policy Research’s (IPPR) new ehanced devolution plan; they will say that if Scotland votes No, it will really be voting Yes, to what the IPPR calls devo-more”.
What I wonder, though, is exactly where the political pressure to implement such a plan will be coming from, in the years after autumn 2014.
The SNP is not a devolution party, and can hardly be expected to campaign for it. Scottish civil society, in the aftermath of the referendum, will be too bitterly divided to achieve anything much, for some years; and if the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties really cared for a devo-more solution as anything more than a scam to defeat Salmond, they would obviously have seized the chance, last year, to get it on to the referendum ballot paper, while that option was still open.
Now, though, the Edinburgh Agreement is signed, the statutory instrument is proceeding through the Westminster parliament, and the destructive mill-wheels of the Yes-No referendum grind on, reducing plans like the IPPR scheme – which would once have been useful contributions to the debate, and may be so again – to mere pawns on the Unionist side of the game.
They say that all political careers end in failure. It will, though, be a peculiarly sharp tragic irony if Alex Salmond’s great election victory of 2011 – so complete, and so unexpected – has the unintended consequence of leaving the country to which he has dedicated his political life more divided, more demoralised, and more sunk in self-doubt than at any time in the past generation; time, perhaps, for an evening of whisky and poetry, and for some creative lateral thinking about how Scotland can escape this trap, before it is too late.