Ever since I woke up bleary-eyed on the morning of 24 June to find 52 per cent of the UK had voted to leave the EU (but 62 per cent of Scots had voted to remain), I have backed another Independence referendum. A last-minute Yes voter in 2014, I wrote that, given a second chance, I’d tick the same box with greater zeal, because I wanted no part in a Union where migrants were stigmatised and used as bargaining chips.
Nine months on, my position hasn’t shifted much. Perhaps, now the heat has gone out of my anger, I worry more about how the inevitable economic upheaval would impact on my children’s lives. But post-Brexit, the short-term future’s going to be challenging whatever constitutional path we follow. It is true the Leave bounce didn’t last, and the polls suggest there’s still a significant risk of defeat. But I crave a definitive decision and – Yes or No – another referendum would settle the issue for the foreseeable future.
I can see, too, that Nicola Sturgeon had little choice but to seek approval for indyref2 (or #ScotRef, as some would prefer it to become known). A majority of Scots voted Remain, and that majority was consistent throughout every local authority area. At the time of the 2014 independence referendum, we were told a No vote would keep us in the EU. So Brexit represents the “significant and material” change required to give the SNP a mandate for a re-run. In addition, Theresa May’s intransigence – her refusal to recognise Scotland’s position, or countenance a special deal for devolved nations, made it impossible not to act. However high the personal stakes, Sturgeon couldn’t have stood impassively by as a Tory government dragged us into a hard and damaging Brexit.
To summarise then, I still want a second referendum. Indeed, during Sturgeon’s press conference at Bute House on Monday, I felt a tingle of excitement as it became clear this wasn’t merely another spot of grandstanding; it was, at last, “Game On”. So why, now, do I feel so deflated? I think I’d forgotten just how all-consuming the conversation around the indyref could be. Just days after the announcement, we are already drowning in it: the faux outrage, the tit-for-tat abuse, the clamour of pundits on the make, the endless circular arguments, the suspicion that a bomb could go off and we’d all still be arguing the semantics of a joke made by Kezia Dugdale.
We have, at least, moved on from October 2012, when the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement kick-started the first campaign, and the discussion was dominated by spurious clashes over English “colonists” and a social audit of the arts. That nasty blood and soil chat has all but disappeared, and the Yes side has embraced a more inclusive nationalism, where Scottish identity is a matter of choice as opposed to a birthright. Sadly, the divisive “my side is nicer than your side” smugness and the media conspiracy zoomer-dom, is still very much in evidence.
Ideally, I’d like to skip the phoney war and fast forward to the last three months when momentum has gathered, ideas have crystallised and the stakes are at their highest. Sure, there are issues – borders, currency, timing and the chances of a smooth EU accession – which need to be thrashed out in advance. We do not want to go into a second indyref under-prepared. And developments such as May’s rejection of a vote until after Brexit (in defiance of the Scottish Parliament’s backing) require proper analysis, even if they are just political brinkmanship.
But, the prospect of two more years of constitutional wrangling, of nebulous arguments over hypotheticals, of wandering off down political dead ends, while urgent domestic problems – such as poverty, declining educational standards and the crisis in the NHS – are pushed further down the agenda, nonetheless fills me with dread.
We are, let’s face it, still dealing with the impact of the last indyref hiatus (which some would argue has never properly ended). The problems with the Curriculum for Excellence, with social care, with maternity services, might all have been pre-empted if the party (and the opposition parties and the press) hadn’t been preoccupied elsewhere.
Education is supposed to be the SNP’s top priority, yet a recently published school league table suggests the attainment gap is as wide as ever. Scotland has dropped in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) world rankings for maths, English and science, and teacher numbers have declined so dramatically that last week a secondary school in education secretary John Swinney’s Perthshire North constituency asked parents with a knowledge of maths to come in and help out.
Plans are under way to address some of these concerns. Last month, for example, Swinney announced £3m to train 371 new teachers. Yet you can’t help but fear that this and other measures might be crushed under the wheels of the indyref bandwagon.
I am not making a plea for the SNP to ditch its monomania and “get back to the day job”, à la Ruth Davidson. It wasn’t Sturgeon that placed the constitution back at the centre of British politics, it was David Cameron and his ill-judged attempt to buy off the right wing of his party. In any case, far from being an unnecessary distraction, the question of whether or not we break away from the rest of the UK, is central to the way we tackle our most intractable problems. How much more could we do to address deprivation and ill health if we were in charge of our own destiny (always supposing a post-indy government was willing to grasp the thistle, and use its sovereign powers to make radical decisions on benefits and taxes)?
No, this is merely a plea to pace ourselves because we are in for another long haul. This time round, let’s keep the indyref arguments in perspective and remember that – crucial though any vote on self-determination will be – there’s serious governing (and scrutinising of that governance) to be done in the interim.