Brian Monteith: Another referendum looms – just so the SNP keep power

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Nicola Sturgeon will instigate another divisive vote for good or ill, all to keep her party in government, writes Brian Monteith.

For those that have not read my columns before, let me state what to others is obvious. I am a unionist with a lower case “u”.

First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon and Deputy First Minister John Swinney. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon and Deputy First Minister John Swinney. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

By that I mean I am not committed to any one unionist party and am willing to give non-unionist parties a fair hearing if they apply liberal, low tax, small government policies in Scotland, because I believe these are what will most likely deliver as harmonious and prosperous a Scotland for the vast majority of its people as is practicably possible.

Nor do I support unionism because I think an independent Scotland could not succeed; one just has to look at other smaller countries to see that if Denmark or Norway can do well then surely so could Scotland – if it lived within its means.

No, I am unionist because I am at home with being Scottish and British. It was in my mother’s milk that I suckled on; it was in my rearing through infancy and schooldays and my travelling around the UK as a youth and then an undergraduate. I have rejoiced in our rich and diverse cultural history during my British holidays, just as I enjoy the internal home nations’ rivalries or competition between Scotland’s cities or the Highlands and Lowlands. I can see the good in them and the faults in them, but I do see and feel a tangible unifying oneness, a bond that I cannot let go of.

So when I see the bitter divisions that came out of the first independence referendum – the splitting of families, the loss of friends and the rising tide of implied or discreet threats, sometimes with genuine menace – then I fear what another independence referendum could do to our country.

At the age of 60 this year, I do not think the psychological wounds of 2014 will be healed before I leave this Earth – were there to be a second referendum then I have absolutely no doubt it will be ugly and the scarring divisions that much greater. Yet I have to tell you I also believe there will be another and it will not be pretty, and whatever the outcome it will need real leadership to bring about a healing. Sadly, there are few leaders of any humility or calibre that I think could achieve such a highly desirable role.

I believe there will be another independence referendum because all the signs point to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wishing and now needing it to be so, and for good or ill she will instigate it.

The original SNP strategy was that if, when in government, it could show a SNP-run Scotland was no worse or maybe even slightly better than the Labour-Liberal Democrat administrations before, then independence might not seem such an undesirable leap. On many issues this meant the SNP actually did very little it promised; for instance, the council tax was not abolished in favour of a local income tax, nor were students loans written off.

When in 2011 the SNP won its overall majority it still did not seek to frighten the horses for fear of losing potential supporters for independence. Other than centralising institutions (under the mistaken guise of saving money), public service reform was studiously avoided. Scotland was in stasis while the independence White Paper, Scotland’s Future, was published, and following the 55-45 defeat no ­serious public service reform has followed.

The SNP is essentially averse to challenging the vested interests in health and education, for to do so must force some people to be against them when they need to build a coalition for Yes (or more likely “Leave”) the second time round.

After 11 years of SNP government we are therefore at a point where, under its watch, education is much worse with falling numeracy and literacy and collapsing international rankings expose the truth of this; the Scottish NHS too is failing with the worst cancer treatment times in history and four health boards now requiring emergency loans totalling over £70 million just to get by; meanwhile the iconic Queensferry Crossing yet again requires further remedial work that will disrupt traffic all summer and our public roads now have more craters than the surface of the Moon.

These are just some examples, for when you turn over any Scottish Government stone the problems come crawling out like clipshears and wood lice.

Last week Sturgeon had a shambolic ministerial reshuffle that was bad on two counts. Firstly, she appointed a narcissist tweeter with a criminal conviction as Justice Secretary, when the role requires a solemn and judicious politician with a character, like Caesar’s wife, that is beyond suspicion.

Secondly she not only retained her financial secretary, Derek Mackay, who has presided over a growing black hole that no quantum physicist can explain, she actually added to his brief. Ultimately this void will swallow up her government.

Then she retained her Education Secretary, John Swinney, when by the evidence of his own inactions he has utterly failed to deliver the necessary reforms for what is claimed to be her “number one priority” of schooling.

That was before the wheels came of the reshuffle tea trolley with the withdrawal of Gillian Martin as education minister.

The strategy for a second independence referendum was originally to use any and every grievance with Westminster – and where none existed, to create some – so momentum for a referendum could then be held. That is clearly not working. Nor by 20,000 leagues is the original model of demonstrating competence.

All that is now left is for Sturgeon to take us into a second referendum – with or without Westminster’s necessary legal consent – so she can polarise the country and thus galvanise personal support to have any chance of the SNP remaining the largest party after the next Holyrood elections in 2021.

Glorious victory – or more likely, glorious defeat whatever the cost to Scotland – is worth it if it means remaining in control of government. No longer is a second referendum about winning independence, it is about retaining power. Scotland will be thrown to the wolves to whip up division so in the aftermath disappointed supporters will flock to the SNP.

Sturgeon cares not for the country’s harmony, prosperity or public services – she cares only for the SNP being in position to have a third tilt at independence.

Such is the sorry state of our nation. I hope and pray I am wrong.

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org