So here we are in 2017 with many of us using the excesses of the festive holidays, the all too brief recuperation left available and the shock of a new year commencing this week, as inspiration for resolutions to better ourselves. We might set out to achieve new goals, list a few personal prohibitions and wish for certain outcomes from anticipated events.
For instance, I would love to see next year be the year when, for once, local issues really counted in the council elections. Is it too much to ask that the electorate votes on matters that councillors can make a difference on, be it local schools, housing, roads and planning? More likely is that yet again the council elections will be lost in a barrage of claim and counter-claim over the bigger political issues of Scottish independence and Brexit. This happens because opposition parties seek to use local council elections as a political weather vane to register discontent with national governments rather than encourage genuine debate that might expose them as being little different from those in power.
This situation will prevail until the day comes when local and central government responsibilities and the funding required is recalibrated so that councillors can do things differently from what central government decrees. Without such reform that brings greater electoral accountability voters have little reason to punish or reward local candidates and so look to who really cracks the whip at Holyrood or, absurdly, Westminster.
Thus, no matter how poorly the Edinburgh trams operate (only 25 per cent capacity I notice) the plethora of potholes or the embarrassingly filthy state of the city, voters will probably vote for more of the same, especially as change would only come if the Conservatives were to become partners in a new administration. No matter how well the Scottish Conservatives are doing their biggest challenge is not winning votes but finding another political party that will get into bed with them. This depressingly bigoted state of affairs will be replicated across the country, explaining why the intrusion of party politics into local government has resulted only in making it more tribal and partisan.
What then of the national politics that shall no doubt influence the local council elections?
Nationalists face the double difficulty that firstly, while the public services go from bad to worse under their management – something that is now beyond contention – the more they centralise decision-making and responsibility the more the blame for failure must and shall be laid at their door.
Secondly, they face the hurdle of convincing the Scottish people that it is worth paying the heavy price of leaving the British Union to try and remain in the European Union – an outcome for which the EU membership terms are even less clear than those for the UK’s Brexit.
The growing British Union is four times more important economically and has been devolving power away from the centre towards Scotland, while the European Union’s stagnating economy teeters on a debt-ridden precipice that it could tumble over at any time and has been centralising power for the last 40 years and continues travelling down that road.
It would, however, be foolish to believe the SNP is doomed to fail.
The Nationalists’ leadership – dazzled by the prospect that having reaching the political heights of requiring only a five-and-a-half point swing to achieve independence – believe they will never have a better chance of landing their holy grail. The SNP leadership are therefore heavily attracted to taking the risk of gambling everything so long as it can find a scintilla of pretext to provide moral outrage that foments hurt pride and discontent. The rational case for independence can, after all, always be confected later.
So what do I think 2017 will bring?
It must bring a debate over the relative merits of the British and European unions and which is the most important to Scotland. No matter the best intentions of the local politicians and some of the local media this debate shall overshadow the council elections and either establish or deny the SNP the springboard for a second independence referendum.
Despite the economic realities between the two unions the outcome remains uncertain. One thing that must happen is that those unionists who campaigned for EU membership must choose to defend the British Union or, alternatively, advocate nationalism and independence. There will be no room for ambiguity. Ruth Davidson has already worked this out, but Kezia Dugdale and Willie Rennie are still making that journey.
For, if Unionists cannot respect the result of the EU referendum why should the SNP respect the result of the independence referendum?
On this matter of respect our First Minister demands that the Scottish vote for the UK to stay in the European Union should be respected, but this is disingenuous double think and reveals a short-term memory problem. It was patently clear before the 2014 Scottish referendum that there could be an EU membership referendum and that this would be an issue for the UK to decide, as the member state, and that Scotland could have no separate position. David Cameron had promised a referendum on EU membership as far back as January 2013 – 18 months before the Scottish independence referendum – while his party published a Referendum Bill in June 2013.
If there is a need for respect it is for the First Minister to recognise the Scottish people voted to remain in the British Union and could decide about the European Union later.
Theresa May can indeed show greater respect for the Scottish people by not denying a second independence referendum but declaring it cannot be held until the terms of the UK’s Brexit are known – and possibly even later, until the terms of any Scottish EU membership are known too – on the rational and disarming pretext that the Scottish people must have the full facts of the choice between the two unions before them.
After both referenda the complaint has gone up (mostly from the losers) that the facts were not clear. Who then could refuse the benefit of the people knowing exactly what they would be voting upon if there were a further referendum?
In 2017, as in every year, Nationalists and Unionists should be careful what they wish for.
l Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain