Brian Monteith: Unionists falling into SNP trap

Members of the public take part in a pro-independence march in Glasgow from Kelvingrove Oark to Glasgow Green. Picture: PA
Members of the public take part in a pro-independence march in Glasgow from Kelvingrove Oark to Glasgow Green. Picture: PA
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KEEPING the focus on another referendum helps Sturgeon avoid awkward questions about real political policies, writes Brian Monteith

As we approach the first anniversary of what was meant to be a “once in a generation”, or even a “once in a lifetime” opportunity for the Scottish electorate to break with the United Kingdom, the rank amateurism of Unionist politicians for feeding the issue with oxygen is beyond compare.

Nothing suits the Nationalists better than the Prime Minister or his sole Conservative MP, David Mundell, probing their views on holding a second referendum or worse, saying it will not be allowed. This plays right into the hands of the SNP government which, for very good reasons, does not wish to talk about its performance as the countdown begins for the next year’s Holyrood. It gives Nicola Sturgeon the opportunity to immediately go on the warpath about Scots not being told by others (especially English politicians) what they can and cannot decide for themselves.

The elephant trap goes something like this: an SNP politician of any rank floats the idea of a second referendum in a leaflet, or the former First Minister Alex Salmond claims a second referendum is inevitable, and immediately the Unionists, but the Conservatives in particular, provide retorts to the effect that the SNP should come clean and announce its intentions – or that legal process to allow a referendum will be denied at Westminster.

The Conservatives think this is a strong hand, believing that a SNP commitment to a second referendum will reduce its support, but they are mistaken for two reasons. Firstly the SNP can announce new plans for a second referendum at any point in the campaign, it can leave the manifesto vague and wait until well into the campaign when it still has time to gauge the public’s response through polling and private focus groups. It should be remembered that the commitment to the first referendum was made by Alex Salmond in a radio interview and there is no reason why Nicola Sturgeon cannot repeat such a manoeuvre again.

Secondly, the prospect of a referendum does not necessarily eliminate support for the SNP amongst Unionists, for such voters can calculate for themselves that, when it comes to any in/out vote, they can always choose to stay in the United Kingdom. In the 1997 devolution referendum, Tony Blair provided a second vote on taxation – knowing it would allow people to vote for his party then decide on the specific issue later.

Talk of a second referendum deflects attention from the SNP’s record and helpfully excuses Nationalists politicians on the economy, education, health, justice and housing. Hence, the SNP will seek to repeat ad nauseam all this talk about process rather than performance – even up until election day. Already it is debating openly if it will help or hinder independence being realised. No doubt this will move on to all sorts of semantics about the wording of the question, whether or not the franchise should be limited to only Scots (non-nationals apparently voted for the UK) and no doubt Unionists will be drawn into the false debate. Where are the SNP policy conferences on literacy or police accountability?

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies” said Groucho Marx and in every line he had a point. The SNP seeks to find trouble in process which, because it can be blamed on others elsewhere, rather than its ministers in government or ourselves for electing them, is attractive to people who don’t want to accept responsibility and would rather have future generations pay for our services.

That gullible Tories fall for the ploy is a problem for all Unionists, but it is also an indictment of the Scottish electorate that it does not appear willing to hold the SNP to account for an appalling deterioration in services, but instead is willing to reward it.

Can we really lay claim to being a mature electorate when we cannot tell the difference between process and performance, and if we can separate it we then choose to elevate process ahead of performance to the cost of the weak, the poor and disadvantaged in society who rely more than anyone on the safety nets provided by public services?

In Scotland, constitutional debate persistently trumps everything; a second referendum is mentioned and immediately the cries of yes, no or maybe eat up column inches and airtime. Headlines are filled with arguments about process when we should be asking: is our police force better than it was eight years ago? Are our schools and our hospitals better than eight years ago?

Our centralised state police has in quick order become detached from local accountability and witnessed a collapse in public confidence over issues such as housebreaking clear-up rates, routine deployment of armed police, data protection, stop and search, and responsiveness. All of this has happened under the SNP’s watch, a direct consequence of a forced merger that was predicated on misplaced bean-counting efficiency gains.

What then are the SNP government’s proposals to right these wrongs and restore local accountability that recognises different local needs? While it seeks to encourage talk about the processes of securing independence, the Chief Constable has free reign, courts are being closed down and the justice system shows signs of breaking under the growing strains. Much of the same goes for educational attainment, numeracy, literacy, waiting times and clinical outcomes.

Failing to accept responsibility is an immature behaviour, failing to focus on our failed and failing public services – and indeed the failed diagnosis and wrong remedies – is part of that immaturity. We need to return to discussing how we improve our police, schools, hospitals and housing with the powers we have rather than fixating about constitutional powers that we don’t have and – unforgivably – don’t even use when Holyrood is given them.

Claiming that more could be done if only Holyrood was stronger has its place, but that place should have diminished as the powers grew. Instead we, the electorate, at the behest of the cunning Nationalists and dopey Unionists, have allowed ourselves to lose sight of what is possible and the ability to seek accountability from those politicians who fail to meet our aspirations. It is time for us, politically, to grow up as a nation.