Last Thursday’s general election confirmed the political mortality of the SNP and a shift in Scottish politics, writes Brian Wilson.
It was business as usual this week for Nicola Sturgeon. There she was as bold as brass, wherever a camera could be located, instructing all and sundry on what was to be done and how directions must be changed.
The sole exemption from these stictures was, of course, herself. Asked about her plans for indyref2 in the light of the general election outcome, Sturgeon retreated into doubt. She would take “time to reflect” and consult within her own party. There was to be no “knee-jerk response”, which confirms that she really doesn’t do irony.
Whereas “the reckless Tory pursuit of a hard Brexit” (pejorative term) was to be abandoned, her own fateful pursuit of a second independence referendum (undisputed fact) was still to be pondered over, regardless of what the Scottish electorate might have said.
Well, Sturgeon can posture by day, ponder by night and reflect at weekends but the outcome will still be the same. There will be no second independence referendum within the next five years at a minimum and it is time for the rest of Scottish society to breathe a sigh of relief and move on accordingly.
The political balance within Scotland has changed and, in the weeks and months ahead, it will become very clear who is working for Scottish interests in the Brexit negotiations and who is playing games in pursuit of another objective. That is a test which the SNP are bound to fail unless they renounce a second referendum. As last Thursday confirmed, they will now pay a price for such manoeuvres.
Whatever its other ramifications, last Thursday was liberation day for the great majority of Scots who are fed up with constant wrangling about Scotland’s constitutional status. The more Sturgeon tries to deny that reality, the less tolerance will be extended by all who see urgent, neglected needs around them.
At present, this seems to be the view of more than 60 per cent of Scottish voters. Since Sturgeon’s original premise was that there would be no case for a second referendum without evidence of sustained support for independence – never mind a referendum - from 60 per cent of the electorate, it really is difficult to see what she has to reflect on, other than her own dignity.
Another message from last Thursday’s election, which only requires an electoral map to demonstrate it, is that the myth of Scotland being a single political entity is dead in the water. Great areas of the country struck back not only against another referendum but also the treatment of their own local and regional priorities.
The fact there are again strong regional voices within Scotland, not subservient to a single party line, can only be a force for good. For the time being, there is a Tory government and the new group of Scottish Tory MPs will be judged by the influence they can exert on behalf of regional and sectoral interests. They stand a lot better chance than those who preceded them and who could offer only noise and bluster.
For the past decade, the Nationalists have worked tirelessly to centralise power and resources in Edinburgh with scant regard for local democracy or the diversity which exists within Scotland. The twin objectives have been to bring everything as close to centralised Ministerial control as possible and to add the word “Scotland” to the names of every organisation in order to emphasise the monolith.
For the SNP, as one of its gurus put it, “Scotland is our localism” but that approach can no longer be sustained. With far more diverse voices representing Scotland, each and every centralising measure should be exposed and resisted. The dysfunctional Scottish Police Authority is a usefully-timed example of what happens when local democracy gives way to hand-picked Ministerial appointees.
There are still plans on the table for an absurd super-quango which the SNP are persisting with despite opposition from all its component parts. This would bring everything from the economic development of fragile Highland communities to the funding of universities under one “over-arching board”, subservient to ministerial wishes. It should be killed off without delay. Scotland needs strong voices independent of government and now is the time to say so. Another area in which last Thursday should lead to soul-searching is the Scottish civil service. Over the past decade, it has been relentlessly politicised and those leading it have failed to stand up for its neutrality. Infamously, subservience reached its lowest point with the pre-referendum White Paper, a farrago of politically-motivated claims and assertions which should never have been legitimised with the civil service stamp.
To less obvious degree, the same kind of abuses persist. The breaches of “purdah” before the local council elections were blatant cases of the politicians over-ruling the civil servants. Recent challenges to the Scottish Government’s contemptuous treatment of freedom of information legislation, when concealment suits their purpose, confirms that Ministers and their apparatchiks still regard themselves as masters of the rules rather than their servants.
This behaviour has become endemic largely because of the belief that the SNP were so firmly entrenched they were likely to be there for ever. As last Thursday confirmed, that is no longer the case. Their political mortality has been demonstrated and the change in political climate should gently blow its way through all Scotland’s corridors of power.
Nicola Sturgeon’s reluctance to back down on indyref2 is the mirror image of all of this. Without that prospect to focus upon, they are reduced to the level of normal politicians, obliged to concentrate upon day-to-day running of the matters for which they are responsible, and being judged accordingly. That is not a prospect which the Nationalists relish.
It is only the threat of constitutional upheaval that keeps them in the headlines and their troops motivated. They are not very interested in anything else or, more pertinently, much good at it. Being judged on their record at Holyrood is unlikely to be a more attractive prospect in four years time than it is now and the electorate – having found its voice – will not hesitate to tell them so. Ms Sturgeon’s reflections are unlikely to resolve that dilemma so in the meantime, she will just keep talking.