Brian Wilson: Don’t walk into Sturgeon’s parlour

Yes, the referendum is above party politics, but promising non-SNP voters all they wish for won’t wash, writes Brian Wilson

Nicola Sturgeon is pulling out all the stops to get non-Nationalist voters onside. Picture: PA
Nicola Sturgeon is pulling out all the stops to get non-Nationalist voters onside. Picture: PA

I couldn’t help thinking of the spider and the fly when I read about Nicola Sturgeon’s plea to Labour and Tory voters to vote Nationalist in the referendum, apparently on the grounds that they could both have what they want.

Her lofty message that the referendum is “above party politics” and that Labour and Tory voters are welcome within her big tent was somewhat at odds with the usual sneers at Labour for co-operating with the wicked Tories on the single issue of the referendum. Big tartan tents are apparently different.

She is, of course, right in her new pronouncement. It is in the nature of any referendum that people whose views differ on every other matter will coalesce around each of the available answers from very different directions. That is common sense and it is childish for the Nationalists, according to their more familiar script, to pretend otherwise.

What really is insidious is not a temporary coalition but when “Right” and “Left” subsume their differences on all matters in order to form a permanent movement on the basis of identity. That is called nationalism and it is never a progressive force because the only radical cause which it can ever unite around is the constitution itself.

The rationale for Ms Sturgeon’s plea was pretty crude. There were enough SNP voters in the last two Scottish elections to secure victory. But a high proportion of them voted that way for reasons that had little or nothing to do with independence. Around 40 per cent of those who voted SNP are a lot less keen on independence.

By the same token, the vast majority of people who did not vote Nationalist were motivated by issues other than the constitution. The golden prize for Ms Sturgeon and her colleagues is to persuade a decent proportion of them that they can have what they want in social and economic terms while also converting to the Nationalist cause for the purposes of the referendum. That is the snare and the intended delusion.

“I cannot understand,” purred the spider, “why Labour voters would prefer a Tory Prime Minister in London to a Labour Prime Minister in Edinburgh.” That is a statement so laden with disingenuity that it is worthy of closer analysis.

For starters, it is not within Ms Sturgeon’s gift to offer a “Labour Prime Minister in Edinburgh”. Indeed, it is an absolute certainty that she would strain every sinew in her being to prevent such an outcome and I have absolutely no doubt that she and her fellow Nationalists would succeed.

After all, Ms Sturgeon would still (unless she wishes to tell us differently) be within the high command – perhaps at the very apex – of the SNP, which has offered no indication of intending to fold its big tartan tent and hand over the spoils of victory. Why would it? On the contrary, it has published most of its first manifesto in the form of a white paper.

The reality is much more straightforward. If Scotland votes Nationalist in a referendum then that is exactly what it will get – Nationalism. For the foreseeable future, the place would be run by our very own soldiers of destiny. The coalition that had carried them to power would be maintained. And the poor flies who had been drawn into the delusion of changing politics by creating a border would be left muttering into their beer.

But while the “Labour Prime Minister in Edinburgh” is offered only as a mirage, the “Tory Prime Minister in Westminster” could rest secure. The net result of independence would be to finally neuter progressive politics in Scotland while consigning any such concept to permanent opposition in the rest of the United Kingdom. A centre-right Scotland, united behind Nationalist rhetoric and highly dependent on its permanently right-wing neighbour, is the much more likely outcome than the one offered by the spider, so beware.

The contrary claim as far as Scotland is concerned rests solely on the assertion that, left to our own devices, our suppressed socialism, egalitarianism, innate sense of social justice and all round moral superiority would assert themselves and translate into the kind of government that Scotland (supposedly) really wants, embodying all these virtues.

There are several flaws in that argument. The first is the record of the SNP in government. Any redistributionism that has taken place has been towards the better-off through a procession of “universal” subsidies that do not bring an iota of benefit to the 30 per cent or so of the population who would not be paying for these things anyway. This may be pragmatic, centre-right politics – populist but certainly not progressive.

It is probably true that Scotland would be spared the venal stupidity of measures like the poll tax and the bedroom tax, though it would have plenty more of the regressive impacts that are already happening through the salami-slicing of local authority budgets and other cuts which the SNP thinks it can distance itself from. It is not Westminster that is causing Tayside Health Board to feed its patients on £1.69 a day.

Politics would still be about priorities. And the priority of the Nationalists in an independent Scotland would be to maintain their core voter base, which most certainly does not come from the people who need or want Labour governments – and who are currently losing out at the hands of both Holyrood and Westminster.

And in order to secure this unpromising political future, what do we surrender? “Tory governments at Westminster”, comes the cat-call in return. But of course, that is only a part of the answer, for the pendulum invariably swings and, over the span of time, progress is made; great, popular reforms that cannot be undone. And they are reforms which cover the whole of the United Kingdom (including the million Scots who live outside of Scotland).

What Scotland decides will affect the politics of this whole island. In voting for independence, Scots who actually do subscribe to those humane, progressive values they talk so much about would also be turning their backs on the people of Newcastle and Manchester, Corby and Cardiff with the same outlook, values and shared history of struggle. That is what nationalism incites us to.

I hope that gives Nicola Sturgeon a satisfactory answer to her question. But I doubt if she will be interested. The spider knows exactly the game she is up to, but her prey will not be as naive as she intends.