Kenny Farquharson: At crisis point for St Andrew’s Day

HOW will you be marking St Andrew’s Day this week? (It’s this Wednesday, the 30th of November. Did they teach you nothing at school?) I haven’t yet made up my mind.

Do something suitably Scottish, I expect. Watch a DVD of Gary: Tank Commander, maybe. Or eat some of Tom Kitchin’s posh stovies, from the recipe we ran in this newspaper last weekend, and which took me half of Monday to make. (My Edinburgh butcher has a disparaging term for the “beef blade” required in the recipe – he calls it “Glasgow fillet”.) Alternatively, I may just take a moment, stare out of the window at the rain, and mournfully lament the godawful state of Scottish politics.

I’m not the moaning type, normally. As the song has it, I’m Mr Brightside. We live in a beautiful country fizzing with creativity and potential. But it is pretty damn hard to be positive at the moment, given the misalignment between the ambitions of most Scots and the actions of the political class elected to represent them. It doesn’t help when the only movements discernible in the stasis are missteps, like the SNP’s anti-sectarianism legislation.

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This is increasingly looking like the worst law in the 12-year history of devolution, as well as an appalling political misjudgment by the normally astute Alex Salmond. I’m still unclear, having heard two entirely different explanations from Roseanna Cunningham, the minister responsible, whether the singing of the national anthems of the UK or Ireland can ever be a criminal act. The same with demonstrations of religious belief such as making the sign of the cross. Forget Tony Blair’s over-reaction to the “war on terror”, this law is as close to the dystopian concept of thought crime and arbitrary legal power as these islands have seen since Brian Faulkner introduced internment to Northern Ireland in 1971.

Don’t take my word for it, ask SNP supporters with a thorough knowledge of the law. One of the most intelligent and persuasive advocates of the SNP cause in the run-up to the last election was Andrew Tickell, a lawyer who goes by the curious nom-de-blog of Lallands Peat Worrier. This is his verdict this weekend on the Salmond administration: “As a Nationalist, as someone who campaigned for a Nationalist government, I’m astonishingly depressed. After May’s triumph, we’ve had incompetence, bungling, a bitter, melancholic atmosphere apt to convince no one of the virtues of independence. The SNP have presided over a political period which has been by turns despairing, girning, partisan, vacuous and dreary. What a squandering of possibilities; what a waste; what folly.”

It is hard to escape the depressing conclusion that the SNP is better at politics than it is at policy. Meanwhile, social work services are cut to the bone, we’re employing more than 700 fewer NHS nurses and midwives, and Scotland’s train network is deliberately being made less efficient and more expensive. All the while the richest people in Scotland get four more years of a generous tax break due to the indiscriminate nature of the council tax freeze. True, the SNP’s crusade on alcohol shows some smeddum (although, again, with little sureness of touch). But with untrammelled political power, isn’t it time the First Minister showed even the slightest interest in tackling some of Scotland’s other chronic ills, such as poverty, illiteracy or welfare dependency?

The other parties are even worse. Unionist MPs display breathtaking arrogance and recklessness by suggesting Westminster should hijack the SNP’s independence referendum, blithely ignoring the Nats’ clear democratic mandate. This power grab is currently the most stupid idea in Scottish politics. A close second is Ruth Davidson’s apparent decision that the Scottish Tories, rescued from Murdo Fraser’s resurrectionist masterplan, should die in the ditch for the constitutional status quo.

Which brings us to perhaps the most depressing aspect of Scottish politics as we head for St Andrew’s Day 2011 – the failure of the political parties to accurately reflect the range of public opinion on Scotland’s future. The chances of the referendum being a true test of public opinion on all the relevant options looks, frankly, slim. As things stand it is far more likely to be a simple test of whether or not we want independence. What is entirely missing from the political landscape at the moment is any route to allowing Scots to choose what has been their consistent preference for many years – a far more powerful and autonomous Scottish Parliament, within the United Kingdom.

Call it Devo Max, call it Asymmetric Federalism, call it Devo Plus – call it anything you like, but for the referendum to be capable of delivering what most Scots want is going to require more imagination, bravery and leadership than is currently on show. The Scottish Labour leadership contenders are incapable of anything more than platitudes and seem to be in denial about the all-consuming nature of the referendum campaign ahead, and its risks for a Labour revival. There is, admittedly some glimmer of sense in the growing number of senior Labour figures – Douglas Alexander, Henry McLeish, Malcolm Chisholm – acknowledging the need for the party to get behind some form of Devo Plus. But as things stand, I am frankly sceptical about Labour ever getting its act together.

Could a new constitutional convention be the key, providing the necessary political cover for radical change? Yes, most certainly. That is what this moment requires. But where is the leadership and vision that would deliver such a thing? I hope I’m wrong, but I see little prospect. Have a happy St Andrew’s Day when it comes. Me? I’m off to greet into my stovies.