Nicola will be flying high on her giant independence albatross as she sets scene for IndyRef 2

I climbed on the back of a giant albatross, which flew through a crack in the cloud, to a place where happiness reigned all year round, where music played ever so loudly ...

No, not a sneak preview of the “scene setter” of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s vision for an independent Scotland expected to be published next week, but the dreamy lines from Traffic’s 1967 hit Hole in My Shoe, which might not be far off the mark when describing a document likely to be short on detail and long on sound-bites; all the greener, fairer, healthier, and happier stuff from which few will demur.

Keeping with the 60’s pop theme, maybe there will be a bit of Hollies thrown in, to remind us the road to a brighter future will be long with many a winding turn, given the grim consequences of the spending review revealed by Finance Secretary Kate Forbes 10 days ago.

Since the spending announcement, there is still no clear understanding of how a severe programme of services cuts will provide a launchpad for some sort of independence campaign over the next 18 months, and the repercussions of the 5% increase agreed with the train drivers this week will only make balancing the public books even tougher.

The ink was barely dry on the settlement between ASLEF and publicly owned Scotrail when the public services union Unison launched a strike ballot of 25,000 waste workers and school staff over pay, with the aim of keeping schools closed after the summer holiday. The Educational Institute of Scotland, representing the vast majority of Scottish teachers, is already threatening strike action after rejecting a two per cent offer in pursuit of a ten per cent increase, and the ASLEF deal now sets the bar for all public sector pay settlements, but for which the employers will not have budgeted. The impact of the planned £1bn reduction to public services budgets will therefore only be the half of it.

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When the First Minister unveils her vision thing next week, comparisons will inevitably be drawn between the drastic circumstances the Scottish Government now faces and a bright blue yonder if only Scotland wasn’t “held back” by Westminster. No doubt small EU countries like Denmark will be held up as the aspiration, as did the SNP’s 2018 Sustainable Growth Commission report, which was subtitled “the new case for optimism”. But even the most optimistic Nationalist would concede the world has changed dramatically in those four years, with economic conditions at their worst since the 1980s.

The road to prosperity “will be hard, but it will be worth it” pleaded the Growth Commission, but that road has become immeasurably harder, and in the light of the £250m spent on two ferry boats which have yet to sail, and the £150m it has cost to run a separate Census, its claim that establishing an entirely new nation would cost just £450m looks not just fanciful but risible. Who knows what other thin-air numbers the civil service team working on the new independence prospectus will produce for their £20m game of fantasy nation-building, but the 2018 paper is as out of date as the SNP’s Scotland’s Future manifesto for the 2014 referendum.

With its talk of albatrosses and happy places beyond the clouds, the lyrics of Hole in My Shoe by 70s rock band Traffic could perfectly sum up Nicola Sturgeon's "scene setter" on a second independence referendum, which is due next week. PIC: CC.

Ms Sturgeon gave remarkably tetchy responses to the pro-independence newspaper The National this week when asked about likelihood of a vote by the end of 2023, as she promised, and somewhat vague answers in the Scottish Parliament from both Kate Forbes and constitutional affairs secretary Angus Robertson on the same question do nothing to counter the impression that it’s all a very expensive smoke-and-mirrors trick to keep attention away from the mounting problems the SNP faces in handling the responsibilities it already shoulders. The furious, almost unhinged, response from transport minister Jenny Gilruth to a reasonable question about ministerial accountability as rail services deteriorated was another illustration of the pressure the Scottish Government is under from the domestic agenda.

Whatever yarns the independence scene setter may spin, the strongest card the First Minister can play to the undecided 10% is she isn’t Boris Johnson, and while chaos continues to reign in Downing Street her unchallenged authority stands in stark contrast, even if it’s not matched by her administration’s record of achievement. Closing the education gap “within a decade”, as promised in 2016 is no longer a commitment but a challenge, the number of people waiting more than two years for hospital treatment has risen 16-fold in a year to 10,613, and income tax receipts are less than expected despite Scotland now being the most heavily taxed part of the UK.

Whether Mr Johnson is a lame duck Prime Minister, as Ms Sturgeon said, remains to be seen, because with an 80-seat majority ─ probably 76 after the by-elections later this month ─ a programme of focussed, solid Conservative measures like cutting tax, VAT on fuel and business tariffs should all sail through Parliament, if that’s what he delivers. Not that he will get any credit from Ms Sturgeon, any more than the furlough scheme, vaccine programme and the arming of Ukraine buttered her parsnips, but when the personalities are removed it would make the brass-tacks case for separation that bit harder to make.

The odds remain that a combination of dreadful by-election results and the Commons Privileges Committee’s conclusions in October will be the end of Mr Johnson by Christmas ─ Ladbrokes is only offering 11/10 he’ll be gone this year ─ and if so Ms Sturgeon will be denied her bogeyman.

The volatility of the rest of the political and economic spectrum means next week’s paper won’t be more than rhetoric and while Ms Sturgeon may try and demonstrate what she believes is through the crack in the UK’s cloud from the back of her giant independence albatross, that just might be the start of the fall. And then all that she knew, the hole in her shoe, was letting in water.


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