Scottish independence: As Nicola Sturgeon hogs the headlines, unionists need to stop complaining and offer a better alternative vision for Scotland – John McLellan

Bristling they may be, but if senior SNP figures are honest with themselves they’ll recognise the shambolic handling of the Patrick Grady affair and the understandable outrage of the victim is no journalistic wheeze but a grave issue for the integrity of party management.

It certainly took some front for Constitutional Affairs Secretary Angus Robertson to bemoan people “throwing bricks while sitting in glass houses” when lobbing masonry at opponents is what the SNP does best, not least when an election campaign was built around First Minister Nicola Sturgeon not being Boris Johnson.

Similarly, it would be rich to blame the media for overshadowing the wafer thin “Why not Scotland?” paper, designed to signal the start of the march to another referendum, by reporting Ms Sturgeon’s admission that an independent Scotland re-joining the EU would mean border controls.

Mr Robertson was out again this week claiming the paper showed how Scotland could be better off when it did nothing of the sort, because the “how” was notable by its absence.

Pro-independence supporters may end up being disappointed despite Nicola Sturgeon's rhetoric (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

If, in the well-worn words of Oscar Wilde, there is nothing worse than being talked about than not being talked about, then SNP strategists should be content all is going to plan, to the extent that the tactic of publishing a series of papers ensures the attempt to deliver a second referendum of some sort will continue to dominate the domestic news agenda.

Next week Ms Sturgeon is expected to deliver more details of the “route map” to what is already being lampooned as the Pretendyref which, barring unforeseen news breaks, can be expected to lead Scottish news bulletins.

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With more to come in the months ahead, proper scrutiny will be accompanied by customary angry social media exchanges, but for better or worse it will be talked about and with the First Minister at the heart of the debate, as she was every day throughout the height of the pandemic on daily Covid press conferences BBC Scotland felt obliged to screen live.

Unionist politicians may complain about the amount of airtime devoted to what they will dismiss as stunts and empty rhetoric, but then what are they doing to give Scottish media an alternative narrative?

What is the unionist route map to a brighter future? What is the unionist plan to put Scottish economic growth on a par with small European countries?

Given the SNP plan now, by their own admission, involves a painful transition to cope with a fiscal deficit of anything up to £20 billion, a hard border with England (despite a fingers-in-ears attitude to the Northern Ireland Protocol from SNP president Michael Russell only yesterday), and the sacrifice of any monetary control, it shouldn’t be too hard to sell a positive unionist programme which doesn’t involve subjecting the economy to even more harm than it is undergoing now.

But what we have is a vacuum. To a degree it’s understandable given the impact of the pandemic, Brexit difficulties, the Ukraine war, the cost-of-living crisis and the resulting industrial unrest ─ not to mention the seemingly perpetual chaos in Number 10 ─ but that’s even more reason to get on the front foot.

If pestilence, war, spiralling prices and ruinous militancy make this the worst possible time to pursue the biggest political upheaval on mainland Britain for 300 years, and spending £20m in doing so, from its imposing new Queen Elizabeth House headquarters, the Scotland Office should be taking the initiative to offer a viable vision of a constructive way forward where all levels of government work together.

We know the answer to all questions raised by the SNP is independence, so the Scotland Office’s job should be to demonstrate what can be done without constitutional chaos, or indeed going down the rabbit hole of more devolution which was thoroughly explored by the 2013 Strathclyde Commission and the Smith Commission which followed it after the 2014 referendum.

Both processes have proved beyond all doubt that more devolution cannot satisfy the SNP, but while it has taken longer than expected, measures like the power to set income tax rates has forced the SNP to make choices to deal with the current crisis which it otherwise might have been able to dodge.

Despite divisive rhetoric, the framework is emerging. The Levelling Up programme has settled down after SNP “disrespecting devolution” accusations went nowhere, and Scottish councils are in the swing of direct applications for UK Government funding for capital projects.

The recent launch of the Scottish Council on Global Affairs to “provide informed, non-partisan debate on all areas of foreign and security policy that concern Scotland” was not an SNP stunt but a joint Scottish and UK Government initiative with Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities.

Last year’s Oxford Economics paper for Sir Tom Hunter’s foundation recommended initiatives which didn’t need constitutional tinkering, such as a more powerful Scottish National Investment Bank anchoring a new Scottish venture capital sector to accelerate growth, and to develop an industrial strategy around renewable energy and decarbonisation.

And as of this week, five Scottish ports are vying to become one of two new “green freeports” backed by both the Scottish and UK Governments. As all five have ambitions, the question is what can be done to give each the boost they need to compete, not just two.

The flip side is the determination of the Scottish Government to snub the transport connectivity review undertaken by Sir Peter Hendy, and the failure of SNP ministers to engage with the UK Government on what could be transformational plans to link Scottish islands to the mainland by tunnel.

All of this and more should be part of a Union blueprint, and with a name, a high-profile chair, a goal and a programme of publication over the next two years we might have something else to talk about than the Pretendyref.

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