An independence referendum in 2020 could happen, but only if SNP are going to lose, writes John McLellan.
It feels like a lifetime ago since then Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander goaded First Minister Alex Salmond to “Bring it on” and have an independence referendum and her 2008 challenge was reported at the time as a historic U-turn which would change the Scottish political landscape.
That may well have been true, but not in ways observers expected because no sooner had she sat down in the Holyrood chamber than her boss Prime Minister Gordon Brown was on the blower to put her back in her place and insist there would be no referendum.
Two months on and Ms Alexander was forced to resign over undeclared donations to her leadership campaign, and three years later the minority SNP administration became an overall majority and the referendum Mr Brown had rejected was indeed on.
Whether the Brown block contributed to the SNP triumph in 2011 is a relevant question now this week’s general election has produced similar circumstances. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon obviously has a case to argue that 48 seats out of 59 is a mandate to hold a second referendum, but so too is it legitimate for Conservatives to insist that this was a UK election and an overwhelming UK victory means, as Jackson Carlaw said yesterday, the pledge to say no to a second referendum must be honoured. For a man accused of being untrustworthy, telling 700,000 Conservative voters in Scotland that the promise was being broken would just confirm what opponents had been saying.
There might be a temptation to do an Alexander when the three unionist parties combined won 54 per cent of the vote and with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitting not all SNP supporters back independence. But just as Nationalists were very quick to seize the opportunity of a general election before circumstances changed, the chance of an independence vote now should be set against the background of the political gravity of a party that will have been in power in Holyrood for 14 years when the Scottish elections come round in 2021.
For all Boris Johnson’s reputation for untrustworthiness, it cannot be denied he is a winner. If 2008 seems a long time ago, then 2006 when Mr Johnson came third in the election for Edinburgh University rector (ironically a campaign run by Brexit Party MEP Brian Monteith) is like ancient history after stunning victories in two London mayor campaign, the EU referendum, the Conservative Party leadership and now a record-breaking general election. The same team which plotted those triumphs must now game the demand for a second independence referendum and understand the impact on the coming 2021 campaign, because it’s that result which will really steer the future of the Union, as did the 2011 Scottish election, not this one.
That gaming should conclude that there are too many unknowns to plot a certain course, not least of which is the outcome of the Alex Salmond trial in March, but also the fitness of Scottish Labour Party to reclaim ground it has ceded in the more deprived Scottish communities. As Labour’s sole Scottish MP Ian Murray said on Friday morning, the change it needs is not just one of personality but of politics and ideology, but the way the hard left has manipulated its structure and personnel makes that virtually impossible as Friday morning’s head-in-the-sand reaction of Scottish leader Richard Leonard and his defeated deputy Lesley Laird illustrated.
One of the mistakes made by both Better Together and the 2016 Remain campaign was relying on Labour to deliver its support. If Thursday proved anything it’s that Labour is in no state to deliver anything beyond Edinburgh South. Nor is not properly understood how many Lib Dem voters will put a return to the EU ahead of the Union, given their Edinburgh West MP Christine Jardine said stopping Brexit was more important.
Then there is the next phase of the Brexit negotiations and when all attention should be on an orderly departure from the EU, a re-run of 2014 next year will not be the top priority for the UK Government as it became five years ago. Further, an orderly departure and stability against a promise of more division and instability is a strong platform on which Conservatives can fight ion 2021.
Nationalists will no doubt howl that Scottish independence is not a matter for Conservatives to game, but their right as a result of Thursday, but if they do get the chance next year it will because they are going to lose.
Leonard should listen to Murray
The gloom amongst Labour councillors at the Edinburgh count on Thursday night was understandable as their SNP coalition partners whooped with delight, but the disaster should focus minds on the City Council administration which is becoming a lose-lose for Labour. Senior figures argue their SNP partnership gives them influence but it also gives them blame when they are simultaneously being destroyed by their partners. Nor can the SNP locally point to the pressure they are under as a means to lever more resources from the Scottish Government. All that holds the Coalition together is a left-wing dictat from a leadership which has delivered the worst electoral outcome since the Great Depression. Richard Leonard should listen to Ian Murray before he masterminds any more cunning plans.
Supporting ‘a free and fair media’
Back to the day job… the threat of strike action over compulsory redundancies at the Herald newspapers in Glasgow, thankfully averted, was raised in the Scottish Parliament this week.
“All of us want to make sure we’re doing what we can to support not just a free and fair media, but a vibrant and successful media in Scotland as well and indeed in countries across the world,” said First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. And so say all of us.
But was the First Minister being smart by referring to media and not news publishers specifically? It may be true that the Scottish Government wants to see a vibrant Scottish media sector, but can she say the actions of her civil servants demonstrate a genuine commitment to support the Press, which was the point of MSP Andy Wightman’s question?
Recent industry analysis showed that seven per cent of the Scottish Government’s £7m public information and marketing budget went to news publishers and 15 per cent to commercial radio. But analysis by media services giant Group M published this year showed that commercial radio only got 2.8 per cent of the £20bn UK advertising cake in 2018. Further, Ofcom statistics show only four per cent of Scottish people access news about Scotland via local commercial radio compared to nine per cent through The Scottish Sun and Daily Record alone, never mind all the other publishers and stories from Press websites read through social media.
So it’s definitely true that the Scottish Government goes out of its way to support commercial radio, but bankrolling Boogie and Arlene isn’t the same as supporting a vital system of tried-and-trusted local and national accountability.
John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh