Media focus on domestic issues like health and education, where many challenges exist, was supplanted by coverage of the First Minister’s response to the rejection of a second independence referendum. From being on the back foot defending their actions or inactions, they found themselves on the front foot condemning the intransigence of the UK government.
Without the intervention of Theresa May and her Scottish acolytes, the SNP conference would still have seen the party celebrating a historic third Holyrood victory last May and looking forward with some optimism to further success in May’s council elections. However, the SNP administration in Holyrood has been more noted recently for difficulties and defeats than for significant legislative progress. Some of that is understandable, being a minority administration and with opponents flexing new-found muscle. Other issues should, though, have been avoided.
Moreover, though there’s been a lot of rhetoric, there’s been far less legislative action. Welcome progress on tackling gender and sexual equality hasn’t been matched by significant steps in addressing income inequality.
Accordingly, both defending the domestic policy agenda from media criticism and holding back wilder elements of the membership from insisting on a referendum now were the requirements. They wouldn’t have been easy but the party was given a “get out of jail” card by Theresa May through her rejection of a second referendum.
In one fell swoop the issue became not the failures, justified or otherwise, of the SNP and Scottish Government but the intransigence of Theresa May and the unionists. Many, while neither supporting a referendum nor even independence, will see not just an absence of democracy in its refusal, but hypocrisy in its justification. A Tory party with one MP in Scotland and which polled less than 40 per cent in the UK election is in no position to lecture another with significantly more representatives in both Holyrood and Westminster.
However, more damaging for the unionist cause than the underlying hypocrisy is the substantive handling of the issue. It has taken the spotlight off the SNP administration at Holyrood. Moreover, the difficulties faced in holding an early referendum with the state of the economy and the future currency for Scotland are luckily avoided when still unprepared.
Instead the SNP finds itself buoyed by a righteousness in the face of British intransigence. Talk of the duty to adhere to the democratic outcome of the Brexit vote “sticks in the craw” of many minded of the EU referendum result in Scotland. That’s compounded by the clear mandate sought by the SNP in their Holyrood manifesto, as opposed to the absence of anything for a post-Brexit Britain.
Rather than strengthening the union, the position of Theresa May is weakening it. At the last referendum for many, as well as the uncertainty entailed in a Yes vote, a No vote offered stability and solidarity. There’s been little of the former shown in recent actions and even less of the latter offered by the direction taken, as sterling plummets and jobs are threatened.
However, the case for independence still needs to be made and doubts on currency and the economy still need to be dispelled. For many, last time it sounded too good to be true. For sure, opportunities arise but fears also need to be assuaged. ‘It won’t be easy but it can be done’ is a more realistic message for many, than the promised land awaiting.
In many ways, though, the challenge has been aided by Brexit. Last time, leaving the UK was a sail into uncharted waters. Now staying in the UK is equally so, and the direction of travel to a low-tax, low-wage, low-regulation society isn’t welcomed by many.
The currency, though, needs to be addressed. The unwillingness to comment is damaging. Last time the UK’s denial of a currency union in some form was a lie that wasn’t anticipated. Statements by the governor of the Bank of England since then have shown that had there been a Yes vote, arrangements would have been made. Those of us in the Yes campaign knew that was the case before the governor subsequently confirmed it, though I also recall a strange tale from the campaign.
A taxi driver told me why he was voting Yes. He’d picked up a Chinese businessman, here to visit the First Minister, who asked him how he was voting. The driver answered that his heart said Yes but he had doubts on currency. The passenger had been playing golf with the former Bank of England governor, Mervyn King. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘Mervyn says you can have the pound and a thistle on it if you want.’ I actually checked and the driver’s visitor had indeed been in town to see the FM, and was a significant individual. A currency union or arrangement was necessary for the rest of the UK, as much as Scotland.
Options need to be spelled out and a debate allowed to take place, whether a sterling arrangement, a Scottish pound or even the euro. Given May’s actions in denying an early vote, there’s no immediate need to spell out a final choice. It’s still a critical issue but the collapse of the pound lessens it in some ways.
So there’s work to be done for the independence campaign, but equally cause for concern for the unionists. Indications that for many down south Brexit matters more than the union should be troubling. If the strategic interests of the new British Empire no longer need Scotland, they’ll abandon their Scottish unionist friends. In Ireland in 1922, the IRA hadn’t won a military victory, but the British lost the will to fight. As the Brexiteers seek their new horizons beyond Europe, abandoning Scotland might well suit them.