My spell of woodshedding has been cut short. Far from being able to relax and take stock after the election result, events have propelled me out of the hut prematurely, especially today’s Scotsman headline - SNP lowers sights to ‘independence-lite’.
This made me choke on my breakfast cereal, inducing my normal reaction to events, which is to rush to judgement and shoot from the hip - the ready-fire-aim approach. But I have learned to deal with it these days, remembering the wise words of an old boss - “Peter, your second idea is always better than your first - draw breath and wait for it.” So I did …
So let me move back to Thursday and to Politics Now on STV. The vital message at the start of the programme came from Gordon Wilson, a true elder statesman of the SNP (unlike Jim Sillars, who often puts his mouth in gear while his brain remains in neutral).
The thrust of what Gordon Wilson said was that the momentum gained by the election result had to be harnessed.
“With this majority, Alex should, in my opinion, unleash the SNP as a political party … to go out and campaign for independence. That means that he should … persuade the campaign team who ran this brilliant election to turn their talents into organising now - not in two or three years time - for the referendum. You’ve got to do it now, if you’re going to persuade people to vote YES for independence.”
Hear, hear! Those are my feelings exactly, and I hope that Gordon is preaching to the converted in Alex Salmond. But then again, since this most considered of men felt it necessary to say it makes me think that the point needs underlining.
We got a replay of Tam Dalziel forecasting the doom and disaster, in plummy Establishment tones, that would result from the devolution process - the motorway without exit “to a separate state, separate from England”. Another of yesterday’s men, Brian Wilson, felt that the election result should be “a wake up call for Labour”.
Really, Brian? What a penetrating insight! Who would have thought of that until you said it!.
But it has been more like a jangling fire alarm intruding into the deep sleep of morality, of values, of common humanity into which the thing that is now the Labour Party has sunk.
Where next for Unionism is the question the programme poses, and Lord Forsyth, the Laird o’ Drumlean has the answer - a referendum sooner rather than later, a theme taken up by various panic-stricken unionists, including Iain Martin in The Spectator.
The British Lord, Forsyth, ennobled for services to Maggie Thatcher in the destruction of Scotland’s infrastructure and industry, latches on to Alex Salmond’s wish to have the referendum coincide with the anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, and draws the lesson from this is that “Bruce won it, fair and square, hands down, because he chose the ground to fight on - chose the best ground and he struck the first blow. That is the lesson for David Cameron.”
This is chutzpah indeed, a quality once defined as the ability of a man on trial for murdering both his parents to plead for clemency on the grounds that he is an orphan. It has now become the theme of the unionist fight-back, and has been picked up by the Spectator, Fraser Nelson and other Scots of that peculiar unionist type, Scots with a deep vested interest in the Union - the high-road-to-England Scots, worried that their ‘noblest prospect’ now seems like damaged goods. Samuel Johnson had a keen eye …
Let’s look hard at this adoption of the Bruce and Bannockburn as a guide to action by the unionists. They select the man who unified the nation of Scotland for the first time, who defeated England’s attempts to subordinate it to English rule in a great, decisive engagement, and what they are saying is this -
Bruce, a champion of an independent Scotland, got it right and beat us, the Unionists. Let’s learn from our mistakes in that far off battle, adopt this Scottish hero’s strategy and tactics, this time to defeat the rebellious Scots, led by their elected government and First Minister, and ensure the continuing dominance of England and the British empire.
In other words, let’s reverse the Bannockburn result.
This begins to look more like folly than chutzpah - hijack an iconic Scottish hero, Bruce, and his greatest victory, Bannockburn, to resist and reverse the very thing he fought for.
Now we come to the Union’s representative on Earth - the colonial governor, Michael Moore, the third incumbent of this benighted post in just over a year, the previous incumbents Danny Alexander and Jim Murphy now feeding from the Union trough that is Westminster. Moore has quickly acquired the vacuous pomposity that this role requires. Denied a plumed hat and a white horse, he has instead deepened his voice and become skilled in the meaningless platitudes demanded by the job.
“I’m opposed to Scotland becoming independent but I do want to see the Parliament have substantial powers.”
Aye, right …
Nicola Sturgeon promptly puts the SNP’s objectives for Scotland’s independence clearly.
Bernard Ponsonby: “But it will be a separate state?”
Nicola Sturgeon: “Yes, of course.”
Then we come to the panel, and we have Jim Sillars. Why the media want Jim Sillars as a commentator is never entirely clear. He occupies no significant place in Scottish politics anymore, and he cannot be exactly described as a powerful independent voice on Scottish affairs, but I suppose to a programme producer, he fills that strange specification of someone who was once strongly associated with a specific party viewpoint, but is now reinvented as a political commentator. Think of Lorraine Davidson, for example. In other words, he is expected to be objective, but not quite. Sillars offers the additional attraction of being someone who consistently sounded sour notes on the SNP.
However on this programme, he was all sunshine and light, to the amazement of many, including me. But he presumably had his Scotsman piece of today’s date drafted, or at least in his head …
Tom Perkin’s story open with the following paragraph -
“Senior figures within the SNP now believe a full breakaway from the rest of the United Kingdom is no longer the best short-term option for Scotland.”
Closer examination of the story shows this to be a conflations of a number of statement from SNP senior figures, most of which say no such thing, but are a reiteration of common sense observations on how the mechanics of independence would operate. The conflation essentially relies on taking Jim Sillars’ views in his article on pages 6 and 7 as the centre point of SNP thinking. Sillars is described in the sub-header to the article as “the figurehead of fundamentalism” within the SNP. (They also describe him as THE MAN WHO STOOD UP TO SALMOND.)
A more accurate description might have been the figurehead who has long since fallen off the prow, and now floats sadly in the wake of the ship. But this article may signal the final waterlogged submersion of the object.
Before analysing the front page claim in detail, it may be worth speculating on what The Scotsman’s motives are in running this story and making this claim. Some may think that the paper has undergone a sea change in its attitude to independence and the SNP over the last year. After all, they did run a leader backing Alex Salmond and the SNP to run Scotland. But in my view that was an expedient recognition of an inevitable power shift in Scottish politics - not wanting to be left off the bandwagon or out of tune with the zeitgeist, a motivation much in evidence among many people of late.
But the Scotsman is not in favour of independence - it is unionist to its core. It now has to find a way to get behind the NO campaign for the referendum without being too obvious about it. So it presents its ‘landmark opinion piece’ by Jim Sillars.
He relies on the 80 interviews conducted by Professor James Mitchell on the concept of independence, plus his poll of 1000 party members. Professor Mitchell found a lot of consensus and pragmatism among these groups, characteristics that I personally would say more or less define the party. If I may be so bold as to attempt to respectfully summarise Professor Mitchell’s analysis on page 5 - summarise his summary, so to speak -
1. The SNP has moved on from a black and white institutional view of independence to a view that a variety of ‘unions’ - with a small U - will continue to exist, and this involves a Union of the Crowns concept quite explicitly.
2. The SNP understands very clearly the concept of a de facto social union of familial and personal links.
(One which only a fool would deny, but a defender of the Union opposed to independence bent on mischief might well do. Professor Mitchell notes that Calman confused and conflated this union with something else - common expectations about social welfare.)
3. The SNP clearly understands the knowledge union, i.e. that professional, educational and scientific sharing of knowledge and expertise crosses boundaries of nation and ideology, as it does and always has done throughout the civilised world.
4. The SNP, on the question of the European Union, reflects within it a minority (around 20%) who oppose EU membership, but the party “is at ease with EU membership” but has problems with some EU policies.
(In this, the SNP probably reflects every political party and grouping in the UK, although the deep fault line over the EU in the Tory party on this issue is infinitely deeper than anything displayed by the other parties - a veritable San Andreas Fault, liable to bounce off the Richter Scale at any time and fragment the Tories.)
On defence, the SNP has referred to shared bases, for reasons that must be evident to all but the most obtuse, e.g. RAF bases, etc. But opposition to nuclear weapons “remains rock solid”.
There is nothing in any of the above conclusion that would surprise anyone in the SNP, and it probably would not cause any raised eyebrows among the vast majority of those who voted so decisively for the SNP to govern their country for a second term. But from the standpoint of a diehard Unionist, it either comes as a shock or a blow to their attempts to portray independence as a terrifying spectre, both before the election (with humiliating results) or now that it seems infinitely more likely within the term of the Parliament.
Like The Wizard of Oz, they are embarrassed when the curtain is pulled aside from their terrifying projections and thundering cries of Beware of Independence! to reveal a frightened little Unionist Lord and his ilk manipulating the levers, in terror lest their power and influence slip away from them, together with the UK baubles, titles and sinecures they have accumulated along the way.
But what does Jim Sillars, ‘long-time fundamentalist’ and ‘THE MAN WHO STOOD UP TO SALMOND’ make of all this?
Firstly, he makes it clear that, in his anxiety to be part of the success of the SNP and get into the big tent fast, he and Margo MacDonald are no longer fundamentalists, nor opponents of ‘the Salmond leadership group’ - an odd choice of words, to say the least.
He would ‘prefer to have the full enchilada’ (so would I!) but is now anxious to demonstrate that he has always been pragmatism personified - he could have fooled me - by citing old pamphlets and making a series of observations that verge on the banal.
As he develops his argument, it becomes evident that his pragmatic conversion to Salmondism may be only skin deep. After quoting his admirable wife, Margo MacDonald’s observations ‘back in the 1970s’ about a social union existing after independence, the following phrase emerges -
“You will have heard that idea fall from the lips of present SNP leaders, but it isn’t sufficient to soothe peoples’ anxieties.”
What people, Jim? The huge majority that voted for those same SNP leaders?
But then comes the statement that the Scotsman doubtless seized upon, in common with unionists opposed to a referendum or a YES vote if there has to be one.
On his idea of ‘a new concept’ that of ‘a kind of confederal relationship with England’ (sic) - ignoring Wales and Northern Ireland - Sillars sees ‘a quasi-Nato relationship on shared defence and security against terrorism, with Scotland paying its share of those functions, plus our share of UK debt, from its sovereignty over all taxation, including oil, and perhaps offsetting some of those costs by leasing the Trident base for a long period.’
Sillars then accurately predicts the reaction of party members - including mine - to this astonishing suggestion. Never! Let me say it again - Never! If the Scottish Government and the SNP were to show any signs of going down such a route, they would invite the immediate formation of a campaign against it, and risk a split in the Party.
I’m all for pragmatism, for gradualism, for reluctantly accepting a Union of the Crowns and a constitutional monarch, for extending devolved powers, etc. as a route to full independence - but retention of Trident in our waters after independence?
Never, never, never!
Sillars then goes on to say -
“We must, if we are serious, look through the English (sic) end of the telescope. Scottish independence, in the old model and the old policies, threatens English (sic) state interests, and if so threatened they will fight to keep us in the Union because they must do so.”
“There is a vital link between Trident and London’s veto seat on the UN Security Council, because shorn of it, it becomes more difficult to justify retention at a time when India, Japan and Brazil are pressing their case.”
This is the old Aneurin Bevan argument against sending a British Foreign Secretary “naked into the conference chamber”.
Jim Sillars - if this is your idea of pragmatism, give me fundamentalism. If this is your idea of Scottish independence, then bluntly, either you are in the wrong party or I am. I am forced to say that given the old Lyndon Johnson choice, of having you inside the tent pissing out or outside pissing in, I prefer the latter.
I am a nationalist of only four years standing, and therefore must give due regard to the fact that you have given a large part of your life to it, and achieved in the past a significant role within the Party. But I must also say that, as at one and the same time a relatively new party member and an old Scot, I am part of the new Scotland, and if you want to be part of it too, you had better rethink your ideas fast.