Reflections on the First Minister’s Recent Speech…



Apologies to any blog readers (any still around?!)  for the long silence since my last blog post. To some extent that reflects a very busy time personally and professionally. But it also reflects a lack of time to work through the more fundamental ideas I wanted to explore here. I’ve been thinking alot about capitalism, marxism and liberalism- more to come one day hopefully.

So, with no promises, I’ll try and pick up again more regularly…

Meantime, some thoughts on the First Minister’s recent speech, particularly around Brexit.

Reflections on the FM’s Speech

The First Minister spoke recently to her party conference- you can find out more here.

1. Much to Agree with…

There is much to support in the speech (fair work, nursing bursaries, gender action, exploring public infrastructure etc etc). But if the truth be told in normal times these are pretty standard centre-left social democratic policies and particularly across swathes of Europe.

Its only because the Tory-led UK government is so obnoxious on so many issues that announcing these policies makes SNP/Scotland seem exceptional. That combined with a particularly virulent strand of right wing press and swathes of neo-liberal thought across UK/England (parts anyway). And as I like to point out, the perception is both real and apparent, with many of the claims about the UK from independence supporters poorly informed or flatly untrue.  See this for example pointing out that regional inequality isn’t just a UK phenomena, and this which corrects much recent comment on the unique levels of regional inequality in the UK.

That said, the point the FM/SNP/independence supporters want to make is that at the moment, UK government actions make Scotland an exception. I tend to agree- although Wales may want to say ‘hold my beer’. And I share their revulsion (if not their undiscriminating) distaste for many actions on immigration, welfare, disability and housing.

Thats all fine as far as it goes, and a centre-left positioning works well for the SNP and has done for the last 5 years. But imagine if a Labour government was elected for the UK for any length of time- hard to see the SNP outcompeting it to the left/centre left isn’t it? And if you take that away, you have you got left? I’d say some rather tedious grievance mongering (another decade of that??), calls for new powers (but that strategy has its limits when the SNP is struggling to master them) and the inadequacies of the Growth Commission– neither very honest as claimed  nor very insightful. But I digress…

2. Brexit and Positioning

No big surprise that the FM said that, shorn of the rhetoric, that she would have to wait for Brexit to be clearer- what other choices did she have?

If she had called for another referendum this side of Brexit, the UK government would just have said ‘feck off’ again. And to be fair to the UK Government, what government, in the midst of something as complex as Brexit, with the polls showing no majority support for independence or no majority support for a call for a second vote, and with the issue being voted on only 4 years ago, wouldn’t take the same view?

You may wish to argue this position from me/UK government is anti-democratic- I wish you well in that endeavour. Worth saying that Scottish elections continue to show a majority of votes going to parties opposed to independence. Worth also saying that we exercised a legal, fair and decisive vote on the issue in a 3 year campaign that finished just 49 months ago

So, if there is no vote before Brexit, I think there is no vote before 2021, because 2018-2020 will be dealing with Brexit and its aftermath, followed by Scottish elections.

In order of descending likelihood, here is my take in Brexit and its consequences for the SNP and independence (short-term then longer below):

(1) Some form of softer Brexit agreed and the UK leaves. Whilst I think Brexit is a bad idea and will affect some sectors of the economy and some people quite badly, any form of fudged Brexit that delays or softens things, means that I bet most people don’t really notice a ‘big’ dramatic change. Just to be crystal clear, I do think any Brexit makes the economy worse and puts pressure on tax income and spending and I don’t mean to downplay its long-term consequences.

If I’m right, I don’t think that helps the SNP or independence – leaving the EU takes the wind out of the objections for many, particularly if it isn’t obviously a disaster, and is quickly normalised as the new position. There may be ongoing campaigns for EFTA membership but its likely hard to sustain much enthusiasm to march for common product standards.

Again to stress, I am opposed to Brexit, but I think this is most likely option. My sense is that the problem  for the SNP and the independence movement is believing their own supercharged rhetoric on Brexit impacts, and I think they are in for a shock if this scenario plays out.

If this approach happens, I don’t the SNP pressing for independence referendum unless the polls change- and why would they? (see below)

(2) The UK crashes out in a no-deal farce lasting 1-2 years. The UK does eventually sort things out but there is serious short-term disruption to the economy (like a really bad storm event but longer) as well as lasting damage.

In these circumstances, many in the independence movement assume many will flock to the independence banner. That may be so, but I think just as likely is that many conclude now is not the time, with some agreeing with the ‘stick to nurse for fear of something worse’ idea.

In any case, in such a scenario there is zero chance of the UK government granting a referendum in the period 2019-2020.

Ironically the harder the Brexit, the harder the economic and fiscal arguments are for independence (just think borders for a moment, or trade).

(3) A People’s Vote is held- and we vote to remain. In which case, the case for independence and a second vote recedes into the distance. Nothing to see here. I suspect this is what the SNP secretly fear as then their project withers and dies for the immediate future. Let’s be honest, in the absence of Brexit, what other even slightly credible excuse for a second vote would there have been? Welfare reform? Nuclear missiles? I think not (see polling evidence).

(4) Some sort of legal challenge, such as halting article 50 succeeds. May steps down, there is a UK general election- I’ve no idea who would win it and on what mandate. But again, there is zero chance under that scenario in my view, that the UK government says bring on a second referendum.

So, if I’m right, scenarios 1-4 don’t seem to generate the mix of political necessity, UK agreement and favourable conditions for any poll before 2020.

3. 2020 and Beyond

With fresh Scottish Parliament elections in 2021, I think there is a good chance that the pro-independence parties fail to secure a majority. If that is the case, no vote before 2026.

If there is no vote before 2026, Sturgeon is presumably gone long before- and I don’t personally see the same talent emerging in the SNP to reach the heights of Salmond and Sturgeon.

Also in a 2026 vote scenario, I find it hard to believe there won’t be a fairly social democratic labour government by then, and some boredom/withering away of independence support in favour of some new political project- especially if Labour regains the centre-left ground. After all the current Labour leadership is shit, beyond shit- what happens if competent people take over? Ok, Corbyn has opened up the political space on the left, but thats as much about people fed up of flat living standards and sick of austerity as it is a real love for re-nationalisation and the rest, and in the ways I measure leadership, he’s absolutely useless.

But what you say, what if the greens do well, SNP recover and a new ‘mandate’ is secured in the 2021 elections. Well much then turns, in my view, on what the polls say.

If the SNP and Greens do get the necessary number of seats, I’d bet they wouldn’t gather more than 45% or so of the vote i.e. the majority would have voted for a party opposing independence.

But they SNP/Greens could also make a decent case that they have a mandate for a second vote. After all, they would command a majority in the Scottish Parliament, even if not a majority of votes cast. However it’s likely they would have a minority at future UK parliamentary elections of the Scottish votes cast, (and possibly seats).

My guess at that point is that the UK government makes a decision based on the polls, as does the SNP. I don’t actually agree with those friends suggesting this is all obvious, high principle and foundational democracy stuff. That the only democratic answer if the SNP/Greens ‘win’ is to grant a second referendum.

Why not? Well that demands a longer answer that I may return to, but let me set out my case briefly…

It’s because we don’t have a written constitution with clear rules about how and when referenda are used. It’s because we lack rules written down, agreed, voted on and embedded about who can trigger referenda, under what circumstances, with what processes and safeguards and with what legal rights for various parties.

In the event of a call for a second referendum, unless the people clearly and consistently wish for a vote, I neither wish that decision to rest with Sturgeon and her successor, nor May and her successor. We’ve seen what happens when a referendum is called casually to deal with a party political problem (Brexit) and we’ve seen how referenda divide as often as they resolve.

So! All to play for in 2020, with the SNP needing to defy political gravity to keep a vote alive- I’m betting they fail…but it will certainly be ‘interesting’