Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Referendum the second

The Scottish parliament yesterday voted for a second independence referendum by a margin of 69-59, after a debate stretching over two days.  I watched some of the final day of the debate and was struck by the tone of the debate coming from the Unionist side.  From Ruth Davidson's 'Sit Down!' directed at the First Minister to so-called jokes about the Greens' 'vegan diets' there was a complete disrespect for fellow MSPs, not to mention an implication that the Unionists were entitled to tell independistas what to do.

The vote shows how the battle lines are now drawn, with the SNP and Greens on one side and the Tories/Labour/LibDems on the other.  It was also interesting to note that the parties on the Unionist side voted against allowing 16- and 17-year olds the vote, presumably because they are likely to vote for independence.  You could argue that the independence-supporting parties wanted them in the electorate for that very reason, but there is another aspect, which is that 16- and 17-years olds are the ones who will have to live longest with the decision, so deserve to have a say.  And before anyone says 'why not 15-year olds then', the answer is that at 16 you can join the army, get married and pay taxes, so that would seem to be a fair cut-off point.

More interesting was the swift response from David Mundell, who said that
We won’t be entering into any negotiations at all until the Brexit process is complete. Now is the time for the Scottish government to come together with the UK government, work together to get the best possible deal for the UK, and that will mean for Scotland as we leave the EU.
He also indicated that the matter would not be considered until any transitional arrangements are also complete, which could push the date back even further.  This is, of course, an attempt to kick the whole thing into the long grass, to say 'no' without actually saying 'no'.   However, in a leaked copy of a European parliament resolution it appears that any transitional arrangements will not be allowed to last longer than three years, which would mean a date of 2022 for the second referendum.

The Tories will, however, be playing the odds that a lot can happen in five years.  One thing that should worry us is the Great Repeal Bill, which is due this week.  This will convert all laws based on EU law to British law.  One thing that has been mooted is that Theresa May will want to have so-called Henry 8th powers included in order to allow ministers to amend with these laws without having to go through parliament.  It does not take much imagination to think that it might be used to get rid of the devolved governments, returning all countries to direct rule from Westminster.  This would allow Westminster to squash any thought of another referendum on Scottish independence.  I hope I'm wrong on this, but the Tories have always been against the devolution settlement and would relish the chance to sweep them away.  Now that really would lead to interesting times.

Sunday, 26 March 2017


In today's Observer Kevin McKenna has an article about the 'divisiveness' of another referendum on Scotland's independence.  It's a word we hear incessantly from the Scottish branches of Labour and the Conservatives, and I must admit it has always puzzled me.  People never agree on anything.  Some like curry, some prefer Chinese food.  Some like to drink alcohol, others don't.  Some prefer to pay low taxes, others prefer to have better public services. Each side will often try to persuade the other side of the merits of their view.  That, in a nutshell, is politics.

Since the nature of politics is to support a particular set of views, it follows that politics is divisive by default.  So why has it suddenly become the word du jour amongst Unionists?  After all, surely they must be used to division of opinion and the art of persuading people to support their particular world view?  Even votes in Westminster are known as 'divisions'.

The answer lies, I think, in the Unionist politicians being jolted out of their comfort zone by the previous referendum on independence.  Until that took place they had a cosy world-view.  Sure, Labour wanted higher taxes for the rich to pay for better public services and the Conservatives wanted low taxes and a minimal state.  But behind those differences they were in agreement that it was best for Scotland to be part of the UK.  Sometimes Labour would be in government, sometimes the Conservatives.  Each would get their turn, so if you lost a General Election, it was only a matter of time before it would be your turn to win.

The SNP and the wider Yes movement have disrupted that.  The SNP have proved that Labour and the Conservatives are not the only choices in Scotland, having proved that they have some competence in managing Scotland.  Of course, the Unionists politicians like to dramatically claim that services are falling apart in Scotland, that the SNP couldn't run a corner shop, let alone a country.  However, for the ordinary Scot, these shrill screams do not chime with their everyday experience of living in Scotland, which is why they continue to vote in SNP governments.

The wider Yes movement has disrupted things by coming very close to winning the independence referendum in 2014.  Suddenly being run by Westminster isn't the only option in town.  And since the Brexit vote in June last year, independence has become more attractive to those voting No last time, meaning that this time the campaign for independence is starting from a position of 50-50 rather than the 28-72 it started from last time.

This is, I think, what is at the root of the cries of 'divisive!'.  Labour and the Conservatives no longer have a monopoly on what's best for Scotland, ie remaining in the Union.  Now they have to produce a case to to persuade the voters on why they should vote to remain in the UK.  In the last referendum they didn't do this, relying instead on scary stories and threats of vengeance.  I don't think that will work nearly as well this time around, since people have seen it all before.  This time they will have to produce a positive case for staying in the Union, and that will take a great deal of hard work.  Better, then, to try and avoid the necessity by demonising the independence movement.  After all, the Unionists have their own careers to think about, and some of them don't fancy being in a small country that doesn't punch above its weight.

I honestly think that no positive case for the Union will be produced.  Instead I suspect that we will get Project Fear Mk 2, this time with the volume cranked up to 11.  However, the independence movement has also learned from 2014, and we will be ready to counter their arguments.  Bring it on.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Brexit deal irony

Yesterday morning Nicola Sturgeon caught Downing Street on the hop by announcing that she would be asking the Scottish Parliament next week to approve a request for a Section 30 order, thus firing the starting pistol on a second independence referendum for Scotland.  This is expected to take place sometime between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, although it could be slightly later, depending on when the details of the Brexit deal become clear.  In any event, it is planned to have the referendum before the UK finally leaves the EU.

Yesterday evening the Bill to trigger Article 50 was once again debated by the House of Lords, specifically on the two amendments proposed by the Lords, that is to protect the status of EU citizens already resident in the UK and to give Parliament of vote on the Brexit deal before it is accepted.  Both amendments were rejected when the Labour Lords sided with the Conservatives to vote them down, so the Bill has now passed unamended.

This leads to a slight irony over the Brexit deal, where MPs and Lords, who are supposed to be running the country, will not get a say in the final Brexit deal.  However the people of Scotland will essentially get a vote on it by voting for independence rather than accept the deal.  Odd the way these things shake out.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Holy Wullie

This weekend is the Liberal Democrats' spring conference, in which we can expect to hear lots of 'SNP bad' and 'we don't want no referendum' (isn't there a song about that?).  This is also the time for their leader, Willie Rennie, to expect some coverage of his views.

Yesterday he had a somewhat disastrous interview with Gary Robertson on Good Morning Scotland, in which he was hard pressed to explain the difference between his idea on having another referendum on EU membership once the exit deal has been negotiated to see if people want to accept it and leave or not and simply having another referendum to see if people still want to leave or not,  I imagine the idea sounded great in his own head.  He was also hard pressed to explain why, if he wants a second referendum on leaving the EU, it's not OK for Scotland to have another referendum on independence given that circumstances have changed dramatically since 2014, when Scots were told that voting No was the only way to guarantee continuing EU membership.

Today Mr Rennie is set to make the 'emotional' case for Scotland to remain in the UK in his conference speech.  It kind of suggests that the LibDems can't muster up any other kind of case for remaining in the UK, which doesn't bode well for the forthcoming Better Together 2.0 campaign.  Certainly it's noticeable that, when arguing the case for Scottish independence on news websites, the British Nationalists are still regurgitating more or less verbatim all the lines from Better Together 1.0.  However, it does take a certain amount of hypocrisy to make the 'emotional' case, given that last time round the Better Together campaign, of which Mr Rennie was part, sneeringly dismissed Scottish nationalists as 'Bravehearts', thinking with their hearts rather than their heads.  How times have changed.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Here is the news

I'm currently reading 'All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain's Political Class' by Tim Shipman.  It's an analysis of both the Remain and Leave campaigns and has extensive interviews with many of the backroom people as well as the frontmen from each side.

One chapter deals with the BBC coverage in the purdah period in the 30 days leading up to the referendum and whether its duty is to question the claims by each side or whether it merely has to provide balance.  In it (and I never thought I'd say this) David Mundell has something to say which I think will be very germane to the second independence referendum.  This is an extract from the chapter:
The situation [regarding BBC coverage] ought not to have come as a surprise to David Cameron, who had been warned about how the broadcasting rules would play out in the final four weeks by the Scottish secretary David Mundell, who knew better than most what had happened north of the border in 2014.  In a Remain cabinet meeting held after the deal was done, Mundell told his colleagues that the contest would get difficult when the short campaign began.  He says, 'There was a failure to understand that in the final part of the campaign, which is a regulated media part, you just get a quantitative balance on the television.  George Osborne can pop up with a five-hundred-page document, and the other side just need someone else to turn up and say, 'That's crap.'  And that counts as a debate.  It's not a qualitative debate.'  After the referendum Mundell said, 'That's what the Leave side did much better.  They just had a number of simplistic slogans to use for their two-second clip.  There's no point in saying ' here's a 5,000 page report saying everything's going to go belly-up' when somebody else rocks up and says 'No it's not.  We're taking back control.'
The parallels with the last independence referendum are clear.  The Yes side had the 600-page white paper which set out their case for an independent Scotland.  However, the content was mainly never debated.  Instead the No side stuck to a few simple slogans, such as 'What currency will you use?', 'You'll lose your pension' and 'You'll be out of the EU and will have to join the back of the queue'.  Simple concepts, hammered home time after time, and not questioned by the BBC, who saw their duty as providing balance rather than investigation.

We need to learn from this for the next indyref.  By all means have documents setting out the case for independence in great detail, but as far as television news goes, boil it down to some simple concepts.

We need to take our lessons where we find them, regardless of the source.  After all, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.