A Nat’s a Nat,
for a’ that
‘The Scots deserve no pity, if they voluntarily surrender their… interests to the mercy of a united Parliament, where the English have so vast a majority. Their 45 Scots members may dance round to all eternity, in this trap of their own making’. So wrote Andrew Fletcher, a great hero of the SNP, in 1706, the year before the Acts of Union created a single British polity.
Fletcher of Saltoun, as he is better known, was so aghast at this turn of events that he withdrew from politics and devoted the rest of his life to farming. When he died 10 years later (in London, which must have stung) he was still thoroughly cheesed off, and his last words are said to have been: ‘Lord have mercy on my poor country that is so barbarously oppressed.’
Thus, the tone for the next 300 years of Scottish nationalism was set: a one-note bagpipe whine, an oppression myth, and a continuing obsession with a ‘trap’ that bore no resemblance to the reality of a Scotland that as part of the Union underwent an intellectual, cultural and economic flowering, and that changed the world. Fletcher was wrong then, just as his political descendants are wrong today.
Even the great hissy fit that saw him retreat to his lands in East Lothian became part of Nationalist DNA. Like most extremist groupings, the SNP has a rich history of sulky prima donnas flouncing off to set up short-lived splinter parties. It has regularly pursued a refusenik strategy, for example in walking out on the Scottish Constitutional Convention that did much of the groundwork to create Holyrood, in declining to sign the Claim of Right that asserted the nation’s right to self-determination, and in its initial unwillingness to engage with the Calman Commission that enhanced the Scottish Parliament’s powers through the Scotland Act 2012.
In light of this, its participation in the Smith Commission was never an inevitability — indeed, it went against type. However, in the aftermath of the referendum result and the resignation of the defeated Alex Salmond, and given the collegiate pose struck by Nicola Sturgeon in her first few parliamentary outings as First Minister, the decision to take part seemed to indicate a new maturity of mind — perhaps even a recognition that the deep wounds and divisions inflicted by the campaign needed to be healed by a period of political stability, moderation and restraint.
But the old schizophrenia runs deep. The morning after John Swinney signed up to the Smith proposals he chose the press conference at which the report was launched to denounce them. It was bizarre, ill-judged and would have been funny were it not so depressing. My heart sank: same old small-minded, sour, obnoxious Nats.
I understand Mr Swinney’s anger stemmed in part from the Commission’s troubled last few days of talks. The Tories in particular had irked him, by pursuing the novel negotiating strategy of effectively offering full control of the Universal Credit and devolution of the personal allowance before suddenly taking both off the table. It was clear what had happened: the Cabinet in London had, at the very last minute, woken up to the enormous scale of what was being proposed and had drawn back. The pleasant mood in the negotiating room, on the seventh floor of a swish Edinburgh office block, with a spectacular floor-to-ceiling view of the capital’s skyline, was destroyed.
The Unionist parties were then caught flat-footed on Thursday morning when, within minutes of Smith being unveiled, the SNP’s slick machine produced a factsheet claiming that even with these new powers Holyrood would still raise less than half the money it spent, and have control over just 14 per cent of welfare. Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems had failed to prepare a counter-briefing of their own. I understand the Scotland Office and the Treasury were still arguing about what the true figures were as late as 5pm that day.
In the event, blushes were saved because the Nats went too far. Their immediate, aggressive denunciation of a deal that clearly and objectively involved an enormous transfer of power to Scotland — and one that, after all, bore their signatures — badly misread the mood of the moment. Ms Sturgeon’s performance at First Minister’s Questions that afternoon was appalling: bellicose, self-contradictory and displaying all the steamroller characteristics of her recent predecessor — not a good look.
If Unionists doubted they were still in a fight, or thought there might be a brief post-referendum lull in hostilities, they now know otherwise. For the SNP, the battles of the referendum are far from over — will never be over. They can be counted on for nothing but double-dealing and malice.
And this gives us a problem. In Scotland, the big UK parties are pale, hollowed-out versions of what they once were. They have little money, few members and no power. They appeared to lack proper backroom support and resource throughout the Smith process, an event that was of paramount importance to the future of the UK. London’s interest was fitful.
And even with a political weapon as potent as the Smith proposals — which, when added to Holyrood’s existing powers, make it one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world — they failed to drive home their advantage. In truth, there is little now left at Westminster that wouldn’t be there anyway in a fully federal state.
How, then, will they cope with the next stage of the devolution debate — when Smith is turned into a White Paper and put before the sharp claws and razor teeth of MPs and peers at Westminster? Is it really likely to escape unscathed and unamended, to emerge from the other end of the parliamentary animal in the same condition as it entered? I have my doubts. And you can bet that the Unionist parties are probably under-prepared for that dangerous moment, while the SNP is already oiling its guns. Yesterday, Ms Sturgeon revealed the SNP’s manifesto for the 2015 general election would be based on ‘beefing up’ the new powers to include the minimum wage, the personal allowance and corporation tax.
But the Nats, too, have a problem, and it is not an insignificant one. It is a matter of cold, hard fact. The Scottish Parliament is about to be put through the equivalent of the Charles Atlas programme, after which it will no longer be an pampered weakling but a muscular legislative body that will have to make hard choices about tax, welfare and the funding and structure of public services. This will require the government to take positions that are considerably less popular than its favoured tack of handing out free stuff. If it raises taxes— and I’m afraid to say there aren’t enough wealthy people to pay for everything — or chooses instead to cut services, it will make enemies. The sheen will come off, there’ll be no more cult rallies in front of 12,000 moonies in Glasgow, and nice Mr Swinney will suddenly find he’s turned into George Osborne.
Ultimately, the greatest danger to the Nats is that the Smith Commission did its job and will in time deliver Realpolitik to Scotland. The normalisation of our political process would be a catastrophe for them, which is why last week they were, pathetically, unable to embrace even a moment of feelgood national unity and instead sought refuge in their standard playbook of sowing division.
Unionists must accept they are in a permanent fight and start behaving as such. The Yes campaign didn’t end on September 18, and so neither must the Better Together banners be set down. Where the separatists are relentless, their opponents must be relentless too. Nor can there can be any accommodation with them — they only turn round and sting you. The case for the Union cannot be left to moulder, but must be remade every day. The new powers must be used to expose the hollow nature of nationalism, and its one-dimensional worldview. And then, when the next referendum comes, as it surely will, we might be better prepared than last time, armed with argument, fact, tactics and strategy.
Smith presents the Unionist parties with the best opportunity they’ll get to keep Britain together for a while yet. I just wish I had greater confidence they’re up to it.
(This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on December 1, 2014)