Thursday, 19 March 2015

Taking 'No' For An Answer...

February's SI column. Just why do some erstwhile 'No' campaigners find it so hard to take 'No' for an answer?
Ever since last September, it's become increasingly clear that there is a small but significant body of voters that simply hasn't been able to accept the referendum result and 'move on'. Stuck in the past, wedded to a romantic ideal, blind to any semblance of reality, they remain frozen in time at 18 September 2014, frothing and fulminating against anyone who had the audacity to vote differently to them on that day. 
You can see them on Twitter, on the letters pages of our newspapers and writing on their blogs to audiences of probably as many as a few tens. Regularly berating others for their lack of political resolve, deficiencies of patriotism and their failure to see the true nature of their opponent, it seems that no-one is safe from their ire – not even their fellow 'No' voters.

‘But.. we won!’ is the plaintive cry. And it’s true enough, at least measured by votes in ballot boxes. The mistake was to assume that a ‘No’ vote meant a return to politics as usual and that with the scales having fallen from their eyes, that Scottish voters would forget all this self-government malarkey and return to the standard model of 3 party British politics.

It’s easy to understand why some would wish to cling to the referendum result, as it represents about the sole tangible political ‘win’ since 2007 against an otherwise dominant SNP. Nevertheless, crossing their fingers and hoping that Scots would return to the fold seems to have been Scottish Labour’s only post-indyref strategy. ‘If only we could persuade everyone to dislike the SNP as much as we do’, the thinking goes, ‘then we’ll be back in power before you can say Bute House.’ 
During the referendum, ‘Yessers’ enjoyed debating what they wanted Scotland to become, while the ‘No’ campaign never seemed to capture at any point a sense of optimism either about the present or the future. The whole debate, which most ‘No’ sympathisers had never wanted to begin with, forced many to think about things they didn’t want to think about. While for some it was an enriching and affirming experience, for others it was nothing short of an existential challenge - one to be resisted at all costs and shut out in the hope that it would all just go away. 
A solidifying of a hard-core unionist vote, where even some prominent Labour activists now urge a vote for the Tories in certain seats to try and keep the SNP out so that an extra Tory MP can - er - help put Labour back in government, suggests that there is a couple of trends at play here. The 'No' parties' 'No' voters are mostly staying put or switching between them, while 'Yes' voters who previously voted SNP are sticking with the SNP. The interesting bit is that while large numbers of 'Yes' voters who previously backed 'No' parties have moved to the SNP, the very considerable tranche of SNP 'No' voters are remaining loyal. 
Perhaps one reason why this might be is that up until quite late in the day, there seemed to be a complete failure on the part of unionist politicians to acknowledge publicly that support for independence wasn’t just confined to the SNP. In contrast, the SNP had long understood that many Labour supporters backed independence, just as many SNP voters were themselves uncertain about independence. 
Armed with that intelligence, the official Yes campaign adopted a far more conciliatory line towards ‘No’ voters than was shown to ‘Yes’ voters by Better Together*, who were all about their pride, their patriotism, and a misplaced sense of conceptual superiority allied to bristling indignation that we were even discussing the matter at all. While you can see how this might rally hard core Lib/Lab/Con ‘No’ voters, you can also see how it might also have alienated the significant numbers of their supporters who went 'rogue' on Independence.

Meanwhile, the SNP has struck a note in tune with what voters want to hear in the post-indyref environment. The party has been positive, conciliatory and consensual, yet firm in demanding that pre-referendum promises are upheld and wherever possible, built upon. In reacting to its rapid growth in both members and Westminster support, the party has also so far positioned itself astutely to capitalise on any hung parliament situation. 
And that’s what seems to be annoying some of our unionist friends the most. Just a matter of months after being reassured that Scotland was an integral part of the UK, we now find that it would be a constitutional outrage if Scottish votes were to influence the choice of the next UK government through electing enough SNP MPs to hold the balance of power. It almost seems cruel to remind Westminster’s Tories how they relied on the support of Ulster Unionists to keep John Major’s government afloat towards the end of the 1992-97 parliament.

Pathologising your opponents as some of Scotland’s unionists have done with the SNP is seldom a healthy or productive pursuit, so here’s some helpful pointers which I offer freely. The referendum is over, the SNP is here to stay, independence remains a legitimate and popular goal, and the SNP’s representatives still have a worthwhile and legitimate role to play in Westminster for so long as we remain in the union. The sooner the unionist parties confront those (for them) inconvenient truths, the better for everyone.

* Yes, I know - blah blah cybernats etc. I'm talking here about the official campaigns, not the seemingly endless idiocy and discourtesy displayed by cyberScotnats and their equally vociferous cyberBritnat counterparts.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Deal Or No Deal?

My 'Scots Independent' column for January...

It took me until the end of Tony Blair’s first term as Prime Minister to realise this, but Labour really has only 2 core messages it uses at a UK General Election. Never mind any high-minded social democratic impulses about fairness, equality or improvement - in opposition the message is to say 'vote Labour and get the Tories out', while in Government it becomes 'vote Labour and keep the Tories out'. 
Subtle or sophisticated it ain't. Nevertheless, when taken up with gusto by the Daily Record and played alongside the usual Yookay meeja obsession about who'll be occupying 10 Downing Street, it's always had the desired effect, at least in Scotland. For a combination of reasons, however, that might just be about to change.

We've seen Labour appear to defy electoral gravity for so long in Scotland that it's hard to believe that anything might dislodge them from their perch in many Westminster constituencies. Yet equally, we've all seen the post-indyref rise of SNP voting intentions for Westminster at the expense of Labour and importantly, seen the polls stay there long enough to get the feeling that something big could be happening this time round.

For all the wild talk of how many seats the SNP could potentially win, the idea has now got ‘out there’ that the SNP could be about to replace Labour as the dominant Scottish party at Westminster, possibly even holding the balance of power. Crucially, the voters - at least Scottish voters anyway - seem quite comfortable with the idea. 
A new politics of engaged disillusionment is clashing head on with politics as ‘business as usual’ on both sides of the border. Leaving the national question aside, much of it has to do with the way that Labour and the Tories continue to pursue the sort of Midland and South-East swing voters who have always won elections for them in the past. It’s a strategy which relies on your 'core' vote staying loyal because its got no-one else worth voting for.

Except this is now shaping up nicely as the election where these voters actually do go somewhere else. Right now, Labour and the Tories are mired in the low to mid thirties of the UK opinion polls while UKIP and the Greens are capturing the disillusioned in sufficient numbers to outpoll the Lib Dems. Factor in the rise of the SNP and you have a perfect storm, where no-one gets a majority and all sorts of deals become possible, subject to the numbers on the floor of the house.

This time, the SNP has come up with a credible counter to the ‘keep the Tories out’ line. If you send an SNP MP to Westminster instead of a Labour MP, not only will we get more powers for Scotland, we’ll also help keep the Tories out of power. Since the Tories have no chance of winning in most of Scotland, a vote for the SNP is also a vote to keep the Tories out and to make sure Scotland gets a better deal than Labour will ever deliver alone. 
What’s really set the cat amongst the pigeons however is Nicola Sturgeon’s suggestion that the SNP would end its self-denying ordinance by voting on ‘English’ matters in the House of Commons. Predictably the Tories are apoplectic and once more muttering darkly about the West Lothian Question and a strange creature calling itself ‘English Votes for English Laws’. 
Except it’s near impossible as things stand to have any such thing as an ‘English only’ matter. The Scottish block grant is calculated as a percentage of the public spending which takes place in England. Make a decision which cuts spending in England and whether we like it or not, that cut will feed through to Scotland’s budget as well. 
Overnight, by making it clear that its MPs are prepared to vote on more than just reserved matters, the SNP has put itself into contention as a serious governing partner of whatever kind at Westminster. By doing so, it should be able - if the numbers are right - to extract some significant concessions for Scotland over the course of the next parliament.

The dilemma for Labour is obvious. However, the strategy is not without its own pitfalls from an SNP perspective either. For if a UK Government depends on SNP members for its survival, where’s the incentive to offer Scotland the sort of financial autonomy which would decouple Scottish spending from English policy decisions, if by granting those powers it removes the main incentive for the SNP having agreed to support that government in the first place? 
There’s ways around that one, but it’s going to force Labour to confront the question of how much they want to regain power at Westminster and how much autonomy they are willing to see Scotland assume. It’s possible to see the outlines of deals which might be done, but much depends on who gets to negotiate for Labour and how much authority they will have within their party to do so.

When it comes to seeing the bigger picture and finding some common ground with the SNP even when its in their interests to do so, Labour’s leaders seldom seem to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Some in Labour, no doubt, would under those circumstances prefer to do their ‘patriotic’ duty as they saw it and form instead a ‘National’ government along with the Conservatives. I wonder if they’ll rule that out before May?