Say what you like about the economy going down the plughole, but somebody is making a tidy sum flogging tin ears at the Scottish border. And every party leader who sojourns north to explain to us what we really, really want seems content to buy a lifetime supply. Latest tourist has been shiny new Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey, who has always seemed a congenial enough cove. Not his fault that his knowledge of contemporary Scotland seems roughly on a par with my intimate grasp of party politics in Kazakhstan. I expect Scotland didn’t feature much on his radar pre Swinson. And even less post Swinson.
For a man purporting to be on a listening tour of these isles, selective deafness is not the shrewdest tactic. On his visit to a Fife zoo (remind me who is media advisor is again) he re-iterated the purpose of his trip: “to engage with people, find out what’s on their minds, what are their fears and problems…what are their hopes and dreams.” He helpfully explained that no matter the make up of the next Scottish parliament, his Scottish troops would not be voting in favour of a second referendum. His fellow knight, Keir Starmer, has been popping up here too explaining to us why an independence referendum would be a total distraction from the real problems we face.
Then, at considerable extra charge, we have had the PM scurrying up here too, maintaining the stout Tory tradition of only appearing in places where the electorate can’t spot him. (The electorate bore this deprivation with customary fortitude.) For the sake of brevity, let me endeavour to give these gents the same message about our “fears and problems, hopes and dreams”. Being a generous soul, I can even throw in the principal reasons their Scottish polling ratings consistently head south, as the pro-Indy members rise.
We face many similar problems right now, that’s for sure. A pandemic which is scaring the pants of anyone with the wit to understand the seriousness of a situation which few people globally have encountered in their lifetimes. We face the economic uncertainty and undoubted calamity of being wrenched from our existing trade arrangements and personal freedoms when post transition Brexit morphs into terrible reality in a few short weeks time.
Yet what visiting “grandees” utterly fail to grasp, is that faced with these twin calamities how we are governed and by whom takes on fresh importance and a very real urgency. It is clear to all but the wilfully myopic, the Johnson government has neither the intellectual capacity nor strategic nous to cope with either. And the UK’s assorted electorates are about to be the collateral damage from their serial incompetence. If Messrs Starmer and Davey observe that landscape and don’t understand that our “hopes and dreams” involve leaving the deadly embrace of Westminster and endeavouring to build a more rational alternative then, frankly, they’re in the wrong job.
It’s not, as some unionist scribblers would have you believe, that the Scots have a uniquely selfish desire to pretend their English, Welsh and Northern Irish friends and neighbours are not involuntarily travelling in the same leaky boat. But staying lashed to the bow deck of the fast sinking Titanic as a lifeboat awaits would seem somewhat futile. Yesterday, in a characteristically thoughtful essay, Professor James Mitchell argued that the constitutional debate in Scotland should be shaped by the kind of society and economy it wishes to build rather than the simpler Yes please, or no thanks of 2014. By how to minimise inequalities and enhance life chances. Indeed.
Yet he also makes the telling point that the UK is not, and never was a unitary state, which is what England has always casually supposed, unlike the other nations. For too long too many have used England and Britain interchangeably. Thus do we have Keir Starmer talking about “our country” and Labour’s new patriotism with no apparent regard for the fact that there are actually three nations and the Northern Irish Province in the equation.
I’m not sure what the precise opposite of enlightened self interest is, but the UK’s party leaders have certainly got the hang of it. Dissing independence is one thing; there will always be Scots who cherish a dual nationality with Britain, though, statistically, they seem to be dying off. But quite another kettle of Cullen skink is assuming the “sovereign” right to deny an independence referendum to a country, a distinct nation, which expresses a quantifiable desire to have one. Anyone with pretensions to be labelled a democrat should be able to see the raw injustice of that.
And, so long as they don’t, their support will continue to do its snow off a dyke impersonation. A listening exercise should do what it says on the tin; coming to Scotland to dictate the terms of its future constitutional arrangements is an entirely counter productive means of re-engaging lost support, whilst simultaneously getting right up the noses of relatively neutral voters. As it happens, I think Keir Starmer is decent human being. Ditto Ed Davey. Though not, I’m afraid, the charlatan in Number 10. But not a one of them understands Scotland. Or, it seems, has paid her the basic respect of doing their homework in advance of their day trips. Not a one of them understands the obligations and responsibilities of a union formed as an alleged partnership.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is how little they comprehend what even devolved government entails. They seem constantly surprised, not least in the ludicrous Scotland Office with its expensive ambassadorial pretensions, that health and education policies and much more are no longer for Westminster to dictate. They are yesterday’s men marching in lockstep to yesteryear’s drumbeat. In addition, the attempted imposition of an internal UK market merely underscores the UK government’s ignorance.
As for our right to hold a referendum? Parroting “once in a generation” platitudes is utterly, utterly meaningless in a post Brexit, pandemic ridden, totally new set of circumstances and cast list. We may live in an entirely interdependent world, but we reserve the right to decide on whom to depend.