Some weeks are more pivotal than others. This one matters. It matters because of B Day on Friday, complete with a festival of Union Flaggery in London, red white and blue buildings and the release of a 50 pence coin bearing the implausible legend: “ peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.” Of all the porkies associated with leaving the European Union this has to be up there with the most brazen. We need a Scottish mint to issue an alternative with Aye Right! on its backside.
But two days before Daft Friday we have our own Watershed Wednesday. That day the First Minister is due to deliver her latest thoughts on pathways to independence and the next IndyRef. It is a moment where rocks and hard places vie for top billing as she tries to navigate particularly choppy political waters. Demonstrate too few signs of movement and activity within her government and she risks being labelled the grand old Duchess of York; her troops mustering behind a standard whose bearer is fresh out of rallying cries. There are already discernible signs of frustration even among the most dedicated marching troops, tired of getting a cheery wee tweet rather than full throated support.
Then again, make promises that are unfulfillable and she knows they will come back to bite her on the bum not too far down the line. The unionist stormtroopers and their more useful idiots are already in full voice rehearsing Better Together 2.0 Nothing would give them more of a boost than perceiving the Indy bandwagon is losing momentum. There are other threats from within the Yes community itself. I wonder if all the cheerleaders for another over arching Yes movement ever paused to remember that the Scottish Constitutional Convention is just such a vehicle and has made a point of reaching out beyond the usual party political suspects.
They and Voices for Scotland are in the midst of hammering out strategies, so any new kids on the same block had better make sure they don’t waste time and talent re-inventing assorted wheels. And any old kids - are you listening Jim Sillars - please remember that marching and thinking are not mutually exclusive hobbies.Of course it’s important that a thousand flowers bloom, and of course we need a message with a broad appeal to Indy supporters of all political persuasions and none. But it would be a perverse folly to have them all singing from different hymn sheets.
Thus on Wednesday the First Minister’s speech will need to be very carefully calibrated. One of problems she faces is partially self inflicted. I have little doubt from many conversations in many quarters that there is serious work being done backstage. Work on the wording of the next referendum question, work exploring arguments as to which government can call what legal shots, and, not least, work on answering the non friendly fire which will come when the question gets posed again. We don’t need another publishing doorstop, but we do need a coherent set of answers, not least for the fiscal debate. However it’s long past time that the Scottish government is more frank with its supporters about all this. Treat the voters like grown ups. Tell them what you think could work and why. Ditto what can’t. People might argue that this would merely give succour to the enemy camp. Maybe, but its hostility is already a given. What’s needed now is succour for the faithful. The natives are more than a wee thing restless as the many and varied calls to arms surely indicate. All manner of civil disobedience has been floated. The think tanks are publishing myriad thoughts. That increasingly febrile energy needs respected and harnessed.
I remember the first Claim of Right in 1989, and the thrill of watching it being signed in the Assembly Hall on the Mound. More recently I remember it being endorsed in the summer of 2018, albeit without a vote, in the House of Commons. This is a moment when that Claim has to be re-stated and updated – not just emphasising the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine their own future in or out of the UK, but in or out of Europe too. For the European question will loom ever larger after next weekend. And although it’s been made crystal clear that Europe will not entertain a Scottish bid to re-join unless and until it is an independent entity – or cut it a Northern Ireland style deal – that has not prevented work being done on making sure our bid is oven ready when the time comes.
These last few weeks have seen many straws in the wind which should be grasped with renewed vigour. It is not insignificant that all three devolved administrations voted against the Withdrawal Act. Stormont now has a first minister at the helm who learned the hard way that you need a very lang spoon to sup with the Tories, and a new deputy with whom Scotland can certainly do business. Carwyn Jones, the former Labour first minister of Wales, has made an extraordinary speech underscoring the danger of letting Westminster use the Act to hobble the other UK parliaments and suck out their power. The Dublin government has pointed to the very real parallels with Scottish ambitions. We have friends in interesting places.
Yet we know too that the Joint Ministerial Council will continue to be a flimsy piece of window dressing masking the power vacuum within. When crucial trade talks begin, we will once more be shouting impotently from the sidelines. So this indeed is a pivotal moment for Scotland. Not a moment to come over all wee sleekit cowerin’ beastie, our ancient kingdom trampled down by big Westminster boots. Rather a moment to locate our inner lion rampant. I doubt that Nicola Sturgeon will use her Wednesday address to deviate from her hostility to a non binding referendum. But whatever plans she announces must underscore with all vigour that nobody, least of all her government, is in the market for throwing in the towel.
First published in The National. 27.1.2020