Time To Seize The Moment

The French magazine, roughly the equivalent of our Economist, had one of many arresting front covers on sale in the Paris kiosks. Above a picture of a bulldog exiting the page clutching a star from the European flag L’Express’ headline said: “The True Victim of Brexit is Europe.”  And an editorial inside warned that the EU had to examine its conscience to reflect on why it had amputated one of its most important partners. (A very generous interpretation of Britain shooting itself in the foot.) Being in the French capital as we finally exited Europe has been a strange experience.
There was certainly no sign of a Gallic shrug in the media with papers like Le Figaro featuring a raft of British comment, including one from Nicola Sturgeon underscoring Scotland’s European credentials. La Croix, the leading Catholic paper, devoted no fewer than ten pages to the exit, again featuring an array of UK commentators including two Scottish academics. Overall, the tone, in the printed press at least, was definitively more sorrowful than angry, and markedly less jingoistic than its British equivalents. Rather, like many of the rest of us, it was scratching its head in a mixture of incomprehension and disbelief.

For a while it seemed a pleasant idea to be spending the weekend in mainland Europe, my passport still a comforting burgundy and recently renewed to put another ten years on the clock. Yet in truth the sense of loss was exacerbated by being in a civilised, visibly multi cultural capital whose citizenry, whatever their own political frustrations, would continue to traverse the continent at will and whose students would face no barriers to study or work in 27 countries. My friend with whom I was staying, lit a candle and put it in the window before midnight, Paris time, on Friday. A woman who shares her life between France and Scotland pronounced herself desolate. Moi aussi!

It was strange too, to watch the First Minister’s speech online whilst furth of Scotland, and then to tune into the resultant twitter storm. Two camps quickly formed; those who thought Nicola Sturgeon had little choice but to throw a chilling dose of political reality over her more febrile supporters, and those who could barely contain their frustration at yet another promise of “jam tomorrow” The Scottish commentariat, for the most part, seemed to think she was merely giving a glimpse of the bleeding obvious; that the indy appetite was not yet strong enough, nor the London government persuaded of the merits of her mandate. One columnist, whom I both like and admire and who is no enemy of the indy movement, took to the airwaves yesterday morning to suggest that Nicola’s steady as she goes mantra was the only game in town.

I don’t believe it is. Friday’s speech may have been long on realism, and lost no opportunity to extol the virtues of patience. The long game would need to go on a little longer But what it lacked for me was the kind of raw passion those tens of thousands of marchers have no difficulty in summoning. Obviously they do not labour under the burdens of a First Minister trying at once to keep the faithful on board without frightening any of the potential yes voting horses. Nobody should dismiss or underestimate the challenges involved. But, to be frank, there are limits as to how often you can urge patience and caution without royally cheesing off the people whom you need to be your evangelical ambassadors amongst the fearful and the unconvinced. If the converted are to bring more footsoldiers on board they need some fire put in their bellies, rather than an invitation to read some policy papers, valuable as these may be further down the line.

Obviously hard work has to continue to be done on the nuts and bolts needed to construct a newly independent nation. Obviously the backroom strategists need to be constantly involved building partnerships and bridges. Self evidently the questions which holed the movement below the water line in 2014 have to be addressed and honestly answered.Yes, yes and yes. But please, we want more.

The welcome decision of UNISON to recognise the merits of Scotland running its own referendum is evidence that out there in the field people are already making progress. The 51% favouring yes in the latest poll is another important straw in the wind. There is an appetite for action which will not be sated – and crucially will not be enhanced – by serial invitations to ca’ canny. Waiting for Westminster is a bit like waiting for Godot – or waiting on wan at the Bingo if you prefer – the odds are long and lengthening on the current Tory administration suddenly having a change of heart. And portraying ourselves as endlessly pleading supplicants is really not a good look.

The First Minister made it clear she thought testing our case in the courts was a risk which could backfire. It could. But a disinclination to take any risks when the prize is so great and the optimum time limited, is not the kind of fearful spirit which drives a nation towards statehood. All over social media people are metaphorically wringing their hands and warning of the desperate danger of splits in the Indy movement. But this is a necessary debate, not a split. It’s about the means and the process, not the end. A new Claim of Right is fine. A constitutional convention may well be benign but smacks too much of long grass for my own taste. We do not need to re-invent existing wheels. Civic Scotland is already on the march, but it would prefer to continue up the hill rather than stop for tea and smelling salts.

On Saturday afternoon, in the raucous atmosphere of the Auld Alliance pub, I watched the wondrous Stuart Hogg agonisingly drop the ball when a score was within his grasp. I don’t want the Indy movement to reprise that mistake.


Published in The National 3.2.2020