The very, very new SNP MP for East Lothian has been in post for some two dozen days. He will not think of himself as a very, very new MP of course. In his head he will be a big player in the political game, having once been in a Holyrood cabinet as Justice Secretary. And subsequently a columnist not shy to criticise the administration of which he was once a part. (I imagine the fact that he was sacked by Nicola Sturgeon in 2014 has had no bearing whatsoever on his various analyses.) In short, Mr Kenny MacAskill will probably have what is known in these parts as “a guid conceit” of himself. Which is perhaps why he felt no need to restrain himself in a current Scottish Left Review article explicitly contradicting his party leader’s stated timetable for a second independence referendum.
It is common currency amongst the Scottish commentariat that a 2020 poll is unlikely. As journalists they are free to unburden themselves of an opinion regardless of is impact on the government or the electorate. But Mr MacAskill’s day job is no longer as a member of the fourth estate. He is but one of a new Westminster team batting for the SNP. He is not its team leader and certainly not someone hired to kick down the dressing room door before his compatriots have even taken to the field. He will know, as every political animal does, that the least attractive option for voters seeking where to plight their troth is a party divided. So it seems an odd moment to pick a wholly unnecessary internal fight when the other Scottish parties are in a state of involuntary flux.
When Scottish Labour’s Monica Lennon came up with what seems to this writer as a glimpse of the bleedin’ obvious – that having its policies dictated by a London based HQ, and being sometimes undermined by them was part of the reason for her party haemorrhaging votes - some of her “colleagues” piled in. This was no time to offer “Nat-lite” they fumed. And how dare she give comfort to the independinistas by suggesting having a another referendum was no more than simple democracy. Rather like camp Corbyn in the deep south, it seems there’s no shortage of Labour folk who would rather, to coin a phrase, die in a ditch than concede they might just be making the wrong offer to electors who have voted with their feet.
Meanwhile, as the Scottish Tories continue a fruitless search for Davidson 2.0 with the current names in the frame being more retreads than new models, the same doughty commentators opine that at least here is a party with a strong uncomplicated message: “No to Indyref2.” That would be the same strong message that cost them half a dozen of just 13 seats then? And we will not intrude on the personal grief of the Scottish Liberal Democrats faced with the unpalatable task of erasing their last leader’s likeness from the battle bus with the paint barely dry on it. If the Liberals have a strong message at the moment it is probably: “please help, we’re drowning not waving.”
None of which is to suggest that the Scottish government should be immune from critical assessment. The other parties have scored palpable hits with their attacks on how public services are being run – and clearly a riposte of “they’re much worse everywhere else” is not a line that will hold during the white hot heat of a referendum campaign. But there are good stories to be told. Looking at the wilful fragmentation of the national health service in England, it’s important to recognise and emphasise that the Scottish model has not gone down the road of marketisation and privatisation. This has never mattered more at a juncture when the UK’s PM will have no compunction about doing a shoddy deal with the USA’s big Pharma interests no matter how much Boris Johnson might protest the innocence of his trade ambitions. There is no shortage of evidence that promises from this quarter have all the durability of slush on a dyke.
And whilst the debates rage on about fiscal matters re currency, tax regimes, and the finer print in the growth commission report, might I suggest we raise our eyes to contemplate the wider benefits of independence which may ultimately have greater consequences for us all than the pounds or (insert couthy terminology here) in our pockets. At a moment of maximum danger in international affairs, how comforting would it be to live in a country with no pretensions about an imperial past, and no ambitions to be other than a successful small nation living in harmony with its neighbours? How wonderful not to have to echo the mealy mouthed, apologetic tones of a Westminster spokesperson as they tie themselves in moral knots trying to appease the dangerous shyster in the White House.
How brilliant to be able to construct a modest defence policy which was just that; not foot the bill for nuclear weaponry which retired generals and admirals finally feel able to admit is not just eye-wateringly expensive, but utterly irrelevant in the context of contemporary warfare of a cyber or terrorist nature. I hesitate to deploy somewhat tarnished phraseology such as taking back control, but the ability to decide what our priorities are, and how we carry ourselves internationally are no small rewards. Domestically too we can contemplate a world where social security means what it says on the tin, a properly constructed safety net for those in need, not a regime designed to punish those whose personal world has imploded for whatever reason. And a world too where migrants are honoured New Scots, welcome and valued.
For there is one over-ridingly good reason to ask our fellow Scots to sign up to self determination and that is to contemplate their children and grandchildren being raised in the kind of environment a Johnson government will continue to favour. An environment where your destiny is determined by the lottery of where you were born and to whom. Where each generation will be worse off than its parents’ one. Scotland can do better than that. And the route to bringing it about lies in accentuating those many very real positives, not indulging in the kind of internecine sniping which is manna from heaven for those who would keep Scotland locked in the deadly embrace of a right wing UK administration.
First published in The National on January 6th