Thursday 27 October 2022

Scottish politics is trench warfare


Writing about Scottish politics over the last ten years feels like being stuck in a trench. Now because of my Aberdeenshire stinginess, I sit looking out on a grey October morning without any heating, with every light turned off except one and with the prospect of lukewarm shower to look forward to as I only turn the hot water on for brief moments. With my diet of oatmeal, 70 pence a kilo, root vegetables grown locally and nettles and rosehips foraged nearby, the diet and living conditions of a First World War soldier appear luxurious.

There was the major offensive in 2014 when the Pro UK side went over the top and achieved a breakthrough. For one glorious day we thought we had defeated General Salmond decisively. But the Salmond National Party (SNP) morphed into the Sturgeon National Party (SNP) and contained the breakthrough turning it into a dangerous salient.

In 2015 the SNP attacked from all sides got nearly 50% of the vote and left our side divided and with one seat each. Since then, the SNP trenches have lobbed shells at us, but the Jacobites and Robert the Bruce reenactors have always ended up hanging on the old barbed wire.

General Sturgeon keeps gathering her troops for an offensive. Next year we will have an independence referendum. But whenever next year comes somehow despite a lot of noise from the SNP howitzers we never quite get there.

First there was the Brexit offensive in 2016. Scotland didn’t vote to leave Europe cried the SNP, but this just led to the great retreat of the 2017 General Election where the SNP lost 21 seats and ended up with just 36% of the vote. Not much good when you need more than half.

Next there was the attempt by the SNP to stop Britain leaving the EU. But if Parliament could ignore the result of the 2016 EU referendum, why could it not equally ignore the result of any referendum on Scottish independence? If losers got a second go because they didn’t like Brexit, why couldn’t Pro UK people argue for a second chance if the SNP ever won a referendum on independence?

The stalemate of trying to leave the EU was broken by Boris Johnson’s sacrifice of Northern Ireland as if it were a pawn in the Queen’s gambit. But he didn’t win the pawn back and instead lost his cabinet members, his job and eventually his Queen.

Now in Scotland we stare across at each other using improvised periscopes and look forward to a Highland charge next October except it depends on the Supreme Court agreeing that Sturgeon’s forces can charge and even if they do Pro UK forces might decide to take down all of our wire, refuse to shoot and in general not take part at all. That way the kilted warriors will breach our lines only to find themselves in cavalry country, but with nowhere obvious to go.

Scottish nationalists always claim that their eventual triumph is inevitable. The Pro UK side is old and sniping and tedium have taken their toll. The demographics are against you General Sturgeon tells us. You are dying. We just have to wait for you to die. But even if lots of Scottish nationalists are born each year, some of them must be turning Pro UK as they take on jobs and mortgages and have their own Scottish nationalist babies ready and willing for the Curriculum for Independence.

All those school lessons that deal only with Scottish regiments fighting in the First World War all those Burns days, Scottish days and Tartan days at primary school and all that pointing out how the wicked British were responsible for slavery not us, do not reliably turn Scottish nationalist babies into SNP voters ready to go over the top.

The Pro UK side and the SNP have roughly equal troop numbers. We each have 50% plus or minus five. This is enough to give the SNP victory in every election, but it is not enough to win independence.

It’s all very well looking at what victory and defeat might involve in Ukraine, but what would it involve in Scotland? With numbers on both sides equal is there a compromise that would give each side some of what it wants but not all.

I would accept any compromise so long as Scotland remained permanently part of the UK and we remained British citizens. If the SNP agreed to that I would give them whatever else they wanted, be it full fiscal autonomy, more powers, federation perhaps even confederation, though I don’t see how that could work in practice.

But what would the SNP offer? For Sturgeon not to win completely, i.e., for the SNP to compromise it would have to accept that Scotland did not achieve independence. If Scotland gets independence that is total victory. So, compromise must mean less than that. But what?

The answer perhaps is shared sovereignty. This too might be the long-term answer in Northern Ireland. This might horrify both sides. But the problem in Northern Ireland is that both sides have contradictory wishes. One side wishes Northern Ireland to join with Ireland, the other wants it to remain part of the UK. Well could not the citizens of Northern Ireland be both British and Irish, could not the territory and its costs be shared between Ireland and the United Kingdom?

How this might be brought about is anyone’s guess, but Ireland gained a role in Northern Ireland with the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985) and extended that role with the Belfast Agreement (1998). If shared sovereignty brought permanent peace and stability, it would be worth grasping.

Scotland is divided but there is not the tension between Scottish nationalists and Pro UK Scots like in Northern Ireland. Still if stalemate continues, or if one side or the other claims total victory with 50% plus one vote, there is every chance that the losing side won’t accept the result and won’t be reconciled to either remaining in the UK or independence.

You cannot build a new state with just over half the population supporting it and the rest against. You equally cannot maintain the UK long-term with majorities in Scotland, Northern Ireland and perhaps Wales wishing to leave.

At the moment the SNP is going down the unilateral route. We will have a vote without permission if you don’t grant it. We will turn a General Election unilaterally into a vote for independence. Implicit is the threat that we will unilaterally declare independence à la Catalane if we win any of these votes.

But the SNP does not have the numbers to be unilateralists, just as we did not have the numbers in 2014 to declare total victory now and forever.

I would prefer that the UK was a single unitary sovereign state like France with parts that happen to be called countries. But my neighbours view the situation differently. We can stare at each other from separate trenches indefinitely or we can find a political compromise that gives each of us some of what we want. At that point we could meet in the middle and find that no man’s land has become a shared space for all of us.