Friday 24 March 2023

An end to interesting times


All through the years when there was a Labour Liberal coalition running Scotland, I was never remotely tempted to write about it. I had opposed devolution, but it didn’t matter very much to me that there was Scottish Executive that was in charge of some things. I paid it no attention whatsoever.

What made me start writing was Alex Salmond gaining a majority in 2011 and it becoming clear soon afterwards that there was going to be an independence referendum. This is what got me started.

Since then, I have written over 850 articles. At the beginning I was hardly read by anyone, but gradually and very slowly I built an audience. Occasionally I had messages of support from politicians or people in the media and I frequently have my work shared by some kind publishers.

I make a very little from some adverts, which is nice. But really, I’m just grateful to people who take the time to read. This is why I have never asked for donations or considered going down the paywall route.

The peak was during the pandemic. I had more time to write and everyone else had more time to read. My audience reached heights that I had never dreamed of before and then as we went back to work it gradually declined. Lately it has picked up again.

But I have been fortunate to have been writing about the most interesting period of Scottish politics perhaps for centuries. Take any ten- or fifteen-year period from 1746 onwards and it cannot remotely compare politically with what we have just gone through.

Of course, there have been wars and other great events, but they were not specifically Scottish events even if we played our full part.

But at no other point was the very existence of Scotland as part of the UK under threat as it has been since 2011.

David Cameron was very foolish indeed and very arrogant too to offer Salmond a referendum. It showed Cameron’s ignorance. Just as Leave won two years later the SNP could well have won in 2014. No country should risk its existence on a 5% swing.

Since then, the SNP has been able with 45% of the vote to destroy Labour as the party of natural power in Scotland. But it has never quite had suffient to turn that 45% support into enough to force a second referendum.

I’ve always thought that the Pro UK side of the argument would have had a good chance if there had been a second referendum. Our arguments are very good. Scotland would certainly be worse off after independence, and this is particularly the case after Brexit. Joining the EU could never compensate for leaving the UK economically unless the former UK allowed Scotland to keep its existing British trade relations and allowed free movement of people as well as goods. But that would be an extraordinarily generous response to Scotland’s leaving and with it the destruction of the UK.

But I also realised that if the SNP could leap from 30% to 45% in one campaign it could certainly leap beyond 50% in another. The campaign would be at best a coin toss. I think every Prime Minister knew this, which is why the SNP will never get permission to hold a legal referendum when there is a chance that it might win one.

There have been ups and downs for the SNP too. Its support fell considerably at the General Election of 2017 only to recover again in 2019. It has had majority support for independence in the Scottish Parliament, but the Supreme Court has now told us that majority support in a devolved parliament on a reserved matter does not give you the right to hold a referendum. Why would it? A majority in Holyrood does not allow Scotland to annex Berwick either.

Now my expectation is that Scottish politics will become boring again. This is why I begin to wonder what I am going to write about. I am not interested in ferries, nor in attempts to improve Scottish education and healthcare. I pay little or no attention to the Scottish Parliament and won’t start now.

What will it take to make Scottish politics boring. It will have to be that independence becomes a long-term issue rather than a short term one. I think both Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf accept, though not quite publicly, that there will not be a referendum any time soon. Ash Regan’s attempt to turn every election into a plebiscite would I believe damage support for the SNP even more than I expect it to be damaged.

Many Scots want independence in theory, but in practice they look to the UK as the guarantor of our standard of living. Most Scots like that we have a British Army, British pensions and all the things that go with being part of the British state except Tories. Many Scots dream of independence, but they never quite want the dream to come true, not next year anyway. As soon as it becomes clear that your mortgage might end up in Scottish pounds or Euros or there would be no Bank of England to bail us out if things went wrong, like Credit Suisse a week ago, then the adults in the room always think independence can be delayed and we never quite get to the point when we want it now.

It looks from polling that support for the SNP at Westminster is going to fall between 5 and 10%. The loss of Sturgeon is going to hit them hard. If Yousaf wins it may fall still further. Forbes is bright and decent, but she is not Salmond, nor is she Sturgeon.

Labour’s support has increased by around 10% to 29% and it is now may be able to compete with the SNP in much of the Central Belt. The Conservatives have fallen slightly to 22% since 2019, but it will still be able to compete in some rural areas as will the Lib Dems in the seats they already hold.

But this is the prize for us. If support for the SNP falls to 35% and it loses a chunk of seats and if this continues at the next Holyrood election so that there is no longer an independence supporting majority, then we are essentially back to where we were when Labour and the Lib Dems ran Holyrood.

Once independence ceases to be a short-term issue then people begin to care more about drug deaths, schools, hospitals and ferries floating. But then it’s going to be a battle of competence rather than ideology and unless the SNP start running Scotland much better Scottish voters will eventually give someone else, probably Labour a chance. At this point the ten or twelve years we have been worrying about independence will look like an aberration and I will wonder what to write about.

I don’t intend to ever give up writing. I love writing. It gives me more pleasure and fulfilment than anything else I do. I just passed the 6 million mark for readers, which is more than the population of Scotland. I hope to reach 10 million and then 20 million. I would be delighted if Scottish politics becomes boring. It will mean that we have won. But at that point I will have to find something else to write about.