Words Matter

I was going to write last night about how the draft Bill for a second referendum was being reported, but time ran out on me. This morning I noted that Wings over Scotland have written about the same thing, but rather more extensively (http://wingsoverscotland.com/and-twirling-always-twirling/).

I had been going to satisfy myself with the observation that the Herald was presenting the story in a sort of “she’s keeping the independence option open” kind of way, but giving prominence to the statements one might have expected from Ruth Davidson about focusing on the problems of Scotland, and by Kezia Dugdale that she was “shifting the goalposts” by “suggesting that securing ongoing membership of the single market, rather than retaining full benefits of EU membership, would be enough to convince her to call off a second independence referendum” (http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/14724618.Sturgeon_keeps_options_open_over_independence_despite_single_market_demands/).

However, that was not the way that it was reported in the Guardian, where the headline in Severin Carrell’s report told us pretty much all we needed to know about the approach. In contrast to the Herald – “options open” – in the Guardian independence was on the back burner – “Sturgeon shelves plan for quick second Scottish independence referendum” (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/sep/06/nicola-sturgeon-shelves-quick-second-scottish-independence-referendum-bill).

The first couple of paragraphs tell their own story

“Nicola Sturgeon has shelved plans for a quick second referendum on Scottish independence after dire spending figures and a fall in public support for leaving the UK.

The first minister told Holyrood on Tuesday that her government only planned to issue a consultation on a draft referendum bill – a measure which falls short of tabling new legislation in this year’s programme for government.”

So instead of options open, according to the Guardian, Sturgeon is running away, because of the dreadful GERS figures, and – quite bafflingly – her appointment of Mike Russell (one of the most “combative figures” at Holyrood) as her Brexit minister. This remember is the same item of news – keeping the option on the table (despite encouragement to put it away) or running away.

As Wings points out, other newspapers had their own agendas, so the same item of news – remember – the independence referendum bill “has – in the space of a single 48-word sentence in a 4,600-word speech – been edged towards, backed away from, shelved, threatened, lined up, put on the back burner and consulted on”. Quite a remarkable set of interpretations for a single sentence. The problem of course is that none of them is entirely truthful, because the reality is that the next referendum is contingent on Brexit. In that sense the key decision-maker is not actually the First Minister, but the Prime Minister.

However, one would not get this impression from a reading of the UK press, as the above demonstrates quite fully. However, I want to focus on another example – David Torrance’s weekly SNP BAD article in the Herald headlined “Like Brown, Sturgeon risks letting the genie out of the bottle” (http://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/14723055.David_Torrance__Like_Brown__Sturgeon_risks_letting_the_genie_out_the_bottle/). Essentially Torrance attempts to develop an analogy with the time when Gordon Brown had just become PM, and with the polls in his favour, after some prevarication, decided against a snap election for his own personal mandate, opting instead to go the distance of that Parliament, and ending up losing to the Tory/ Lib Dem coalition in 2010. Torrance’s argument is that Sturgeon is doing much the same thing, prevaricating and by doing so may end up losing support, if the tide for independence is fully in just now.

Yet Torrance recognises that the call for a second referendum is contingent on triggering Article 50, when all the reasonable options for Scotland retaining meaningful links with the EU have been ruled out or shown not be possible. He writes “When Article 50 is triggered and it’s confirmed that Scotland isn’t going to stay in the EU (or the Single Market, the First Minister’s “red line” continues to shift) the SNP’s strategists will have to decide how they’re going to respond”, and indeed there is an argument there that needs to be respected. A response will be needed, but it wont necessarily be to trigger the next referendum.

In this regard, Torrance claims, “I don’t get the sense those in charge necessarily see Article 50 as a decision point, rather they’ll continue to busk it, waiting for something to come up. But the trouble with this is that “something” bad may emerge.”. But how likely – or unlikely – is “something” bad to emerge? It is perhaps one of those accidents of history that the day before Torrance’s piece came out, the “normally discreet Japan Gov has very publicly slapped UK for Brexit”, as Robert Peston tweeted the evening before. The Japanese PM and ambassador to London have both warned the British government that if Japanese companies – which employ between them 140,000 in the UK – cannot continue to make profits working from here, then they will leave. In short the likelihood of “something” bad emerging is by no means that farfetched.

However, the real killer for Torrance’s SNP BAD hypothesis, is that, as he recognises himself, indyref2 is contingent on Article 50 being triggered. When will that be? Immediately after the 23rd June, we might have expected it to be triggered, if not now then very shortly. Then it became the end of this year. Then early next year. Then the middle of next year. Some suggest it might not be till 2019!

And whose decision will it be? It won’t be one for the FM, as the Secretary of State made clear (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-37276167) “”Scotland is part of the United Kingdom. The UK government is responsible for Scotland’s membership of the EU and for foreign affairs so obviously the UK government is going to take the lead in the negotiations in relation to our position in the EU. Asked if Ms Sturgeon could expect a “veto” over any position that emerges, Mr Mundell went on: “There isn’t going to be a veto for anyone in relation to the EU negotiations”. The decision, therefore, will be one for the PM.

Thus all Torrance’s talk of the Scottish Govt, letting the genie out of the bottle, is quite misplaced. If indyref2 is contingent on Brexit actually happening, then the person who has the first decision to take is Theresa May, and the indecision – and indeed lack of clarity – right now, is hers and her government’s.

But more than this, we would do well to wonder why Torrance, and those who share his opinions, are arguing for a vote they don’t want – indyref2 – which may bring an outcome they certainly do not want – independence. But their demand for indyref to happen now, before the full horrors of Brexit have had time to emerge – at the moment the Japanese have been uniquely clear, and even then we are talking about 140,000 jobs – is indicative of their thinking. If there is to be another referendum lets have it now, when the chances of a Yes vote are less. As John Curtice pointed out in his most recent blog, after an increase immediately after the 23rd June, support for independence has returned to around 46% (http://blog.whatscotlandthinks.org/2016/09/has-brexit-not-had-much-impact-on/), so let’s have it sooner rathe rather than later when Yes might win. My own view has always been that Brexit, of an by itself, no matter how much of a democratic outrage it might be, will not take us to independence. But the consequences of Brexit might very well do this.

When the possibility of another independence referendum is raised, there are two common retorts in the mainstream media. One is the Ruth Davidson approach, aping Johann Lamont during the last referendum, that there is a country to run. Remember “Scotland on pause”? Or to argue, let’s have it now. The former is a variant on the “once in a generation” argument, while the latter seeks to hurry it on, in the expectation that as time wears on, and the consequences of Brexit become more clear, the likelihood of a Yes vote increases. Both are attempts by Unionism to avoid the inevitable, or if not inevitable to hold it at a less than propitious time. We need to hold our nerve. Work remains to be done, as Robin McAlpine points out in “Determination” so that the independence offer is more convincing than last time. As Tommy Sheppard has said “every part of the that white paper [from the last referendum] is obviously going to have to be looked at and reviewed and dusted down and re-presented if and when we get to a next independence referendum” (http://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/snp-s-tommy-sheppard-urges-review-of-independence-white-paper-1-4194104).

But more than that, the Brexit and the current political situation in the UK – in particular leaving the UK with the most reactionary and right wing Tory government for many years – causes the tide to flow in our favour. As Eric Joyce wrote recently in his blog, former No voters – and he instances in particular JK Rowling who he says may support the Union but “loathes” the Tories – “realise that what’s in their hearts has become a never-neverland they’ll never get to visit. Then they’ll re-imagine Scotland’s future and choose social democracy in an independent Scotland over Tory ascendancy.” (http://ericjoyce.co.uk/2016/09/jk-rowling-is-the-folk-who-will-move-scotland-from-no-to-yes/)