If a week is a long time in politics, then between now and June is an eternity.
I am very worried that the agenda on Scotland is set by the Tories and the media and is not being set by the Independence movement nor by the SNP. Yes I know the SNP is well ahead of the other parties in the polls and that Nicola Sturgeon has approval ratings most politicians would kill for. Yet there is still real danger.
The fact is that if you look at the Unionist pages on Facebook and elsewhere you will find she is also gravely disliked by some, and accusations are made of hubris. In the situation as of a week ago this was almost background noise but now there is a real threat. One of the biggest dangers now is complacency. The assumption that somehow wishful thinking will result in the Scottish electorate coming to their sense, embracing the real need for Independence and returning 100% SNP MP’s to Westminster. I have written before about Group-Think and its dangers.
Anything other than an increased support for the SNP is going to be seized on as justification for denial of any Independence referendum in future.
Firstly the very issue of Independence itself. The polls are not shifting dramatically. The latest ones put it about 46 percent in favour. There have been a couple of polls which give a small majority in favour and signs that support in the younger age groups is (much) higher. That is a big shift on the last few years, although not a major change from the Independence Referendum. Brexit has not had a major impact as yet. There is not the overwhelming consensus that would give a popular mandate for Independence. (see http://whatscotlandthinks.org/questions/how-would-you-vote-in-the-in-a-scottish-independence-referendum-if-held-now-ask#table )
The success of the SNP in the last general election and in the Holyrood elections was not predicated on being a vote for Independence but on electing a political party. On that basis they had major success. Ever since there has been a background noise, in fact near constant from both Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives about Independence. Why? It is surely because that is the SNP’s weakness. If the SNP is all about breaking the UK up then their real record is irrelevant. There has been much made of accusations that the SNP obsesses about Independence and fails to get on with the day job. This is unfair but the constant repetition leads to a suspicion being raised in the minds of voters.
The General Election is being touted in Scotland as a sort of proxy Independence Referendum. This is true of both sides. I have thought a mass resignation of MPs and a series of by-elections on the single issue of Independence would be one way to get round May’s refusal to grant a referendum, but now is not the the time. Let us be clear that I would dearly love to see Scotland free of the shackles of Westminster. I am as familiar with the pro- and anti-Independence arguments as most, and probably more than most. However that is not the task before us now. The task now is to reduce the Tory’s majority. The Tory Party would love to see the Scottish electorate arguing about Independence rather than the situation with the Health service, the Social Security System, social care, privatisations, the Brexit mess and all their other failings. I have to differ with Craig Murray on this when he says “we can seize this God-given moment and state boldly that a vote for the SNP is a vote for Independence, and campaign on that basis. A simple majority of Scottish MPs should be enough for a mandate – after all a simple majority of UK MPs is enough to give Theresa May vast powers to continue her arrogant style of rule.” ( “This Westminster Election IS Indyref2 )
It is true that May has a very arrogant approach to Government, yet the fight is against a right wing dictatorial UK government. Because the case for Independence needs making with more care (and more thoroughly) than has been the case hitherto we would, I predict, lose the argument with the electorate if there is an attempt to fight the general election on Independence. The last Yes meeting I attended was working on the basis of a two year lead for any decision on Independence. We are simply not prepared for that fight over the next few weeks.
I could go through a long list of areas where the case is generally weak, at least as far as popular perceptions go, but a few examples will suffice.
There is a matter of the Scottish deficit which is a chestnut hauled out every time I have talked about Independence other than with existing supporters. The idea of Scotland running at a deficit is deeply ingrained. I have heard it said that an independent Scotland would desperately need IMF bailouts to survive. Leaving aside the vexed question of the accuracy of GERS on which the case for Scottish deficit is based, this is a weakness for the Tories, who have generated massive increases in the UK’s national debt, and used it to fund tax breaks for the rich. They are susceptible to attack on that front, but not so far as to give a compelling case for Independence as yet.
There are related issues. The whole question of a currency is still open to debate. It is a subject on which a working party is working for the SNP as I understand it, but that is not yet reporting. Any options need to be well thought out and costed. They have to be realistic.
Likewise the whole issue of the economy of an independent Scotland needs sorting. No one can predict with accuracy what is going to happen and the world changes rapidly. Much has been said about oil revenues, tax on oil companies and the criminal lack of any sort of oil fund on the Norwegian model. All of this gives much ammunition for a highly successful Independence referendum but not in the time scale we now have before the General Election.
Europe is another area of doubt. SNP policy is EU membership. A bit of research showed no correlation by voting areas for a yes vote in the 2014 Independence Referendum and a remain vote in the EU one last year. It suggests a lot of Independence supporters are not EU supporters. The figure of around 400,000 SNP supporters being anti-EU membership has been floated. With the EU a massive topic in the coming election then it needs saying that it will be a matter for a choice by the people of Scotland post-Independence.
Brexit has some possibility of relief for fisheries, although I suspect that may be illusory, and I suspect that May would not hesitate to use fisheries as a bargaining chip. It might, however, lead to some Conservative gains in areas affected.
There is still some doubt about pensions and social security. Who would pick up the tab for Old Age and public sector pensions in an independent Scotland? Surely there would have to be some negotiation on this and blanket assurances are not going to cut through the mistrust and worries.
In short there is a lot of work to do on independence and the case to be made for it.
So where does that leave us with the next few weeks?
The General Election campaign gives a platform for arguing that can form a very real distinctive nature of Scotland. It allows, indeed demands, the putting forward of the very real achievements of the SNP in both Scotland and at Westminster, where they have been much more of an effective opposition than they generally get credit for.
That can form a good grounding for future Independence campaigning.
The Tories are wide open to attack. Brexit came about because of the internal fighting within the Conservative Party. It is ironic that a party supposedly “conservative” has played fast and loose with the constitution itself. There is no real plan for relations with Europe or the World. So far we have seen the Prime Minister fawning over Trump, and some of the most hard-line figures in the Middle East, supporting bombing in Syria and other horrors. They seem to be trapped in some sort of imperialist nostalgia for navy blue passports and being a world power.
There has to be a strong suspicion that May called this election to avoid the loss of her majority which would be very likely following election fraud investigations. We are not privy to the names subject to potential charges, although there is speculation. If suspicion is enough it could include some prominent senior figures. Better for her to fight potential by-elections if some MPs are barred following convictions with a big overall majority than risk losing a majority completely.
The Conservatives have not been good on the economy of the UK, never mind on benefiting Scotland.
They went ahead with Trident, which is not even an independent nuclear deterrent.
They have presided over a failing NHS, to an extent that is staggering. The worst excesses of that failure are mitigated in Scotland, thanks to devolution. That needs saying.
There is a massive problem across the public services. Libraries, education and so are all struggling with cuts. Those cuts which are the result of government policies. Even the armed forces are facing real cuts and more and more is demanded of fewer personnel, whilst basic services support is out-sourced to the private sector.
The Social Security system is in meltdown. The UN produced a very critical report on the abuse of human rights by the Department of Work and Pensions. That has hardly been noted in public discourse but it needs shouting from the roof tops. Scotland still has welfare rights support workers in local authorities, England does not.
There is treatment beyond appalling of the sick, the disabled and the unemployed. See https://scottishunemployedworkers.net/ for some examples. The “Rape Clause” is but the latest in a long line of attacks on the poor, and more and more are pulled into the oppressive regime of DWP directed “job searching” as Universal Credit extends its reach to those in employment on low wages. Increasingly we are a low wage, zero hours economy, if you have work at all that is. Pensions are threatened and the retirement age is rising. The callous way of dealings with the unfortunate is endemic, sometimes particular examples and campaigns get attention, such as the sudden and unannounced raising of retirement age for a whole group of women, sometimes they are simply lost to public view.
The fight against Conservatism in Scotland demands action from all of us over the next few weeks, we have both Council elections and the General Election. The choice is between more right wing centralism and a democratic left of centre approach. I am not optimistic of a Labour success in the General Election, nor of a hung Parliament. What we can achieve is a victory for the SNP across Scotland. The price of doing that is putting aside the question of Independence as the central issue, and concentrating on social justice and the sort of society we want. That will give a good basis for Independence in due time, a time when the case can be made clearer and in detail. Given the lack of a large majority for Independence fighting the General election on that topic is likely to be a vote loser. The challenge now is defeating the Conservatives in both the Council and General elections.