A few days ago, one of the truly great journalists of our time, Neal Ascherson, wrote the following when reflecting on claims that actions are being taken to strengthen the union (a shared desire of Tory, Labour and Lib Dems).
“Rhetoric about strengthening the union really means centralization of the UK state so that no alternative source of power can challenge the ‘sovereign’ absolutism of the Westminster Parliament”.
Indeed I would argue that during the current pandemic ultra unionists like Michael Gove and Ian Murray are obviously affronted with even the tiniest deviation by Scotland from the policies of the UK, or more precisely Boris Johnson’s England. Centralisation in Westminster is a drug, however harmful, they cannot escape from.
Added to the coming of a chaotic end to the Brexit transition period, and the fact those pesky Scots seem to think because they didn’t vote for it they shouldn’t suffer like the rest of the UK, it is all proving too much for the unionists.
Hence the planned power grab. Hence the Internal Market Bill. Hence moves as Neal Ascherson points out to vigorously prosecute a huge centralisation agenda to the sole benefit of Westminster. So far, so bad.
An understandable reaction in many quarters is to see this primarliy in terms of an attack on devolution, and therefore our response should be to defend the devolution settlement with all the political might we can muster. Well, count me out. I think this is a flawed analysis and the wrong conclusion. Let me explain.
I call as my first witness First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. During this pandemic, Nicola’s daily briefings on the pandemic have marked her out as standing head and shoulders above the entire Boris Johnson cabinet. Still, however magnificent Nicola’s communication skills are, they have at the same time exposed the inadequacy of devolution. Sometimes she has been able to state her frustration at the lack of economic levers, or lack of powers over borders or some other lack of power. Sometimes, she has held herself back from talking but has been unable to stop her facial expressions saying a thousand words. This frustration is borne of a weakness of devolution itself. This is not something to be defended: This is something to sort.
One particular area of disquiet throughout this pandemic, has been the claim in many instances that what is needed is a four nation approach. My disquiet is two fold. First, there is no science for a four nation unitary approach, there is only politics. Second, of course in many areas there is a need to avoid a simple Scotland only approach, but in most cases I would argue what it calls for (for example in relation to border issues) is an international approach. A four nation UK approach is decidedly not an international approach. I am reminded here of once sharing a platform with another outstanding Scottish journalist, the late Ludovik Kennedy. As he said addressing a meeting in Maybole Town Hall back in 1970,
“ You can’t be an inter-nationalist without being a nationalist first”,
by which he meant you need statehood before you can fully participate on the international stage.
My next witness is Kate Forbes. Kate quite rightly vented her frustration at the UK government cancelling the budget. In tweets she stated,
“This is a (UK) Government that denies the Scottish Government the most basic of financial flexibilities, despite repeated requests, and now will scrap the main and only source of our funding figures to allow us to set next year's budget.”
“This decision is breath-taking in its disregard for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. If there is no UK budget, how are devolved Govt meant to set our own budgets? Local Government, the NHS, taxpayers all depend on confirmation of spending and tax plans.”
Readers don't need me to point out the anger and frustration mirroring those of the First Minister.
The point I cannot emphasise strongly enough is that all these frustrations and blockages are BEFORE the power grab takes place. This is what we would be defending, by simply defending the current devolution settlement.
The inexorable logic then, is that Scotland is held back both by the inadequacy of devolution and an inability to reach far beyond the constraints of an outmoded inward looking UK state.
From this perspective, the Internal Market Bill is hopefully the last throw of the unionist dice. The reaction should be not to defend devolution, but to strain every sinew in pursuit of independence. (As an aside. even if victory for devolution was achieved and every word of the entire Internal Market Bill fell, does anyone seriously believe there would not be further assaults on devolution by Westminster?)
I call as my final witness the grass roots of the SNP and wider YES movement. When elected representatives, however senior and well respected, call for a campaign on any issue, they know and we know they rely on a multitude of foot soldiers to do the work on the ground. Otherwise their clarion calls will echo around the empty streets.
So I ask you. What is it the movement is seeking, indeed is becoming increasingly impatient about? Is it to have a march in favour of protecting devolution’s status quo, or is it to march onwards to independence? You know the answer.