Imagine there’s no countries…
Well that is going a bit far, but imagine that there was once a proposal that one country should split back into at least two of its constituent parts after a union of over 300 years. Those making the proposal had been duly elected with mandate to hold a referendum to that effect, and were give free rein to do so, including choosing the question, the timing and the electorate. That referendum was held and despite the idealistic Yes campaign making the most noise, the sceptical No campaign won the day.
(There is of course no imagination at all required in this case: it is recorded history that the largest ever vote for anything ever in the history of Scotland was recorded for the No side in September 2014. But what comes next does require imagination.)
But imagine that following the declaration, the First Minister responsible announced his resignation but made two statements. The first was that as the proposal for independence had been defeated, it was incumbent on his successor to consider whether it was in the best interests of the country to continue to try to pursue it as an objective. Secondly, he reminded his successor (whoever that might be) that in the event of a Yes vote, he had intended to bring together all parties to seek united and creative ways forward. He suggested that the same process should take place to rebuild unity and harmony which had been disrupted by a bitter and divisive referendum campaign.
The governing party duly elected a new leader, but only after a lot of soul-searching amongst its two candidates and their respective factions.
On the one side were the realists (or ‘Realos’) who acknowledged defeat and pointed out that their party had signed up to the referendum being decisive and that they would work for the best future whatever the outcome. On the other side were the fundamentalists (‘Fundis’) who insisted that the referendum had only been the first step in a longer campaign and that it had been won by No due to a mixture of scaremongering, chicanery and electoral fraud on the part of the No campaign.
When the governing party met for the announcement of its new leader, the outcome was still uncertain, and it was clear that the whoever won would have a hard job uniting the members, now hardened into its Realo and Fundi camps. Debate was passionate but knowledgeable, and boiled down to two opposing propositions: was it the job of the party to serve the country as a whole (as the Realos contended)? Or was it to defy the voters and instead to carry on pursuing independence indefinitely?
The independent scrutineer announced the result of the leadership ballot – the Realo candidate had won by 55% to 45% – the same as the outcome of the failed referendum. This provided her with the perfect opening to her acceptance speech:
Friends, colleagues, fellow Nationalists. Thank you for electing me. But I am aware that there will be many who do not welcome this outcome. I sympathise with you and feel your pain – we were all part of that 45% that suffered deeper disappointment.
But look, we are still here: defeated in a cause in which we have invested so much: our time, our hearts, our lives. But since we lost the referendum, I have learnt a profound and powerful lesson which I hope I can pass on to you.
I have looked at our country and seen what the referendum did to it: the divisions between friends and neighbours, the families split, the growth of a new sectarianism, where the question is no longer “which school did you go to?” but “were you Yes or No?” I have also seen that while there is uncertainty caused by the threat of a further independence bid, investment is falling in our economy, with effects on productivity and in turn on employment.
Therefore I am going to take the following steps.
First, I will convene the all-party group promised by predecessor. Its specific remit will be to unite the country behind the outcome of the referendum.
Secondly, I will make the first item on the agenda of the group a proposal for a Government of National Unity, proving that goodwill is not the monopoly of any faction or party in this country. And as a token of our goodwill, I will accept the invitation of the leader of the opposition to develop a bipartisan policy on National Health Service, taking it out of the political realm so real solutions for the long term can be developed.
Finally, and I know this will hurt some, I will suspend Article 2a of our constitution for a period of 25 years. This of course commits us to independence. The 25 years of course refers to our own definition of the referendum- [emphasis] OUR OWN definition – as Once In A Generation which we repeated so frequently in our campaign. But please note also that I am not proposing deletion of that clause.
In the meantime, I will be setting up a working group under my deputy’s leadership to set out a fully timetabled and costed strategy to prepare a case for independence for the next generation.
Colleagues, one of the things which I have realised in the wake of our defeat was this: our economic case was not strong enough, our currency plan was an Achilles Heel, and our opponents were right to call us out on the issues which most affect the most needy in society, notably spending on public services and pensions. We need a radical rethink, we need our own Once In A Generation transformation. We need to get real and never again to offer a proposition to our people which is based on wishful thinking and half-truths.
And I have learned more in that same self-reflection.
I have learned that those who opposed us in the referendum did so with just the same love of this country as we did: it is just they saw things in a different way. They want the same good society that we do, and the same freedoms and the same success for our nation, but they saw that they might be better achieved in a continuing union.
And crucially, it turns out, they knew our people better then we did. I know that it is hard to stomach, and I had some problem doing so. But it is a truth we must face.
What is more, I stand before you today having been a member of our party all my adult life. What I tell you is that if I can swallow this bitter medicine, so can you. Our country needs us far more as positive and engaged citizens than it does as a bitter remnant of past battles, forever crying into our our beer, wallowing in the indignation of defeat rather than addressing the challenges of the new reality we face.
This is of course all fantasy: in the event, Alex Salmond announced that “the dream would never die” and within days appeared on national television effectively firing the starting gun for the next referendum.
There was and is no Realo faction in the SNP, which comprises solely of fundamentalists, and its leadership was inherited by Nicola Sturgeon, who far from challenging her fanatical supporters indulged them with a 12,000-strong party rally where they waved giant foam hands and sang sentimental songs about ancient wars. She also rejected Johann Lamont’s proposal for a bipartisan approach to the Scottish NHS.
So what’s the point of all this?
To show that things didn’t have be this way and that the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon passed up the chance to reunite Scotland with a fresh start after the referendum. Instead of which they are to blame for persistent and increasingly bitter division, seemingly without end.
And the reason is the lack of leadership and the small vision of a better Scotland that grips the SNP and its leadership, which puts its own interest above that of Scotland and the UK, in contravention of its commitments in the Edinburgh Agreement, specifically set out in S.30 of its Memorandum of Understanding:
“ The two governments are committed to continue to work together constructively in the light of the outcome, whatever it is, in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom.”
This was the better way to go. But now we can only imagine.
(But I still hope I’m not the only one.)