Why is Westminster dominating Scotland’s debate?
A few weeks ago, Ian Davidson appeared on Newsnight Scotland to talk – ostensibly – about a report on the independence referendum compiled by Westminster’s Scottish Affairs committee which he chairs.
During the interview he accused Isobel Fraser and the programme of always seeing things through a Holyrood prism and referred disdainfully to the programme as Newsnat. Isobel Fraser was, rightly, shocked, angry and indignant and despite demanding an apology, got none. Davidson stuck to his guns.
While everyone was seeing red, I was laughing my socks off. Not because of the slur on Isobel Fraser’s impartiality or journalistic ethics – that was unforgiveable - but because Davidson got what he came for. A stairheid rammie that showed Davidson defending the interests of his constituency.
Not the voter one, but his parliamentary one.
Since the inception of devolution, Scottish MPs – Labour ones mostly – have felt marginalised and sidelined. The constitutional debate makes them very nervous, for it would remove them from the political landscape. The Scottish Affairs committee’s central conclusion – that Scotland can have a referendum if it wants, but only the referendum Westminster wants it to have - simply states a constitutional truth.
Yet – as the protagonists know – it’s all a bit more complicated than that. However, as subscribers to the UK body, there is no way Scottish MPs are going to step aside for the laughable notion (in their eyes) of the sovereignty of the Scottish people.
Their role is a simple one: to thwart further devolution and thereby, ensure their continued relevance and salaries. Which is why when the Scotland bill went back down the road, replete with recommendations for further beefing up by a Holyrood committee led by a Labour MSP, this was ignored. Attempts to introduce amendments adding the powers sought by all MSPs were rebuffed. The Scotland bill we got was the one Westminster was prepared to give us.
What many Scottish MPs fail to grasp – because absence from the day to day of Scottish life, political or otherwise foments it – is that Scotland has changed. The Scottish people are in a very different place politically, socially, economically and culturally than when they started out in politics. Indeed, the very idea of the Nationalists running anything is still something Labour Scottish MPs in particular, struggle to get their head around.
Some of this doesn’t apply to the SNP’s MPs, but subtly, some of it does. While they are much more comfortable with the idea that they are effectively abolishing themselves by advocating a referendum on independence and indeed, campaigning for a yes vote in it, and clearly are delighted that their party is running Scotland, some of their number have grown rather used to the Westminster way of doing things. Gone native is the term whispered by some.
And while they would deny it, they – or at least, the ones who have gone native – have acquired some of the other habits inculcated by the hothouse atmosphere of Westminster. Including, albeit to a lesser extent, being stuck in a political timewarp. Or at least, they adhere to and promulgate a political narrative that is utterly relevant to the context within which they ply their politics – which is to be fair, a bigger stage influenced by more than domestic considerations – but might seem somewhat aloof from the day to day concerns and thinking of Scots.
All of this is by way of preamble to ask why the SNP continues to promote the case for independence with UK politics and the Westminster view of things as the centre of its axis? And why so much of the messaging is being delivered by the Westminster team? To put it another way, who constitutes the SNP “leadership” these days?
If you look at how the SNP is framing this debate – or trying to – the language, the approach and the narrative hasn’t actually changed all that much from the case that was made in the 1980s and 1990s. It is almost as though devolution never happened. Thus, the premise is about Scotland becoming independent, when in actuality, we are talking, post devolution, about Scotland assuming more powers, indeed, all the powers other nation states have, to effectively run our country the way we want to.
Clearly the debate has to be about how Scotland would handle some of those powers, but does it always have to be about the ones that still sit with Westminster? Wouldn’t Scots like to know more about what an independent Scotland might do with education if it had full fiscal autonomy? About which powers matter the most (for it appears to have been assumed that where people need reassurance is on the issues currently reserved at UK level).
It also means that much of the debate is being had in a language and on messaging that I – and others I know – don’t entirely recognise. Maybe one of the stumbling blocks to the Scottish people choosing independence is their fear of a loss of British identity, of the social union that has been much trumpeted. But is that the best way to frame the discussion? Or is that positing it in a way which suits Westminster, because it is a debate it and they can comprehend and respond to?
The current terms of engagement appear to be what the SNP leadership wants. There was Alex Salmond making a flagship speech about broadcasting in an independent Scotland, here come the Westminster outriders with their opinion pieces and commentary – all of it very good – backing up what the main man has to say. Newsnet Scotland ensures the official line is further spun and later this week, no doubt Joan McAlpine’s column in the Daily Record will provide further ballast. In amongst it all, are the cyberNats blogging and tweeting furiously “the lines” that the hierarchy want put out there.
But by and large, the line spun – on broadcasting and other matters – is the one the SNP was spinning decades ago. And whisper it, it didn’t work then. As many of those longstanding activists who have become MSPs can testify.
In the intervening period, the SNP found a way of making its case, purely on the Scottish stage, in Scottish terms of reference. for the people of Scotland to trust in them, their policies, their approach and vote for them. It worked. And it was quite different from what is going on now.
Indeed, the voices of MSPs and indeed, Ministers are often missing from the current discourse, though some – along with other activists who can count their membership and support in decades rather than years – do engage, clearly relishing the return to their political equivalent of comfy old slippers.
It begs the question – why are they missing? Why are they not doing more of the commenting and reinforcing of messaging?
Which is not to suggest that there is some kind of split, the way there is in Scottish Labour. No doubt it is all part of a plan.
But I’m not sure it’s working and I’m not sure conducting Scotland’s debate on Westminster’s terms is going to convince Scotland to vote yes. All it appears to be doing is giving the likes of Ian Davidson a relevance to the discussion he – and they – don’t deserve.