Everybody’s talking about it. It’s the word on everyone’s lips. Which is why I can’t get this Harry Nilsson song out of my head.
Because talking at, rather than about, is what’s been happening. Ironic really, given that independence only featured in the last week of the campaign, that it is now the talking point.
Perhaps Iain Gray and Labour were on to something when they talked about distractions?! I jest.
The margin of the SNP’s victory means that of course, independence is now front and central, or at least the process that might lead to it, is. And in a week that needed political filling as Holyrood gears up, there’s no better topic to keep everyone chattering. Here’s hoping that when Alex Salmond picks his Cabinet and sets out his programme for government, realpolitik will return. There is after all, much to do to keep us occupied, though for sure, independence will never be far from people’s minds.
So far, Alex Salmond has played a blinder. Again. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The SNP might seem a sudden, late convert to the benefits of devolution max, seeing the Scotland bill as the way to accrue more powers. But actually it isn’t. Gradualism has always been Salmond’s meme and despite some tactical huffing and puffing by his government at the committee stages, ultimately, he led the whole Scottish Parliament in backing the committee’s proposals to increase the Parliament’s powers.
It all seems to be going according to plan. Some of these proposals have been voted down at the bill’s early stages and Scottish Labour MPs have popped up with nonsensical amendments on abolishing regional MSPs and allowances for the very MSPs they want to abolish and in their place, create dual constituency MSPs. Yep, really.
We either get devo max and are further down the road or Wesminster blocks it, making the case for independence compelling. Despite us voting for a Scottish Spring, the chip is never far from our shoulder. Wha’ daur meddle wi’ us should become the new national motto.
The other thing that people did actually vote for on 5 May was for the debate. There might not be a majority in favour of independence – yet – but people are up for the debate and they want to be in charge of their own destiny. They want their say and voted for the party prepared to give it to them. MPs and MSPs of all parties should be mindful of this over the next five years.
If we have learned anything from the chatter in the last week, it is that we have far to travel. The burd has never subscribed to the SNP commonality of independence first, then we’ll work out what to do with it. It has been prevalent for years, and I’ve always felt it was myopic. People will want to know what they are voting for surely. What will independence actually mean and deliver? We cannot be expected to hold our breath and leap.
And having – by necessity – put the consequences of independence on the backburner for a number of years, the pasting Nicola Sturgeon got from Paxman on Newsnight this week shows that the SNP has a lot of work to do. A point our wonderful Depute First Minister made, when Paxman let her. There are five years to sort it out and make sure that what independent Scotland might do on all those issues that currently tie us into the UK framework – foreign policy, defence, welfare etc – is logical and credible.
Fortunately, there are some sound starting points. Allan Macartney, whom Scottish politics misses, even now, perhaps more than ever, got the ball rolling with his treatise Citizens not Subjects. The equally lamented, late Sir Neil MacCormick also prepared a masterful document on the constitutional niceties of the process. There will be a number of SNP folk digging through their archives this weekend to dust both these documents off….
Moreover, there is the small matter of whether we mean independence as it was once understood. Does the SNP need to think about the nomenclature to avoid getting bound up in semantic driven debates that ordinary folk will tune out of? How can, in this globally intertwined world, a country be fully independent? Especially one that exists on an island shared by other nations? What best describes the relationship the SNP wants Scotland to choose with its neighbours here, on mainland Europe and further afield? Freedom might still appeal to a certain proportion of the party membership but is a cry from the past. Independence suggests isolation and yes, separation, neither of which concepts are helpful. Whisper it, but the first thing the SNP might have to do is change the name of its key fundamental policy.
There are other risks for the SNP Government. People did not vote for the next five years to be dominated by this issue alone. Yes, they voted for a positive, optimistic future but the SNP’s manifesto was chockful of steady as she goes messages on key totems of devolved Scottish life. Attention must be paid to fulfilling the compact it has established with the Scottish people and to providing the competence and assurance that people were anxious to have for the hard financial times to come.
If that competence does not materialise because of constitutional distractions, or the Scottish people feel they have been short-changed or worse, misled, then we may just find that rather than everybody talking, no one wants to talk about it all.