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.




13 thoughts on “Why is Westminster dominating Scotland’s debate?

  1. Pingback: Independence Part III | Managua Gunn's Pirate Haven

  2. As a follow-up to my comments on the claim about politicians being “missing from the current discourse”, I did a wee check yesterday of press releases from the SNP. Over a recent period of a week to ten days I found 30 statements. These were issued under the name of no fewer than 20 different individuals – 13 MSPs, 5 MPs and 1 Councillor.

  3. I think the tactic is to do all the difficult stuff first, get it out the way. Both in terms of the referendum campaign and in terms of the Scottish Government’s programme. So tricky issues like the monarchy,the currency, NATO etc – all the things that we will be attacked on – are adjusted at this stage (though personally I am not sure that NATO is going to sail through Conference but we shall see). Ditto SNP Government getting stuff like same sex marriage, the football/sectarianism legislation, minimum pricing out the way at this stage. So in the 12 or 18 months run up to the referendum they have a better chance of setting the agenda. In a two year’s time will the No campaign still be able to bang on about these issues because people will think we have heard all this, they will be interested in hearing new arguments.

  4. The SNP seem stuck in 1996 not just with this debate but with their attitude towards Westminster Elections. About three years ago i did a piece essentially saying that it would be in the SNP’s (and Scotland’s) interests if their 2010 General Election campaign was turned into a defacto referendum on the Union.

    The thinking was that post Devolution, all that we are voting for is whether we prefer someone wearing a red rosette or a blue rosette to run the economy and to represent us on the world stage. In short, post devolution General Elections have been slightly irrelivant.

    I suspect that had the SNP done this, it would have acted as a dry run for this current referendum campaign and also identified sticking points with the Scottish Electorate. In turn we would not have has the utterly poor “Yes Scotland” campaign we currently have (the flipside probably would be that “Better Together” would be better prepared too, hmmm).

    BTW, i’m glad you found Iain Davidson funny, i was trying to locate my jaw at that point (before comparing it to Chloe Smith’s interview…)


  5. In my opinion the answer to your question lies in two parts.

    Firstly, the Referendum isn’t going to be for another two years yet. it’s a long game. The longest campaign in Scottish history. You don’t want to start playing your hand for another year on the detail. Even then drip feed it. However, I’m not sure about banging on about the tories all of the time. If Labour take a huge lead in the UK polls (which they may do by default) it will give them an opportunity to say vote no, we’ll get rid of them.

    Secondly, the SNP’s immediate tactic appears to be concentrating upon Devo Max. Get civil/civic Scotland to demand it’s on the ballot paper. The Unionists of course will not approve a S30 order with a second question. Then the truth will be revealed to the Scottish people. That Westminster will never give The Scottish Parliament real fiscal powers. A hell of a sight more effective than the SNP saying so. The SNP will keep this issue dragging on for a good few months yet-into next year. I think they’re spot on.

  6. An interesting piece.

    However, one thing I find a bit puzzling is your attempt to ignore the democratic wishes of the Scottish people.

    They have chosen their MPs in the full knowledge that responsibility for constitutional issues reside at Westminster and they voted in far greater numbers for their MPs than they did their MSPs who, as the sophisticated electorate that we know them to be, know have as much democratic right to take decisions on constitutional issues as my local community council.

    In short, MPs have been given the mandate by the people who voted for them and I would have thought that any attempt to silence the representatives of the people should be resisted by all democrats.

    I’m just surprised you are on the side of those who would try and do such a thing…

    • Another unionist myth gets an airing. The supposed impotency of the Scottish Parliament with regard to constitutional issues. For obvious reasons this particular tenet of the British nationalist faith is most fanatically adhered to by those who never wanted a real Scottish Parliament in the first place. You can often spot them by their tendency to insist on referring to the Scottish “Executive” rather than using the correct term, Scottish Government. That arch-Britnat propagandist at The Telegraph is one of that ilk. He’s a Tory, of course. But given the increasingly cosy relationship between them and their allies in the British Labour & Unionist Party, it’s pretty much a distinction without a difference.

      A little reading beyond the limitations of lie-filled Tory/Labour leaflets would soon show that, at the very least, the constitutional situation is rather more complex than can readily be encompassed by the mind of your average “Scottish” Labour loyalist.


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  8. “In amongst it all, are the cyberNats blogging and tweeting furiously “the lines” that the hierarchy want put out there.”

    As one of the independence campaign’s more prolific Twitter activists, and a somewhat less assiduous blogger, I can testify that the notion of a “Cybernat Army” marshalled and commanded from the centre is just another unionist myth. At no time have I ever received direction or instruction far less orders from any “hierarchy”.

    I relish the irony of an article bemoaning the perception that the SNP is allowing debate to proceed on Westminster’s terms which itself is so obviously informed by the anti-independence campaign’s frame of reference.

    And this casual acceptance of the unionist propaganda line is not confined to the myth of the “Cybernat Army”. There seems also to be an uncritical espousal of the anti-independence campaign’s portrayal of the SNP as an Alex Salmond “one man band”. The suggestion that “the voices of MSPs and indeed, Ministers are often missing from the current discourse” really jarred with me because it is so glaringly contrary to the evident reality.

    As the curator of four online magazine-style news aggregators – Referendum 2014,Politics Scotland, Business Scotland and Culture Scotland – I see pretty much every press statement, print article and online comment issued by the Scottish National Party. And I am constantly struck by the number of different sources. Indeed, material over Alex Salmond’s name is very much the exception. This diversity stands in stark contrast to other parties whose public statements are generally made by only two or three senior members.

    Maybe there’s something here worth reflecting on.

  9. Good piece as per,I see things in a similar way but not entirely.I can see the sense in “keeping my powder dry” and “waiting till I see the whites of their eyes”. We still have plenty of anti-independence media,if my view all of the media,is against independence.I’m not sure why as it could be to their advantage ,if they think it through!There is the pretend piece in a couple of papers,never on the broadcasting media but, they seem to be trying to cover themselves (with a hankie) I hope as the debate gets into the real nitty gritty,we see some honesty and some realise the advantage of independence.Just think the BBC money all being kept here how much more could be spent on programmes or imagine no licence fee? just a thought!The Express today has 4 letters and all of them pathetic,words like “planning” with no back-up and “thinking of doing” the paper itself is culpable for printing trite,but the stupidity of those who write it! defies belief.Moan over.

  10. “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.”

    And all the time main stream media largely ignore it in favour of reporting Gordon Brown’s speech on the same day/venue to be followed by their deliberate misrepresentation of what Alex Salamond actually said and faux outrage that anyone could suggest such a thing. Only a monster would take an axe to aunty Beeb like Salmond plans to do, etc, etc.

    To answer your original question “Why is Westminster dominating Scotland’s debate?” It’s because Westminster has control over main stream media, or at the very least, main stream media follow and promote Westminster’s agenda.

  11. Pingback: @burdzeyeview | Why is Westminster dominating Scotland’s debate? | With added comment | YES for an Independent Scotland | Scoop.it

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