Last Sunday, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale gave what I considered to be a rather unremarkable interview in which she confirmed that Labour would seek to represent people in Scotland who had voted either Yes or No in last year’s independence referendum. The horror.
Not content with that bombshell, she also said “I’m not going to shut down my party’s renewal and debate because people hold a different position around independence. We should have a democratic debate within our party over the big issues of the day.”
Interviewed the following day and quizzed on the same topic, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie was equally open-minded:
We’re liberals – if we can’t be tolerant about people taking different views on the constitution, what can we be tolerant about?
We’ve always adopted that approach – if members want to speak up for independence in our party, they’ve always been perfectly entitled to do so.
In fact many of them do and I congratulate them for sticking to their principles on that.
Bizarrely, much has been made of these two interviews with both the SNP and Tories, together again, seizing on the quotes as contrived evidence that Labour and the LibDems have abandoned their constitutional position. Ruth Davidson was busy telling people that she no longer knew whether the other two parties could be trusted with their unionist stance and the Tories were the only avowedly pro-UK party; whilst SNP windbag-in-chief Pete Wishart felt it necessary to articulate the 5-year old’s conclusion.
In 2015 Scotland, you see, only the constitution matters. Every single debate is overshadowed by the spectre of a second referendum and framed in terms of independence. Nothing matters except whether you “are” Yes or No; nothing matters except your answer’s reflection on a case for or against the union. And it’s bloody embarrassing.
If your only goal is an independent Scotland or the continuance of the United Kingdom then you are a nationalist, pure and simple. For the rest of us, the constitutional settlement is the means to an end – the most likely arrangement to see the kind of society we want to live in.
The SNP are obviously very much the former. They don’t care what happens before or after independence so long as Scotland is “free”. This is why they need to keep the political argument in Scotland firmly focused on a second referendum. The SNP says to voters “it doesn’t matter what policies you believe in so long as you vote Yes”. This is why it can unite those who believe in a carbon-free world and those who want to bleed the North Sea dry. Why it can count on the support of those who foresee a socialist utopia whilst simultaneously courting big business with a 3% corporation tax cut. And it’s why that support didn’t waver when the proposal was dropped by Sturgeon only for that self-same tax to be cut by 2% by the dreaded “we’re-not-like-them-really” Westminster Tories.
All decisions made by the SNP are predicated not by principle but by one question – how will it help The Cause? It’s what their former Justice Secretary termed “making the wrong decisions for the right reasons” when justifying his inaction over prisoners’ voting rights. Doing what Kenny MacAskill considered to be the right thing might have harmed a Yes vote and so was dismissed. How many more “right decisions” have been blocked to foster nationalism? How many more times have “bad decisions” been postponed until after votes the nationalists needed to win? Might the Scottish Government’s current side-stepping on fracking be just one more example?
In contrast, Labour and the LibDems are promising to make the right decisions for the right reasons; saying “it doesn’t matter what your view on the constitution is, as long as you share our values”. This is entirely the right approach to take. Only nationalists, be they Scottish or British, are defined by their stance on independence. The rest of us are defined by our values, by what we believe in.
There is no party that could profess to represent me simply by hoisting a flag and declaring to be more committed to that flag than anyone else. That’s because I, like most people, don’t believe in the United Kingdom or an independent Scotland for the sake of the flag; we believe that it’s the best option because of what we believe that constitutional arrangement enables.
Many commentators, notably Alex Massie, may think it naïve to hope that politics in Scotland will return to a place where flags are less important than facts but I see little alternative. To simply take a hardline unionist stance in response to the SNP’s hardline nationalist stance, regardless of policy, plays into the latter’s hands and allows them to continue to frame the debate in Scotland as an endless binary choice on the constitutional settlement.
Any opposition to SNP policies will be written off as “unionist” and dismissed as anti-independence, perennially negative, never standing *for* anything. They will be able to galvanise their support on the basis that the opposition parties are united simply by their opposition to the SNP, by their opposition to independence. When pro-independence voters see the other parties as representing nothing but unionism, they will never vote for them.
Naturally, both Labour and the LibDems want to be known as more than just a unionist party. And for reasons that are blindingly obvious to any moron in Scotland, as evidenced by Mr Wishart’s tweet above, the SNP will want to now cast the independence question as the SNP versus the Tories. Anyone who falls for that really needs to question their capacity to cast a vote.
If the Tories want to portray themselves as the British nationalist party and seek to attract votes by virtue of a flag rather than policies, well that’s up to them. But there are a growing number of us in Scotland who are frankly sick of the fundamentalism inherent in the independence question, sick of the binary tribalism that the referendum has engendered and sick of the policies that affect people taking a back seat to a constitutional question we decided last year.
For many of us, a return to policy debate and trying to make a positive difference under the circumstances the people of Scotland chose would be very welcome indeed. Unlikely? Wishful thinking? Naïve? Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean we should tell half the electorate we have no interest in their vote. It’s about giving them a reason to vote for us, rather than hoping they just give up on the SNP.
And it’s better than endlessly allowing the SNP to dictate the debate on their own terms.