“Waiting for Godot” vs. “Carpe diem”

godot photo
Photo by SiYH
The National recently published an interesting interview with Alex Salmond. Amongst other things, he said this:

[Jeremy Corbyn] wonders why he can’t get a lead in the opinion polls – well you can’t stay fuzzy on the big issue of the day and expect to beat the Government. That might tell the SNP that time is short to provide a different Scottish solution.

That’s exactly it. The SNP seems to be busy triangulating in New Labour fashion between Remain and Leave, trying to create some sort of fuzzy middle way that will keep both sides happy, but the result is utterly uninspiring, and it means Scotland is very close to going down with the Titanic instead of launching a lifeboat.

In the same article, Alex Salmond points out that “depute leadership elections in the SNP have been quite significant, [such as the one in] 1987, which was basically the classic face-off between the fundamentalists and the gradualists.” I think that what he means is that the current election in the same way can become a way for the party’s members to choose between two fundamentally different ways forward:

  1. The SNP can, as suggested by Pete Wishart, focus on keeping the party together, getting through Brexit (probably spending a lot of energy on getting as many powers as possible transferred to Holyrood rather than Westminster), and waiting for the most opportune moment to call a new referendum. In the following, I’ll refer to this strategy as “Waiting for Godot” (slightly unkindly, I’ll admit).
  2. Alternatively, the SNP can go back to saying that a hard Brexit simply is unacceptable to Scotland, given the outcome of the referendum here, and if this cannot be avoided by working together with other parties at Westminster, Scotland will need to organise a new independence referendum to limit Brexit to a very soft version in the immediate future, probably followed by full EU membership later. This means that campaigning needs to restart asap in order to achieve a majority soon enough. I’ll call this the “Carpe diem” (“seize the day”) strategy in the following.

Personally I believe that the “Waiting for Godot” route will be an utter disaster. The hard Brexit that the Tories are planning will be horrendous for Scotland, and I don’t believe for a second that voters will respond to a massive recession (and the resulting cuts to the Scottish NHS and other public services) by voting SNP in even bigger numbers than before – as the party in power, the SNP will get blamed as much as the Tories. So even if opinion polls at some point in the future show a massive majority for independence, it’s unlikely that there will be a majority of pro-independence parties that can call a referendum.

It’s also interesting that this strategy is exactly what the SNP Leavers were calling for immediately after the Brexit referendum (see my old fisk of Alex Neil’s article in The Telegraph for details on this). In other words, the “Waiting for Godot” strategy means giving in to the Leavers, although Remainers dominated in both the SNP and Scotland as a whole. It is not a compromise, but a way to ensure that Brexit doesn’t get rolled back in Scotland.

Of course all Yes—Remainers worry about getting the timing of the next independence referendum right, and it would be disastrous to lose it. However, referendums are never predictable, and starting with a strong lead in the opinion polls does not guarantee a win. Surely it’s much more important to have a strong campaign that inspires hope (for instance by allowing voters to escape Brexit).

Finally, it will almost certainly not remain the case that Scottish independence is the safest way to stop Brexit. At some point – and whether this will before or after Brexit I don’t know – a party will emerge in England that will fight wholeheartedly for the UK to remain in the EU, or to rejoin. At that point Scottish independence will not look like a lifeboat any longer, and it will become almost impossible to inspire an electorate that is fed up with change and upheaval.

I do wish that the SNP had seized the moment a year ago, but there’s still time. The first step is for the SNP’s next depute leader to belong to the “Carpe diem” faction, and I shall most certainly be voting for those candidates (such as James Dornan).

Waiting for Godot could easily lead to a very long wait – perhaps for more than a generation. This is the time to act. We need to campaign against Brexit, and for independence in Europe.

Falling between two stools

two stools photo
Photo by Rennett Stowe
The Herald has a story today about Scotland getting many more powers post-Brexit (but see also James Kelly’s reasons for doubting it here).

However, I really don’t care, and I think the SNP really have to decide whether they are serious about stopping Brexit or not. It feels like they’re trying to be all things to all men – aiming to become an independent EU member state while talking up EFTA membership and trying to get as many powers as possible after Brexit – and the result is they’re falling between two stools. (Well, more than two stools actually.)

For instance, if they’re serious about stopping Brexit from happening in Scotland (whether by declaring independence or by working together with Unionist parties to reversing it altogether), it’s completely irrelevant whether Westminster were planning to hand over all powers or none post-Brexit.

Alternatively, if they don’t think there’s any chance of stopping Brexit, they should tell the grassroots – many of whom are waiting impatiently at the starting line because they believe ScotRef is imminent. And they should perhaps also tell the EU citizens in Scotland that they should prepare for a Brexit that will give the UK Home Office enormous powers to throw them out of Scotland.

As far as I can tell, the SNP are sending out mixed messages because they’re trying to please all the camps inside the party – the pro-EU mob, the EFTA gang, and the Leavers who don’t really want to discuss independence till Brexit is done and dusted. The result is confusing, and it makes the threats they regularly make about holding a new independence referendum if Westminster don’t behave sound rather hollow.

(My point here is about the messaging: It’s obviously good governance to tell the civil servants to prepare for all scenarios, but if you talk too much about this, the government looks confused and insincere.)

I’ve been saying for a long time that you simply cannot win over the No–Remainers while holding on to the Yes–Leavers. Because the former group is so much bigger than the latter one, my recommendation was always to focus on winning over the Remainers, but it seems that the SNP leadership have instead decided to focus on keeping the Leavers relatively happy by toning down the pro-EU messages.

Perhaps it’s better for the party in the long run (although I have my doubts), but stories celebrating how wonderful the new powers coming to Scotland after Brexit will be are not making me happy – they’re making me doubt that the SNP are sincere about stopping Brexit – and that comes just a few days after the leak of the UK Government’s analysis confirmed the Scottish Government’s figures showing that a hard Brexit will be absolutely disastrous for the Scottish economy. (And we must be talking about a hard Brexit here – if it’s a soft one, hardly any powers will return to Westminster or to Scotland.)

So what is the plan?

The art of the possible

pink unicorn photo
Photo by libraryink
It’s clear that the EU are regarding December’s deal on Brexit’s Phase 1 as an agreement and not just as some sort of cuddly waffle, which seems to have been Westminster’s interpretation. The EU are therefore turning it into a legal agreement that basically says that Northern Ireland will remain in the Internal Market and the Customs Union unless pink unicorns appear out of nowhere.

Nicola Sturgeon has now been suggesting that this means Scotland should be offered the same deal as Northern Ireland. I agree this would be great, but I sadly don’t believe it’ll happen. A special deal is not something Westminster are keen on (and it might yet make the DUP withdraw their support for Theresa May’s government), and it’s only on the table because the EU are protecting Ireland’s interests – and they’re only doing this because Ireland is an EU member state. Scotland is not. There’s also the fact that giving Northern Ireland a different deal from Great Britain is a way to avoid a land border, whereas treating Scotland the same as Northern Ireland would create one (between England and Scotland); I don’t see why Westminster would agree to this unless they have no other options.

Politics is the art of the possible, as Otto von Bismarck once said. At the end of the day, it’s not about what would be the right thing to do, or about what would be sensible, but about what you can get away with.

Catalonia and the Iraqi Kurds had to learn this the hard way. They seemed to think that if only they managed to hold an independence referendum and obtain a Yes vote, then they would automatically get welcomed into the family of independent nations, and their interests and security would be protected by international law. I’m exaggerating a bit, but that’s what it looked like from the outside. They forgot that if it wouldn’t be possible for them to assert and protect their independence, and if it would be possible for the country they were breaking away from to use force to prevent it from happening, then that was always likely to happen instead. In the case of Catalonia, they forgot that the EU is primarily a club of member states, many of which have their own “problems” with independence movements, so unless they were presented with a fait accompli, they would opt to preserve the status quo.

It seems to me that Theresa May and her government have concluded that it isn’t possible for Scotland to do anything. That Nicola Sturgeon and the rest of the SNP will jump up and down and shout that Scotland won’t allow it, but that nothing will happen. That the Scottish Government won’t dare to call a referendum without Westminster’s approval, and that there aren’t any other options. It is therefore possible for them to treat Scotland with contempt and enact whatever kind of Brexit they like without any approval whatsoever from Holyrood.

I hope they’re wrong, because there are many signs that they will enact a very hard Brexit (perhaps even leaving without a deal), and as we now know, this will be an absolutely calamity for Scotland that will be many times worse than the 2008 recession.

I sometimes wonder whether the SNP’s plan is to wait impatiently until the people of Scotland wake up and realise what Westminster are doing to them, and then ride the wave of popular anger. It’s playing with fire, though. The people might at that point be just as angry with the SNP that didn’t do anything tangible to protect them against a Brexit that they knew all along would damage Scotland deeply.

As an EU citizen and a New Scot, I’m definitely starting to feel quite angry. Nicola Sturgeon basically promised people like me on the morning after the Brexit referendum that she would protect us and keep Scotland in the EU (either by stopping Brexit or by organising a new independence referendum in time to keep Scotland in the Internal Market when the rUK leaves). More and more prominent SNP representatives seem now to be saying that this is impossible and that Scotland will leave the EU with the rest of the UK. Given that immigration hasn’t been devolved to Scotland, this doesn’t protect us EU citizens in the slightest, and I honestly feel that we’ve been let down.

I really hope I’m wrong and that Nicola Sturgeon and the rest of the SNP leadership have a great plan up their sleeve that they will enact soon. And I mean a concrete plan – something which is possible and which doesn’t depend on Westminster playing ball. We need to know what Scotland will do if Theresa May keeps repeating that “now is not the time”. (And let’s face it – it worked last time she said it, so why would she ever change her mind?) I know that the vast majority of SNP members are impatient – they want to be out there campaigning for independence. So perhaps the plan is to start the campaign now and try to get the popular support up to a level where Westminster cannot ignore it any longer. Perhaps the plan is something else. But it is high time for Scotland to do whatever is possible to stop Brexit from happening in Scotland. Let us dae or dee.