It’s as regular as prune addict on a high fibre diet, every time that there’s a boost in support for independence, some opponent of independence keeches out the Federalism Fairy. Back when the Edinburgh Agreement was being negotiated between Alex Salmond and David Cameron, both the Conservatives and Labour refused to allow any question on devo max or federalism to figure on the ballot paper. This was because the anti-independence parties were so supremely confident that they would win, and win by a crushing margin, that they didn’t feel any need to trouble themselves with making any concessions to Scotland. Yet here we are, seven years on, and Labour’s Paul Sweeney is insisting that there can’t be a referendum unless there’s a question about federalism on the ballot paper. You’d almost wonder whether Paul thinks that if there’s a binary choice like there was the last time that he’d lose.
Perhaps we might take Labour in Scotland’s proclaimed enthusiasm for federalism a tad more seriously if they hadn’t sent Gordie Broon intervening all over the place in 2014 promising to implement federalism if Scotland voted no in the referendum that year. Gordie promised that he personally would hold the party leaders to account, and the second the no vote was delivered he vanished into the lucratively paid lecture circuit, leaving the federalism fairy to die a lonely death. Just like 2014, there are no detailed plans, no route map, nothing beyond vague aspirations. And absolutely no mechanism to ensure that federalism actually takes place in an England which has shown zero interest in the idea.
The federalism fairy is however Labour’s fall back in a constitutional crisis. Labour in Scotland had the rug pulled away from underneath it this week after Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said that Labour wouldn’t block another independence referendum. Paul’s resuscitation of the Federalism Fairy has quite a lot to do with the panic that now infests what’s left of the ranks of the Labour party in Scotland. But still, you do have to love the irony of Labour in Scotland being outraged because their bosses in London are making decisions which Labour in Scotland doesn’t agree with on the very topic of Scottish outrage about our bosses in London making decisions which Scotland doesn’t agree with. There they are, campaigning for Scotland to be told what to do by Westminster but when Westminster tells them what to do they get all huffy about it.
Of course, Paul isn’t about to concede that there should be a referendum any time soon. He thinks that there should be another independence referendum only if the SNP secures a majority for one in 2021, only if it’s written in the SNP manifesto IN VERY LARGE LETTERS on the front page, only if him and his pals get to determine the format of the vote and there’s also a question about federalism, and then if there’s a yes vote to independence then it will need to be put to another confirmatory referendum after independence negotiations are complete. So it’s not like he’s putting preconditions on anything, oh no, not at all. And definitely not giving Westminster licence to negotiate in bad faith so there’s a deal that the people of Scotland would reject. Heaven forfend you might imagine such a thing.
Paul speaks like a man who believes that he’s in a position to dictate from a position of strength. That would be the strength of coming his party coming in fifth place in the most recent elections in Scotland, and judging by the opinion polls quite likely to see its Scottish seats in the Commons wiped out at the next General Election.
Meanwhile Labour in Scotland continues to tie itself in knots. The branch office manager Roger Leotard, who is opposed to another referendum, was furious that a group of MSPs released a statement to the press saying that they’re opposed to another referendum after the previous statement from branch office manager Rupert Leopard that he opposed a referendum was slapped down by the Shadow Chancellor who is opposed to independence. This is the level of clarity we’ve come to expect from the Labour party.
The game plan, such as it is, from all the anti-independence parties in Scotland right now is to deny that a mandate currently exists for an independence referendum despite the fact that the SNP was elected in 2016 with a mandate for an independence referendum should there be a change in circumstances such as Brexit. There’s precious little harmony within the Labour party these days, but Paul Sweeney and branch office manager Rudolph Legwarmer both agree that existing mandate doesn’t exist at all, because it wasn’t written in a large enough font in the SNP’s 2016 manifesto.
Paul and branch office manager Ranulph Lawnmower are singing from the same songsheet as David Mundell who didn’t resign. In between admitting that he won’t actually vote to bring down Boris Johnson’s government to prevent a no deal Brexit, the spineless one confirmed that he too was willing to consider another referendum if the SNP win a majority in 2021, but only if the campaign is “explicitly” fought on that basis. And even then he didn’t actually say he’d agree to another referendum, merely that a demand for one should be “listened to”. Which is another way of saying, “Well I have listened but I still don’t agree.” Not that anyone need care about the opinion of a former Scotland Secretary who repeatedly threatened to resign but then got sacked instead. He had no dignity in office, and no dignity in the way he left it.
However this is progress of sorts, in that they are at least conceding that a mandate for a referendum derives from a Scottish vote and shouldn’t be blocked by Westminster. However it’s really just kicking the can down the road in the hope that the SNP will not gain a majority, or that the dog might eat branch office manager Reginald Lapdancer’s homework, or there’s a flood or an earthquake, or perhaps that the people of Scotland will wake up one morning and think “Naa, let’s not bother with this independence lark,” and the whole nasty business will just go away. They’re no more sincere in their apparent willingness to agree to a referendum then they were in their willingness to implement that federalism that they promised us in 2014. Because if none of their contingencies come to pass they will just continue to insist that there’s no mandate for a referendum like they’re doing at the moment.
The anti-independence parties can continue to deny it all they like, but there is currently a pro-independence majority in Holyrood, the SNP was elected on a manifesto which promised a referendum should Scotland be taken out of the EU against its will – which the British government is committed to doing by 31 October – and the Scottish Parliament has already voted in favour of another referendum. Ignoring this or denying it is simply gaslighting the people of Scotland. No amount of waving the federalism fairy’s magic wand will distract from that reality. There is almost certainly going to be a Westminster General Election before the next Holyrood elections, that election will render the opinions of the likes of David Mundell, Paul Sweeney, and branch officer manager Raymond Lipsmacker even more irrelevant than they are at the moment.
My new book has just been published by Vagabond Voices. Containing the best articles from The National from 2016 to date. Weighing in at over 350 pages, this is the biggest and best anthology of Wee Gingerisms yet. This collection of pieces covers the increasingly demented Brexit years, and the continuing presence and strength of Scotland’s independence movement.
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