International football analogies are not of my making, they belong more to those interested largely only in flags and anthems.
But, since these are the terms of those within we are in current discourse...........
On 12th October 1977, Scotland beat Wales 2-0 to qualify for the 1978 World Cup.
Three days later, in Turin, Italy beat Finland 6-1, making it almost impossible for England to join us in Argentina.
And Scotland went mad. Not wholly irrationally mad. The Scotland team in Liverpool read: Rough; Jardine; Donachie; Masson; McQueen; Forsyth; Dalglish; Hartford; Jordan; Macari; Johnston. On any view, a somewhat superior line-up to those currently available to Craig Levein.
Nonetheless, in our heart of hearts, a team that we knew was unlikely to be quite good enough to win the World Cup.
But we didn’t allow such considerations to colour our public attitude at the time.
“We’re on the march with Ally’s Army
We’re going to the Argentine
And we’ll really shake them up
When we win the World Cup
‘Cause Scotland are the greatest football team”
The really embarrassing thing with the benefit of hindsight however was not our madness but the extent to which we accepted the patronage of the English.
England has won the World Cup once, with the assistance of every game played at home and even then some pretty dubious refereeing, culminating in the world’s only two goal hat-trick. We know however that, as a large footballing nation, one year, they at least have the possibility of doing so again. That’s why we can’t enjoy any World Cup or European Championship until they have been eliminated, no matter how much we are intellectually convinced they have no real chance. They should be more credible contenders than they ever prove to be. And one, nightmare, day that might just change. That’s football.
In 1978 however we in Scotland suddenly purported to become England in our over confidence (or, if you prefer, arrogance). Instead however of responding with reciprocal cynicism, English football opinion, seeing us being set up for a fall, was only too happy to go on for the ride. If we were daft enough to think we might win the World Cup, then why did they need to be so un-neighbourly as to celebrate our coming misfortune? Why not go along with the advance euphoria, particularly if you knew that you would have no need to deal with the aftermath? Or no need ever to truly worry that the achievements of Moore, Charlton and Hurst might be about to be overshadowed.
I was reminded of these events with the news that The Times had declared Alex Salmond to be the Briton of the year.
There are two Scottish interpretations of British (English) establishment opinion in relation to Scottish Independence. Those Scots of a broadly unionist perspective stand beside the Queen. That, for sentimental reasons, the establishment believes that such a development would be regrettable, even though they would surely get over it. Those of a more fundamentally Nationalist bent assert that it would be, for England, an economic catastrophe, such is the extent to which they are subsidised by the exploitation of Scotland’s natural resources. Neither perspective however would expect the man allegedly leading Scotland down a separatist road to be seen as a figure to be smothered in affection South of the Border. And yet we are to believe that he is.
True threats to the established order are not indulged by that same establishment, at least not until their threat has passed. Keir Hardie wasn’t. Nor were Tony Benn, or Ken Livingston or even Peter Tatchell. And, for the avoidance of any doubt, this has got nothing to do with any kind of different approach to a National Question. Few figures have been more vilified in the newspapers now lauding Eck than Mahatma Ghandi. He was a real threat.
No, wee Eck is patronised in the way that Ally Macleod was patronised (and Parnell never was). He is built up to be an apparently unstoppable force in the comfortable knowledge that he will eventually crash and fail. Like Scotland in 1978. And, when he does, the Establishment will respond: “How sad, have a hug”, like Jimmy Hill infamously wearing a Scotland scarf at, admittedly, a different World Cup. And the Nationalists will fall out among themselves as to whether to accept the embrace.
The problem with this is the aftermath for Scotland more generally.
The impact of the 1978 World Cup debacle didn’t just affect football. It caused a genuine collapse in national confidence. It was surely a significant factor in the inconclusive result of the following year’s referendum and of the decision taken by the SNP to commit political suicide in that events aftermath.
How much more so would be the debacle of a decisively lost Independence Referendum?
Here, I must diverge slightly to explain why such a referendum would be decisively lost. I know this is an argument I have made before but it cannot be made too often.
It is difficult to see political circumstances getting any better for the SNP than they are at the moment. Not only do they have as their leader a politician who towers in stature over his opponents; they have a Government of manifest competence and confidence; they are blessed with a stellar array of younger members and thinkers with a zealous commitment to their cause and in financial terms they have recently, quite literally, won the lottery.
Meanwhile, their domestic political opponents are inadequately led and erratically followed and funded; derided in the press and Civic Society and almost unrecognised by the general public; even their bigger hitters at Westminster are temporarily divided over strategy, although it says a lot about their assessment of the likelihood of Independence that they regard countering it as less than a primary consideration.
In wider political terms, the UK Government is one that Scotland did not vote for and is currently pursuing policies with which the vast majority of Scottish public opinion violently disagrees; yet, which shows every sign of being re-elected, possibly in an even more right wing, eurosceptical form.
Economic times are tough but the one reassuring asset in a time of global uncertainty is access to natural resources and Scotland appears, by accident of history and climate, to be particularly well placed in that regard.
How then, conceivably, are things going to be any better placed for the Nationalists in a couple of years’ time? Is more oil to be found, or more wind to blow, or the seas to become more stormy?
Yet, despite all of these manifest current advantages, the polls which give the SNP more than 50% electoral support, continue to show nothing approaching a majority for Independence. And that’s before there is any coherent opposition campaign.
Again, I want to repeat myself about the nature of that campaign. It will be red in tooth and claw. Anyone expecting a civilised discourse around concepts of sovereignty and modern nationality is in for a very rude awakening. The combined devolutionist/unionist camp need not prove that people will be worse off; it need only raise a reasonable doubt that they might. And that's a scoosh.
I want to choose a few (OK, lots of) examples.
On 30th November past we saw a significant public sector strike against perceived threats to pension rights. A lot of people directly concerned got, understandably, exceptionally animated. How much more so will they be when the same Unions who led them out target them directly with material suggesting that if Independence goes wrong, their pensions might not be payable at all? Not won’t be, just might not be. How reassuring will a counter argument based on a promise prove against a status quo argument based on empirical evidence of past performance?
The same goes for State Benefits of any sort, possibly in spades, because benefit recipients are particularly prone to differential turn out. You can focus group this with frightening effectiveness.
Then we have Edinburgh’s financial services industry. Who can say how long they would wish to continue to be based in a different country from their largest market? Again, it is not necessary to conclusively win the argument, it is sufficient to raise the uncertainty to send the Capital’s property prices into a tailspin .
And then there is the military. It is understandable that North East Nationalist MPs go on these marches to keep the various bases there open. They are vitally important to the local economy. Point made in some ways but there is, beyond that, a more empirical example. On any view the national swing in May should have delivered Jackie Baillie’s Dumbarton seat to the SNP. It didn’t for one very clear reason. The simple targeting of swing voters with material pointing out the local consequence of the withdrawal of the British submarine base. How many submarines would an independent Scotland propose to deploy?
And that’s without even considering the residual loyalty of those proud to have once served in the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force or British Army. Not to mention the potentially limited career prospects of those wishing to continue to serve.
And while we are in this area, and since it is New Year, what about the honours system? It’s all very well to maintain that “The Rank is but the Guinea stamp” but that’s clearly not the view of those aspiring to such recognition, never mind those facing it being taken away. I’m a pretty convinced (British) republican but I’ve met both the Queen and the First Minister and I’m in no doubt which was the more memorable event.
And, finally, there is the central economic argument. Truly, most informed opinion here concludes that a snapshot comparison of the revenue/expenditure performance of the British and Scottish economies turns on the price of oil in any given year. But there is no way the actual argument will be conducted in that way. Under the status quo, your taxes are what they are; public services are what they are; the welfare state is what it is. Sure, under Independence they might be better, but they are generally, currently, regarded as adequate (at least by the vast majority of the public). Faced with a choice of them perhaps being a bit better against siren voices asserting that they could be a great deal worse, there is only one rational conclusion.
There is however one absolutely clinching argument in this area. Asked if they would favour Independence even if Scotland were to be, short term, worse off as a result, most Nationalists would reply in the affirmative. That very answer however fundamentally undermines any attempt to make an apparently considered argument to reassure the undecided.
Now, the Nationalists will say “But we’ll have another three years to make our argument”. This however simply won’t wash. They are already very good at making the argument. There are big holes in it: over currency, Europe, the Monarchy, national institutions like the BBC or the DVLA, even, it appears from the report on the Scotland Bill, an ignorance over how much income tax is actually paid in Scotland. These holes are, however, in the argument itself, not in its articulation. Time, in this case, will not be a healer.
More importantly however, delay will allow the Devolutionist camp to get organised. No objective observer would doubt that, relatively, there is much more scope for improvement on that side. Indeed, while for the SNP it is difficult to see how much better things might conceivably be, organisationally, financially or politically in three years time, for their opponents it is difficult to conceive how they might be worse.
So why the delay? I won’t repeat my previous remarks on why it’s got nothing to do with the SNP Manifesto, It’s simply that they have concluded that, as they can’t conceivably win today, they logically have no less chance of success in three years time. Their fatal error however is to allow their tummies to be tickled by the establishment in the meantime.
For the problem for the SNP is that the game is increasingly likely to have to be played at some point. Here some credit is due to the internet! It was @peatworrier and @loveandgarbage on Twitter who first raised the issue of the dubious vires of the Scottish Parliament to hold an Independence Referendum, even a merely advisory one. I then shamefully plagiarised that initial argument before suggesting that it might in fact be Salmond’s strategy to hope that his Referendum was blocked in the Courts, using that as his excuse 2011-16 as he had used the “Unionist Block” in 2007-11. Westminster however appears live to this and might be about to close the loophole by giving this power expressly to the Scottish Parliament, albeit to be exercised by a given date. I see no reason that date should be any earlier than Spring 2016. All possible objections from the Nationalists would then be headed off.
So, will Salmond, all hoped for obstacle removed, then act?
This is a question of considerable complexity but before attempting to answer it I need to deal with one other matter. There can only be one Referendum question. I say that not as a demand on the Scottish Government but as a statement of political reality. The SNP believe in Independence. There is no logic to them therefore asking any other question on their own initiative. Never mind the absurdities of unilateral declarations of devolution, even asking, unprompted, such a second question would imply pre-acceptance of defeat on the first.
They could however spin asking a second question if somebody else came up with it. But they won’t. Johann won’t; Ruth Davidson won’t; Willie Rennie couldn’t with any credibility and some sort of civic Scotland group set up for the purpose of its devising would just look like the Nationalist patsies that they would be likely to be. Anyway, in this Country, important politics is surely for elected politicians. That was the fatal flaw with Calman gaining public attention.
So, without the need for circumscription from Westminster, there will be only one question.
The issue then therefore becomes, will Salmond ask it? There is an apposite proverb “He who fights then runs away, lives to fight another day.”
You have to consider the options here. My own view has always been that after a proper campaign and on a clear question support for Independence will come out at between a quarter and a third of the electorate. Probably nearer the bottom end of that scale. Possibly below it (think Cubillas at this point).
Oddly I do not think that result would be a good thing. It would, rather, be in the nature of a national humiliation. During the campaign itself any number of blowhards will have been put up to maintain that “Freedom” is only days away. They’ll end up look like idiots but so will the rest of us for appearing to have paid them any attention in the first place. Just like those of us who, knowing better, allowed ourselves to be caught up in the hysteria of 1978.
Obviously, a referendum loss, or, in our case, victory, would suit the partisan interests of the Labour Party as it would probably lead to the fragmentation of the SNP. It would also, presumably, end the career of Alex Salmond who (and here I let you into a secret) we really, really don’t like. It is difficult however to see how it would otherwise serve the interests of Scotland.
For the problem is that the threat of Independence has always been an important card for those of us who believe in a strong(er) Scottish Parliament. Once it’s played and lost, it’s played and lost. What leverage then has further Home Rule opinion with Westminster? Little or nothing. The only remaining viable route would come from a Labour (or Lab/Lib) Westminster Government legislating on a voluntary basis. We’ve seen too often in the past the limitations of such an approach but how much more would these difficulties be if, for all practical purposes, the SNP, the supposedly most Home Rule Party, had voluntarily given up any influence of their own on the matter supposedly most important to them.
Now the common assumption is that the internal dynamic of the SNP would make it impossible for Salmond not to hold a Referendum. I’m however not so sure about that.
The SNP not only are good at running Scotland, they enjoy it. Not just the Ministers taking important, day to day, decisions but the grass roots activists who can bask in the knowledge that, if required, they could telephone the Education Secretary; email the Health Secretary on first name terms; dare I say it, enjoy a pint with the Justice Secretary. Their Councillors, and their friends, family and supporters enjoy their control of the local state apparatus, particularly, in many cases, having been previously treated contemptuously by Labour for many years.
I don’t doubt for a moment that they would all like “Independence” even if not entirely united on what that means. If however they could be confronted, by a united leadership, with the conclusion, that Independence was not (currently) achievable, (“Much as we might win, we might, just, possibly, lose”)would they really insist on imperilling everything they have for an impossible (“Risky”) objective? And presumably, in the process, have to dump the leadership that had brought them to this point in the first place? After all, the Party has been remarkably sanguine about Independence being “postponed” from 2011 to 2014 or 2015, despite an outright majority at Holyrood. What’s another few years’ delay?
Nor is it clear why “Scotland” would object to not being asked a question they were patently primed to answer in the negative anyway. Labour will shout about broken promises but, to be honest, shouting hasn’t proved a very effective opposition strategy for us to date.
Sure, it would be embarrassing for Salmond, but not as embarrassing as a decisive Referendum defeat. And it would surely pave the way for continued domestic dominance at Holyrood at least until Labour got its own house more comprehensively in order. It might even give us a dilemma as to whether we were now obliged to take some sort of constitutional initiative of our own.
The Constitution of the SNP provides the Party with two objectives, firstly, certainly, Independence but, secondly, “The furtherance of all Scottish interests”.
Is it inconceivable that the long term pursuit of the first objective might be sold to the membership by the suggestion of the temporary prioritisation of the second?
Anyway, this is going to be the underlying theme of 2012. I encourage you to read the runes as it develops. As the Bard says of that moment “It’s coming yet for a’ that”.
Happy, happy New Year, for this is going to be fun to watch.