By Dorothy Bruce
In the run-up to 2014 dire warnings of our inability to run our own country rained down upon us, believed by many, despite Scots over many centuries running countries, institutions and major organisations around the world. We exported much of our talent for others to use and benefit from.
The same tactics were used in 1997, and in 1979 when I suspect we were so conditioned by Westminster and unionists, believing unquestioningly that we were helpless and hopeless without their strong guiding hand, that the audacious thought we might actually try having a say in a limited range of devolved powers sent some Scots into paroxysms of anguish. How could we possibly rule ourselves! We need England’s help. We’re too wee, too poor, too stupid. Devolution would be a step into the unknown, unpredictable. The myth continues though perhaps without quite the same clout as previously.
In 1979 I campaigned with a ragbag of others from various political parties. The SNP was highly sceptical about devolution. Some members believed it would dilute the desire for independence. Others grasped the opportunity to achieve some powers, some input in how Scotland was run. The revamped Old Royal High School in Edinburgh was to serve as the Assembly building. Areas of responsibility to be discussed within it included education, the environment, health, home affairs, legal matters, and social services.
Interestingly, given the current wrangle over Westminster’s purloining of powers returning from the EU, responsibility for agriculture, fisheries and food was to be divided between the Assembly and the UK government, which would also keep control of the electricity supply. (If we became too uppity they could effectively shut us down.)
So husband and I shuffled leaflets through snapping letterboxes, accompanied by a handful of SNP folk, a few Labour devolutionists, a Liberal or two and a fair sprinkling of members of the Communist Party of Great Britain – well educated, middle class types who in retrospect were probably more like today’s Greens.
On the evening after the results had been declared (2nd March 1979) we still attended the get-together, planned as a celebration rather than a wake. Jim Sillars of the Scottish Labour Party, a break-away from the UK Labour Party, formed by him and Alex Neil, came along, as did then Scotsman journalist Neal Ascherson. Highly depressed, he had just filed his article in the near-by Scotsman office on North Bridge. Fuelled by fury and disbelief, I kept insisting we had won, as indeed we had. Yes received 51.6% of the vote, No 48.4%. But the amendment to the Scotland Act 1978 proposed by George Cunningham, Labour MP for Islington and Finsbury, for the Yes threshold to be 40% meant the Yes vote at 32.9% of the registered electorate (on a very old electoral register) fell short of this. Nevertheless Neal Ascherson returned to his office at the Scotsman and rewrote his article.
It was another twenty years before we eventually were granted our parliament. The mood in the SNP had changed dramatically. Though there were still those sceptical about devolution the majority embraced it as a means to have a say in policies that shaped our lives. In 1999, shortly before parliament opened, I remember speaking to Alison Hunter in the SNP office. She was frustrated yet in high spirits. Those who had won seats and their supporters were effervescing like magnums of shaken champagne and she was having a hard time keeping order. It seemed like we were at last on the road that would lead to independence.
Yes, we had been bombarded then by the same bearded predictions. Too wee, too… But something had either annoyed us so much, or the Scottish Constitutional Convention had affected thinking, or we had gained in confidence over the last twenty years, for this time 74.29% agreed there should be a Scottish Parliament, 25.71% disagreed. In the second question on tax-varying powers (eventually devolved in 2016), which was calculated to turn voters against devolution (presumably because we would think it too complicated for our poor wee brains) 63.48 showed confidence in their country by agreeing, while 36.52% still though Big Brother Westminster knew best.
And now with our Scottish Parliament up and running and delivering for us for eighteen years, the last ten showing what a modern parliament and progressive democracy can achieve and how it can better the lives of Scots (albeit still with less than a full hand of cards), Westminster has again decided to crack the whip and, without even consultation with our government, to take powers away from us.
In inserting their recent amendment into the EU Withdrawal Bill Westminster has rewritten the legal system. Now yes means yes, no means yes, and withholding consent means yes. Lawyer Jonathan Mitchell QC even likened this to a rapist’s theory of consent: “a) Yes is consent; (b) Silence is consent; (c) No is consent.”
For the Tory government Brexit must be driven forward. In their determination to show Brexit can be successful, the Scottish Parliament must be neutered. Westminster must have the powers, the bribes and the sweeteners to negotiate trade deals for hormone-fed beef and chlorine-washed chicken with the US and other countries, even if at the expense of Scots and the Scottish economy.
In the 2014 referendum the Westminster government, unionists and big business shouted from the rooftops and in the media that independence would be a disaster. We were still too wee, too poor… Independence would be unpredictable, cause uncertainty, and because of that our economy would tank, we would lose trade, investment, status in the world as an equal part of a great union of nations. What currency would we use? How much would a stamp cost? Stay with Mother Westminster and, they promised, you’ll lead not leave, get significantly more powers, and have the Scottish Parliament’s permanent status enshrined in law.
Blinkered to all but their own desires, Tories (and Labour) are desperately pushing Brexit in parliament and the media, though according to reports from Brussels, where the UK Government is viewed as incapable of handling the task, little is happening in the talks, with the EU proposing solutions and the UK contingent polishing their nails. This is uncertainty and unpredictability writ large as no-one has a clue what will happen.
Surreptitiously businesses are coming to their own conclusions, making arrangements to move to EU countries, or have already upped sticks. Inward foreign investment, which provides jobs, is down as is GDP growth. The 40 or so trade deals the EU has with third countries, and which the UK hopes can be rolled over to apply to the UK during the 21 month transition period, have not been pursued. No Brexit minister has visited the port of Dover to estimate what might be needed to cope when we leave the EU. Then there’s the Irish border conundrum.
What we have is a shambles – a shambles in which unpredictability reigns. Or as Ian Dunt put it in his recent weekly update, Brexit is ‘fundamentally and irreducibly unpredictable.’ Brexit, he concludes, “is a period of chaos and unpredictability which there is no precedent for in recent British political history.”
Unpredictability. Brexit is a witches’ brew, a simmering cauldron of whatever came to hand, fresh or fusty, stewed together in a desperate attempt to rustle up a palatable cocktail that will ensure the UK is out of the EU and its looming financial restrictions so that those already wealthy can add to their financial stashes in whichever tax haven is deemed best.
Unpredictability. For decades we were told this is what independence would bring. Greece without the sunshine. A basket case economy. We’ve been misinformed, sweet-talked (remember 2014 and its love-in), lied to, conned, manipulated. Our First Minister is demeaned and denigrated, subjected to vitriol and insolence, even threats to her life, although highly regarded across Europe, the US, China and elsewhere. We are still too wee, too… And now the unionists want to take powers away from Holyrood, powers that surely, given the unionist track record, will be a first step to sweeping away our parliament. The end of a brave era. Unless…
Independence is now our only option. Although there looms the question that Westminster will refuse a referendum and march off down the Spanish route. Our SNP politicians have cannily brought us this far, I have to hope they have done this knowing they have a strategy to deal with Westminster’s intransigence.
As for unpredictability, well independence to me now seems more predictable and stable than a cobbled together Brexit. After all, instead of being overruled by a parliament 400 miles away, by folk who know nothing of Scotland, we would be in charge; we, every one of us, would have a direct say in our futures and in moulding them. I’ll vote for that.