By Andrew Graeme
I was talking to an old friend who works for the Pearson Group, the company that is part owner of The Economist and he asked me how their latest cover went down, North of the Border. I told him that it did not help the Unionist cause in the slightest.
“It just appears to be anti-Scottish and extremely arrogant!” I told him. “Most of us in the independence movement think that it could only help us!”
He found this very hard to believe. He genuinely thought that calling Scotland ‘Skintland’ would persuade us to stick with the Union. It was then, that I realised that the Westminster Village and Fleet Street have lost touch with what is going on in Scotland. They are frankly baffled that we want to be independent and do not understand why. So, to explain Scottish politics, I told him about Independence Marmalade.
In the little Highland market town of Dingwall, once a month, we have a stall selling Independence Marmalade and books and, well, just about anything we can scrounge that might raise money for the SNP. This has been a feature of Dingwall High Street for over twenty years.
I also told him how, back in the 90s when I was running a news agency, I was commissioned to write an article for a German magazine on the rising fortunes of a movement that was hardly known outside Scotland, called the Scottish National Party. I telephoned their office in Edinburgh and spoke to their PR man, someone named Mike Russell. He sent me a copy of their monthly news letter and gave me the name of a Scottish journalist working in Vienna, called Angus Robertson, who fielded questions for the German press (in those very rare occasions when such things happened!)
Angus and I chatted on the phone a few times and I learnt that, like me, he had a German mother and was a fluent German speaker. I never gave it much thought after that and assumed until just a few days ago, that this chap working for ORF, the Austrian national broadcaster, would still be there and was probably leading a quiet life in one of the prettiest cities in Europe.
Then a few days ago, I looked up another Angus Robertson – namely Angus Robertson MP and realised that it was the same bloke. And this version of Angus Robertson told the House of Commons that there are more giant pandas in Scotland than Conservative MPs.
Small World, as they say.
Any good joke must contain a biting truth and a political joke even more so. As jokes go, it was not what you would call a thigh-slapper, but it made a point and it is a point that the Conservative party would do well to remember – as you head North, the Conservative mandate to govern diminishes and in Scotland, it vanishes almost completely. A party that polls just one vote in ten has little right to tell anybody anything. After the War, Scotland may have still voted Conservative, but then, some time in the 60s, it voted Labour and continued to vote Labour until the end of the millennium.
Now Scotland votes for independence.
Let’s be clear about this – the desire to be independent runs through a Scot like the word Brighton does through one of those revolting sticks of pink sugar. Every child learns that losing the Battle of Culloden was A Bad Thing and the Battle of Bannockburn was A Good Thing. There are statues all over Scotland of people who fought the southern invaders. The songs are about fighting the invading English armies and every castle, every valley, every loch and mountain has similar stories attached.
What my Fleet Street friend failed to understand, was that most Scots are not debating whether we want independence (we take that as a given!) but whether it is economically viable.
Without two World Wars, Scotland would never have wedded itself so closely to England. Faced with a foe so loathsome, so hideous and so grotesquely ambitious as fascism, Scotland followed the advice of Hilaire Belloc – “Always keep firm hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse!”
When oil was discovered in Scottish waters, the Scottish National Party launched the campaign ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil!’ and for the first time, independence became a real issue. But independence for Scotland was regarded by Westminster as being an idea close to treason and already in the 50s, MI5 had been watching the SNP. Now telephones were bugged, politicians tailed and agents briefed to infiltrate the party.
This may seem strange to us now, but back then, Britain had fought a war as one nation just twenty short years earlier. To go against unity was tantamount to treason, as you were seeking to undermine the very fabric of the nation. The establishment at every level, from teacher to policeman, from journalist to politician, regarded Scottish independence as an idea that sat somewhere between laughable and criminal. MI5 may have been looking at the SNP and listening to their telephone calls ‘just in case,’ but beyond that, they were not taken seriously.
The Act of Union all those years ago did not see a merging of legal systems, so Scottish affairs were dealt with by the Scottish Office and overseen by the Commons Scottish Grand Committee and the Scottish Affairs Committee. As long as Scottish law was kept largely in-line with English law, this did not matter much and minor differences in property, probate and parental consent to marriage were regarded as ‘quaint.’ Then in 1973, local government in Britain was reorganised and greater powers were given to councils in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
On November 14th, 1977, Tam Dalyell, Labour MP for West Lothian, asked one of the most famous questions in the long history of Westminster Parliament – “For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable Members tolerate at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive effect on English politics, while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”
He told the House that he could vote on matters affecting the English town of Blackburn, Lancashire, but not Blackburn, West Lothian. The debate was joined by Enoch Powell, who by then had banished himself to the lunatic wastes of Northern Irish politics with his career-ending ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. “We have finally grasped what the Honourable Member for West Lothian is getting at. Let us call it the West Lothian question.”
Ever since then, every single government has launched an initiative, committee or investigation into The West Lothian Question – and failed to find an answer. The core problem is, there can only be one of two answers – greater separation, or greater integration. And none of the big three parties in Westminster want either!
Then in 1997 Labour gained a massive victory at the general election with 43% of the vote and 63% of the seats and Labour’s best Scottish brains headed for London, never to return. But hidden in all the furore of Labour’s victory was a big increase in the vote for the SNP, who managed to get six MPs into parliament, including one Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond, who had already been MP for Banff since 1987.
The Labour government decided to lance the Lothian boil once and for all with the introduction of regional assemblies in Scotland and Wales. The voting systems were carefully constructed so that no one party could hope for an absolute majority and start creating real differences to Westminster. The idea was, if you give them a talking shop and little more, all this babble about independence will just go away. And as the powers for these assemblies are ‘devolved’ from Westminster, we can always take them away again, if they misbehave!
The big mistake was that all the best brains in the Scottish Labour Party were in Westminster, so setting up and running this new body fell to the second division, who, predictably, made as big a mess of things as they possibly could. Scandal after scandal rocked a collection of the ineffectual and effete known locally as the Scottish Mafia.
Support for the SNP grew steadily as all sorts of Labour ministers found themselves needing to spend more time with their families and the costs for the parliament building did not just overrun, but seem to have been taken from some wildly improbable Monty Python sketch as they went from £60m to ten times that figure!
The Conservative Party was already losing popularity in Scotland when Margaret Thatcher came to power. By the time she had finished her work with the poll tax, the mines and the shipyards, she had effectively destroyed her own party in Scotland almost completely.
Against this backdrop of disaster for the two main parties – and now for the Lib Dems by association – the SNP has been quietly plodding forward. Back in the 60s, it was home-made jams, books, cakes and knitwear sold at market stalls that paid for a very modest PR effort. Today, major industrialists are donating to the cause. The campaign fund for independence has millions and probably many millions more are to follow.
The minority SNP administration of 2007 showed the electorate that they contrasted sharply with their Labour predecessors and were very much up to the job of running the country. This was rewarded with a landslide victory in the election of 2011 and a 45% share of the vote, giving them an absolute majority, the one thing the creators of the parliament has sought to avoid at all costs.
Whereas most parties in government lose some of their support when they are in power, support for the SNP continues to rise. All the leaders of the other three main parties in Scotland resigned, to be replaced by people nobody had heard of. It is as if the script had been written by the SNP.
Cameron and Milliband followed this script by calling for a date for the referendum. Salmond shot their fox by announcing it as the Autumn of 2014 – just after the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the golf Ryder Cup and the 700 year anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when Robert the Bruce confirmed Scotland as an independent nation.
Not only does the SNP have a healthy campaign fund, but it also has a unified structure and campaign leadership under Angus Robertson. The campaign for independence has a budget, a structure, local organisers are already in place and boots on the ground are being briefed on campaign tactics.
So far, the unionist campaign is, as the old joke goes, conspicuous by its absence. They will need foot soldiers taken from the existing political parties – and that is exactly what they do not have in any numbers. We have had statements by politicians in London, condemning independence and by doing so, managing to sound anti-Scottish. The media, once so biased as to be embarrassingly laughable, is now beginning to put both sides of the argument. This is in no small part because of the latest poll results and the disastrously falling readership figures for print.
Those stalwarts of the Labour Party, The Herald and The Daily Record are now no longer as hostile to independence as they once were. The Scotsman continues the brave fight for the unionist cause and readership has fallen to an unbelievably low 35,000. The joke goes that their new printing press will be a Hewlett Packard Ink Jet.
In the past, those calling for independence were disregarded as lunatics and fools. Now they are called customers.
The three leaders in Westminster, all from extremely privileged public school backgrounds, seem to be all there is at the moment as effective mouthpieces for the Union. But the way they appear on television, the very sounds they make and the words they speak seem carefully crafted to rub every Scotsman up the wrong way. Every time they speak on the subject, they manage to sound anti-Scottish. And there are another one thousand days for these three to continue to suffer from their own special brand of Foot-in-Mouth disease.
Remember that there are three parties involved in the Unionist cause. North of the border, any one of the three could break ranks and change sides. There are real mutterings of discontent and a desire for independence within the ranks of some Labour voters, as they listen to Snooty, Spiffy and Toffee telling them what to do. The Lib-Dems in Scotland are beginning to be seen as turn-coat-Tories and many are calling for a change of heart on independence and with it, a new roll and possible support for the ailing fortunes of their party. Tories are already in two minds about Scottish independence, as they believe it could get rid of a big lump of Labour MPs.
A really bad result at the coming council elections could see the first breaking of ranks within the Liberal Party.
If a year is a long time in politics, then two-and-a-half years is an eternity! The SNP has always played a very long game and are good at just plodding forward. Decades of selling ‘Independence Marmalade’ and going door-to-door in all weathers, pushing leaflets through letterboxes and button-holing people on the High Street is what the footsoldiers do best.
If the SNP succeeds in gaining independence on the back of a referendum in 2014, it will be as a result of many decades of preparation and centuries of history. If it does not, greater autonomy for Scotland is almost guaranteed and that will inevitably lead to a greater distance between England and Scotland and that will lead to independence in the long run.
And if, in ages to come, a future outside power annexes an independent Scotland, we can start all over again, selling Independence Marmalade on Dingwall High Street.
Andrew Graeme is an economist and businessman and convenor of the Dingwall branch of the SNP.