Another reckless distraction from the REAL issues dividing a nation
AS rune-readers go, renowned psephologist Sir John Curtice is among the most reliable assessors of the public mood — and the political climate.
And he has some disconcerting news at the start of a new year, predicting that 2022 will see the re-launch of Nicola Sturgeon’s flagging bid for independence.
In an interview, Sir John suggested that ‘the question of Scotland’s future relationship with the UK [will] return to the political agenda’.
Arguably, of course, it has never disappeared from the agenda — with the First Minister exploiting every opportunity to fan the flames of division with ‘Westminster’.
Support for separatism rose in 2020, when we were all confined to our living rooms for most of the time — then slumped when some semblance of normal life resumed.
To keep her restive support base happy, Miss Sturgeon has pledged to carry out a re-run of the 2014 independence referendum by the end of 2023.
Sir John — who has an unnerving habit of getting these things right — believes this plan could be accelerated.
The polling guru forecasts ‘the beginning of a substantial constitutional row between the UK Government and Scottish Government’ — one that could end up in front of the UK Supreme Court.
That’s an outcome which Miss Sturgeon, in an ideal world, would strive to avoid, preferring a referendum with the blessing of whoever happens to be Prime Minister in the coming months.
But Boris Johnson has slammed the door shut on this possibility, and it’s unlikely that any of his successors now vying behind the scenes to replace him when the time is right would have a different opinion.
Nonetheless, it seems probable that Miss Sturgeon’s next move will be the introduction of a Bill, without the agreement of Westminster, on a second independence referendum, leading to that courtroom showdown.
The Bill is likely to fail — a UK Supreme Court case last year on Holyrood’s approval of legislation on children’s rights found that it went beyond the Scottish parliament’s competence.
In the meantime, civil servants are to be tasked with working on a ‘detailed prospectus’ for exiting the UK, if they can fit it into the four-day week Miss Sturgeon is determined to give them.
Whether it will be as detailed as the White Paper on independence back in 2014 is unknown, though it wouldn’t be hard — it was a snake-oil amalgam of half-baked hopes for the future and fantastical assumptions about rocketing oil prices.
Now in league with the Marxist Greens, Miss Sturgeon can’t base any of her projections for the prosperity of an independent Scotland on oil, so woolly promises about green energy will just have to do instead.
The pitch, when it comes, will be more polarising than last time, if that’s possible, because so many bridges with business, which Alex Salmond had constructed, have been demolished.
After all, not many bosses are fans of parties, like the Greens, which are opposed to the concept of economic growth, while the SNP has shown a tin ear for the needs and expectations of the hospitality and tourism sectors during the pandemic.
The White Paper, called Scotland’s Future, was masterminded by Miss Sturgeon, and proposed full fiscal autonomy for Scotland two years after a vote for breaking up the UK.
Miss Sturgeon has said that — ‘Covid permitting’ — she aims to have the second independence referendum before the end of 2023, so on that basis fiscal autonomy should be a reality by 2025.
You might think this is hopelessly optimistic, given the tortuous twists and turns of the Brexit process (which was prolonged by those who couldn’t accept the outcome of the 2016 vote, including the SNP) — and it is.
But there’s not much scope for realism given that the SNP has conceded quantitative easing (QE) — creating new money — probably wouldn’t be a feature of an independent Scotland, although it argues that QE isn’t desirable or healthy in a modern economy anyway, so why would we want to do it?
It’s an argument, if you can call it that, which might make sense if we could be guaranteed there wouldn’t be another financial crash on the horizon, or an emergency (a pandemic, maybe?), when QE could bail us out of economic catastrophe.
Either way, whatever gambit Miss Sturgeon plumps for, it will be fact-free, pursuing the familiar policy of papering over the cracks — and hoping nobody notices.
Andrew Wilson, the former SNP MSP who was responsible for producing a report on the finances of an independent Scotland, has said a referendum this autumn, or at some point next year, would be ‘ideal’.
Ideal for those whose jobs depend upon it, perhaps, and Miss Sturgeon now has no choice but to appease the many doubters in her ranks with another tilt at constitutional chaos — but it’s less than ideal for everyone else.
Last month some figures were quietly sneaked out providing an update on Miss Sturgeon’s ongoing mission to close the pupil attainment gap — which she had said was her top priority after taking over from Mr Salmond in 2014.
It wasn’t hard to see why ministers were relieved they were published on the same day as Miss Sturgeon’s update on Covid guidelines (it must have been a lucky coincidence).
The figures revealed that one in four primary school pupils had failed to reach expected standards in reading and numeracy.
The number of children achieving basic benchmarks has fallen sharply during the pandemic — while that stubborn attainment gap, measuring the gulf between the best and worst-performing schools, has widened to record levels.
It could hardly be more damning for Miss Sturgeon — but she can point, with some justification, to the ravages of coronavirus for the failure of her crusade to drive up classroom standards.
The problem is that she can’t lay all of the blame for it on Covid because the gap, or more accurately chasm, was going nowhere before the virus arrived on our shores.
Prior to last year’s Scottish election in May, public spending watchdog Audit Scotland said the gap ‘remained wide’, seven years after Miss Sturgeon became First Minister.
It’s also a fiction that Miss Sturgeon will hold off on another referendum until Covid has subsided — it will take years for the damage it has wrought on public services, including the NHS, to be repaired, if it ever can be.
Whatever form her pointless, reckless and expensive stunt will take, it will be a monumental distraction from the business of re-building the economy and rescuing the health service.
But they’re secondary concerns, at best, for constitutional zealots — and politicians bent on self-preservation at all costs.
- This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on January 4, 2022.
- *Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant