One of the joys of living under a nationalist government is the exciting pace at which the facts change. What was axiomatic yesterday may be contested today and heretical tomorrow. There is no burden of knowledge because what has happened can unhappen as the need arises. Nationalists, Orwell diagnosed, are ‘haunted by the belief that the past can be altered’ and the spectre of revisionism is never far from the SNP’s account of even recent events. So it is that Nicola Sturgeon deplores ‘the appalling treatment of the children of the Windrush generation’ and urges ‘a system that respects human dignity’ rather than ‘unjustly forcing people to leave the country that they have come to call home’. Washed down the memory hole are Sturgeon’s words four years ago, when senior Brussels figures cast doubt on an independent Scotland’s chances of EU membership:
‘There are 160,000 EU nationals from other states living in Scotland, including some in the Commonwealth Games city of Glasgow. If Scotland was outside Europe, they would lose the right to stay here.’
All this you must bear in mind when you listen to the First Minister claim the UK Government is bent on ‘completely demolishing the principle at the heart of the devolution settlement’. She is spoiling for a fight over Brexit and keen to portray the temporary repatriation to Westminster of Brussels powers in devolved areas as an attack on Holyrood. One of her backbenchers, offended by dissenting grumbles during a debate on ‘protecting’ devolution from Westminster, decided that ‘some MSPs don’t stand up for Scotland’. ‘If you don’t support the protection of devolution,’ she demanded, ‘should you really even be an MSP?’
Wait till she finds out there’s an entire party dedicated to scrapping devolution. It is the same party that boycotted the Scottish Constitutional Convention; that opposed devolution at the 1997 general election; that voted against setting up the Calman Commission; that allowed Holyrood’s tax powers to lapse; that tried to block the Scotland Act (2012); that agreed to leave powers over pensions at Westminster; and that, even now, asks the Tories to hold onto some welfare powers a bit longer.
The SNP’s claim to be defenders of devolution is their most audacious revisionism yet. It is a testament to how thoroughly the Nationalists have worn down their critics (to say nothing of objective reality) that those actually responsible for devolution push back so timidly. The Labour Party (with the help of the Lib Dems and civil society) designed the Holyrood settlement, gave the voters a referendum, and delivered the parliament they voted for. Even the Tories, devosceptics who came to embrace the Scottish Parliament, have transformed it into what must be the world’s most powerful sub-national legislature. The SNP pose as guardians of Donald Dewar’s legacy when they in fact yearn to tear it up. Their only policy on devolution – their only policy on anything – is independence.
It’s vital to understand this or you will waste time and energy bewailing Labour’s failure to set aside constitutional differences and work with its fellow social democrats. Labour might grouse about that wishful description of the SNP and wonder why it is always they, and never the Nationalists, who must surrender their differences. The more fundamental flaw – what renders this line of argument a fallacy, indeed the most enduring fallacy in Scottish politics – is that the gulf between the SNP and Labour is actually vast, philosophical, and insurmountable.
Labour’s socioeconomic aims are indivisible from its stance on the constitution because a credible party of redistribution must always choose the bigger and more reliable kitty from which to redistribute. The SNP’s economic model can backpack its way across the globe, from Iceland to Norway to New Zealand, because independence is the sole imperative. Even if the Union gave Scotland hospitals carved from gold and put a sack of diamonds on the doorstep of every impoverished family in the land, the SNP would still prefer separation. If anything, the nationalist enemy is a greater threat to Scottish Labour than the class one because the Tories, albeit for other reasons, will the constitutional arrangements most conducive to Labour’s social and economic mission.
But those are only facts and in Scotland facts are chiels that will eventually ding if you dunt them often enough. And they are being dunted by Nationalist politicians, fan bloggers, committed commentators, and activist academics. The SNP is able to seize and discard history at will, embellishing here and excising there, because nationalism is impulse without ideology and so its rationales are protean, changing to suit time and audience and circumstance. In many ways this is nationalism’s strength but a danger faintly thrums in the distance like the early gnawing of a toothache. If the SNP keeps extolling devolution, arraying its fire and footsoldiers in defence of the status quo, how will it convince us down the line that devolution is a mire from which independence is the only escape?