Forgive me if I seem out of sorts but my country has been through a lot this past week. We have been subjected to ‘provocation’ and our imperial masters in Westminster intend to ‘exert a kind of colonial authority’ over us. Our parliament has been ‘slighted’ and we are bearing the ‘impact of such condescension on the psyche’. The UK Government has sought to ‘lessen the ability of the people of Scotland to govern their own affairs’ and in doing so its ‘contempt for Scotland was laid bare’.
The amen corner of the Scottish commentariat is once again standing up and bravely telling it like Nicola Sturgeon says it is. The SNP leader has decreed Scotland the victim of a ‘power grab’ and Westminster the destroyer of the devolution settlement. Her MPs have stormed out of Prime Minister’s Questions and now her MSPs promote the conspiracy theory that Brexit is a plot against the Scottish Parliament.
Step back from the reason-clobbering group-think of Scottish political life and the absurdity of the situation is near-comic. There are 153 powers returning from the EU that touch on devolved competencies. Westminster wants to retain 24 of them during the Brexit transition period to prevent disruption to the UK single market. These include food labelling, animal tracing, and similar such matters on which the future of nations often rests. None of these powers currently resides at Holyrood and none of the powers that do will be affected. Once Brexit is complete, these powers will be transferred to the Scottish Parliament.
The SNP doesn’t want Holyrood to have these powers at all – or the more than 80 additional powers Brexit will immediately hand to Scottish Ministers. The Nationalists want all the powers to remain in Brussels, a perfectly legitimate point of view but somewhat at odds with cries of a ‘power grab’. They led the Scottish Parliament to deny consent to the EU Withdrawal Bill and say Westminster proceeding rips up the Sewel Convention, which counsels that the UK Parliament should not ‘normally’ legislate without Holyrood’s consent. Only the SNP accepted that Sewel did not apply when it fast-tracked its own Brexit Continuity Bill on the grounds that ‘these are not normal times’.
The SNP has declared a ‘power grab’ over two dozen powers they want to keep in Brussels going to Westminster temporarily before being handed to Holyrood. The rules on sheep microchipping are understandably important to Nicola Sturgeon – she has to keep track of her MPs somehow – but their transitory exercise by Whitehall rather than Edinburgh hardly represents a constitutional crisis. Lord Sewel himself has said so.
Only in Scotland it does because Scottish politics is process and nothing more. We seem to talk about little else than what powers Nicola Sturgeon should have and when she should have them. It’s what gets the governing and reporting class out of bed in the morning and the last thing they spar about on TV at night. Perhaps this is the ineluctable fate of devolution but it’s a damnable way to run a country mired in poverty, ill-health, and educational inequality.
Ah, but you see, that’s all Westminster’s fault. The SNP would love nothing more than to improve schools and hospitals. It’s Westminster that holds Scotland back. Give the SNP independence and, by golly, the things they’d do. Thus does a single-issue sect hold an entire nation hostage. Scottish politics will be about process until the SNP wins or so long as it loses. To win, it must present a convincing argument for separation, irritate the rest of the UK into giving up on Scotland, or brow-beat Scottish voters into submission.
Winning the argument is not going well. Their new blueprint – new if you overlook the bits lifted from a New Zealand government website – would lead to an extra ten years of austerity. Gordon Brown’s weekend intervention echoing this warning enraged them. I’ve always wondered why Brown provokes such venom in Nationalists. I suspect he reminds them that their party has never produced a leader with a fraction of his moral fibre or cerebral clout. Theirs is a philosophically barren movement, forced to buy in their intellectuals from PR agencies.
Last Wednesday’s stunt was about winding up English MPs and voters, until one of the former says something stupid or enough of the latter agree separation is best all-round. It was about ginning up their supporters. The next morning, Stephen Kerr, Conservative MP for Stirling, found his constituency office spray-painted with the word ‘traitor’. And it was about sending a message to Scotland’s non-nationalist majority. They told us we were being done down, that we should be angry. How they would love us to be angry – angry enough that we don’t wonder how Brexit could be a dangerous farce but independence a supply line of milk and honey. Angry enough that we don’t notice we are being sold our own double-decker bus, our own MAGA cap, our own superiority complex dressed up as a popular revolt.
The SNP are not content to be nationalists themselves — they must make nationalists of the rest of us. All must be righteous victims, all must adhere to the dismal religion of symbols. It is not for me. I will not be made a nationalist. I will not be made to invest some special meaning in a scrap of cloth run up a pole. I will choose people over place and my own sense of fairness, however wanting it might be, over someone else’s idea of national glory. There is no shame in loving your country but there is a poverty in loving nothing else.