Friday 17 March 2017

The Sound of Inevitability

First, a disclaimer: I've had a rotten cold all week, and I'm writing after a long day of work, childcare, and driving through the grim rush-hour traffic of Cambridge. So this post will be grumpier than usual, which in my case is saying something. All the same, I couldn't resist writing about the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum.

It's not entirely certain if or when a referendum will be held. Theresa May has rejected Nicola Sturgeon's demand for a vote in 2018, before the Brexit deal is finalised, but has been careful not to rule one out altogether. My best guess is that they may compromise on a vote in autumn 2019, after Brexit but before the next general election.

Regardless of the exact decision on a vote, the unofficial campaign has already begun. Sturgeon has marched her troops to the top of the hill, and they won't come down again without a fight.

My overwhelming mood is one of weary resignation. This referendum appears with all the unwelcome inevitability of a January credit card statement.

Yes, of course Sturgeon was going to call for a referendum. Brexit provides the justification, and a pro-independence majority at Holyrood the means. The conditions aren't propitious, but they may be as bad or worse for the rest of her political career, so she's willing to roll the dice. For reasons I'll get to, it may even be the right thing to do; but the campaign is going to be ugly.

The 2014 campaign should have disabused us of any fond notions that this would be a high-minded debate with respect on both sides. That campaign was bad, and this will be worse.

What passed for moderation has been driven from the field. The once-proud battalions of Scottish Labour have become a psychological crisis in the approximate shape of a political party. Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling no longer hold elected office. Charles Kennedy is deceased, Menzies Campbell is retired, and the Liberal Democrats are a shadow of their former selves.

It's a straightforward brawl between SNP and Conservatives, which is exactly how the SNP want it. It looks as if Ruth Davidson, pugnacious leader of the Scottish Conservatives, will be leading the No campaign almost single-handed. She's a tough, smart politician, but it remains to be seen if she will be up to the task.

Affable, patronising David Cameron has been replaced by flinty Theresa May. Alex Salmond has been replaced by Nicola Sturgeon; she is different in style, but equally determined to secure independence for the Scots, even if she must sacrifice every last one of them to do it.

Most of all, the raging voices of the internet have grown bolder in the last few years. Love them or loathe them, Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign have demonstrated one thing: Total denial of reality can work. Never mind such petty distractions as facts, expertise, or consistency; it's a post-truth world, baby.

Unreality is a tactic most heavily used by insurgents against the status quo, which in this case means the Yes campaign.

The SNP leadership are a lot more responsible than Trump or Farage. They're happy to shade, stretch and spin the facts, but in that they are pretty typical of mainstream democratic politicians. However, many of their supporters are not so restrained.

We will see an eruption of fantasy --- of the type which declared BBC journalist Nick Robinson to be public enemy number one in the final days of the 2014 campaign, but very much louder and more aggressive. Sturgeon and other leaders won't directly endorse it, but they won't discourage it either, and why would they? It might help them win.

I'll get to the substance of this referendum in other posts. For now, the manner in which it will be conducted is one more gloomy development in a depressing year which is not yet one-quarter finished. It makes me want to retire to a log cabin in the Canadian wilderness, somewhere too remote to have an internet connection. I could check in every year or so to see if things had got any better. I suspect I would be out there for a very long time.

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