Friday, 7 February 2020

Well Said, Sir!

The timing was unfortunate from the SNP's standpoint, given events surrounding Derek Mackay's resignation, but I couldn't agree more with this article by Neil Mackay in The Herald.

Neil Mackay: The key to switching No voters to Yes? Stop talking about independence and start running the country well

By Neil Mackay - The Herald

BORIS Johnson is now well into the Trump playbook. If you want to start throwing your weight around in a democracy it’s always best to start with the press. Journalists are easy targets with few friends.

There was Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings acting like some bar-room drunk looking for a fight when a TV journalist asked him a simple question. And then Johnson decided to ban media he doesn’t like from official briefings.

Trump had the press by the throat from day one. It was either lick his boots, or suffer. Strongmen wannabes like to keep critics quiet. Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary – like Johnson, they’re big Trump buddies – and like Trump they want a tame press.

Once the press is dealt with, then it’s time to start tinkering with other inconveniences which check power, like judges. Johnson has hinted that the judiciary will have a price to pay for meddling in Brexit.

So buckle up for a bumpy ride, while Johnson gets Brexit done.

How will the Scottish Government and the SNP deal with this? Strongmen-types also like an enemy. That’s the role Johnson wants the SNP to play.

Johnson is an agent of chaos. He wins by creating drama and then letting his rivals drown amid a welter of headlines as they try to figure out what the hell is going on. He causes chaos, others step in to clean up the mess, and they take the bullet for their troubles. Just ask David Cameron and Theresa May. Or cast an eye over what remains of the Labour party.

The SNP may think being pitted against Johnson is good for them, but is it also good for Scotland?

So far, the SNP’s response to Johnson has been to shout "independence" at every opportunity. Party managers might believe this to be a great strategy – that it keeps passion burning in the hearts of true believers – but it’s already getting wearying.

Throughout the torture of Brexit – in fact, in response to almost anything that ever happens at Westminster – it’s looked to the public as if all the SNP does is simply shout independence.

The tactic is beginning to suffer from the law of diminishing returns. The more it’s heard, the more meaningless it becomes. And the more it’s shouted, the more one wonders if the party has any other ideas.

Johnson knows the public in Scotland is as tired as the public elsewhere on these islands after Brexit. The idea of more endless constitutional warfare is far from appealing. Every time the SNP shouts independence at Johnson, many voters wince at the thought of more division. Johnson also knows that all the SNP can do is shout – as, like it or not, he decides if and when there’s a referendum.

If the SNP continues to endlessly shout independence when we all know there won’t be a referendum any time soon then it will appear not just like a grievance machine, but weak. Even worse, the SNP will look like it’s playing the public for fools.

Endless cries of independence will also achieve little in Scotland. The Yes and No side are polling pretty evenly. Only clever, original politicking will change minds.

Nicola Sturgeon has admitted there may not be another referendum until after the next Scottish elections. Everyone else knew this was the case, but to the marchers and flag-wavers, it was betrayal. You can see why – they were led by the nose, the mantra of independence fed to them daily. Now they feel cheated. So, the strategy of endlessly crying independence has already caused harm within the party.

To many average Yes voters, the endless calls for independence are now like background static. The SNP risks becoming boring, a one-note tune that everyone knows. In modern politics, boredom means defeat. It’s not that the Yes movement is boring, we expect the Yes movement to play one instrument and play it well. But with a party, you want an orchestra.

Of course, the party would say that it does much more than shout about independence. True, but impressions matter, and it seems the SNP has only one word as answer to every question.

The party itself is tired. It’s record in government is increasingly anaemic when it comes to big domestic issues like health and schools.

Perhaps, the party thinks concentrating on independence takes the focus off poor hospitals and education? Well, maybe it would, if the SNP could stick to one message on independence.

There’s constant mixed messaging. Some take pots shots at the leadership. Others are loyal. Some fancy wildcat referendums. Others don’t. Some say stop marching. Others wave their Saltire. Some cosy up to online bullies. Others decry them.

Then ‘excitement’ around Nicola Sturgeon’s much-awaited speech last week on the future of independence turns anti-climactic. It was staid, managerial. She called for patience, said there’d be no shortcuts, and urged the party to build the case for independence.

Voters would be forgiven for asking what’s going on? Run the country, quit bickering, and stop leading us all on. Outside the twin bubbles of politics and the press, and the echo chamber of social media, the public cares about jobs, schools, cops on the beat, and hospitals.

Sturgeon also plans a Constitutional Convention and a series of papers on independence. This work needs done, but it will also add to the narrative that all the SNP talks about is independence.

And whisper it, unlikely though it is, Brexit may not usher in a new Dark Age. It might go OK. It might just be a bit awful. If the cataclysm doesn’t appear, what does that mean for independence?

The one thing which will help independence? Good government. Run this country well and No voters may slowly but surely switch to Yes.

Noel Dolan, Sturgeon’s former senior adviser, made clear yesterday that it’s pointless to simply demand that Johnson grants another referendum. Dolan’s right. The only path to another referendum is for the SNP and Labour to cut a deal in order to get the Tories out of power. The SNP supports the next Labour government, and then Labour agrees to a second independence referendum.

It’ll take time, but the strategy is correct: don’t just talk – do. Otherwise Johnson wins.

Neil Mackay is Scotland’s Columnist of the Year