Sketch: Ruth Davidson's fight against indyref2

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 1 June 2018 in Comment

Ruth Davidson's attempts to avoid talking about independence are being undermined by her insistence on talking about independence

Ruth Davidson - image credit: Iain Green

Ruth Davidson is determined to shift the national conversation away from talk of a second independence referendum, which makes it all the more unfortunate that she keeps talking about one.

For four years she has remained resolute in her opposition to wasting public time on it, rather than discussing more pressing issues such as health or education policy. So it must be a source of considerable frustration for the Scottish Tory leader that she finds herself making speeches on the subject almost continually.

Well, it’s happened again. Despite her efforts to avoid discussing the constitution, Davidson found herself accidentally appearing at an event, tagged ‘The Union and Unionism – Past, Present and Future’ alongside Alistair Darling, Jim Murphy and a gaggle of other former Better Together campaign members.

It must have been a terrible shock. Imagine her horror at walking into the room and realising what had happened. In fact, the only positive was that she had pre-prepared a speech on the subject, presumably subconsciously.

And to be fair to Davidson, the event was meant to be on the future of the UK, which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with independence.

So, starting off, she gave a short history of the campaign for Scottish independence. “The first talk of independence started in earnest in 2007, when the SNP had their breakthrough at Holyrood,” she explained, before running through how the independence campaign had fared in every single year since. “The tragedy of all of this,” she lamented, while continuing to choose to talk about it, “is the capacity it uses up.”

So what can be done to avoid this vote then, Ruth? “Scotland and other parts of the UK don’t just need more devolution,” she said, “they now need more union too.” It was quite beautiful in its way: a sentence which will never make any more sense, no matter how many times you read it.

She said: “I have been leader of the Scottish Conservative Party for six-and-a-half years. In that time, I’ve fought six national elections and two referenda, and each and every one of them has either been partially coloured – or out-and-out dominated – by the constitutional question.”

And that’s true, though a critic might question if Davidson could have spent less time talking about a possible second referendum if she hadn’t based her party’s entire 2015, 2016 and 2017 election campaigns raising the prospect of one.

It isn’t actually totally clear she knows she’s doing it. It’s like Ken Livingstone trying not to talk about Hitler – it just seems to happen over and over again, with Davidson thrust into the role of a constitutional Basil Fawlty, bouncing around Scotland, arms flailing. “Don’t mention independence – I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it.”

She must find herself blurting it out all the time. How many family dinners ruined? How many conversations about the weather subverted? How many trips to the supermarket have been waylaid by Davidson getting distracted in the self-service queue and accidentally launching into a speech about the need for Nicola Sturgeon to ‘get on with the day job’? Even buying a loaf of bread must be an ordeal.

It’s actually quite tragic. In Greek myth, Cassandra was cursed to prophesise disaster, but never be taken seriously. Davidson, thrust into the centre of a modern Scottish tragedy, is cursed to find herself pained by any conversation on independence, while continually starting one.

The worst bit is that it’s actually catching. John Lamont has also been sucked into the trap, last week accidentally announcing that he was “fed up hearing about independence and referendums”.

“I don’t think anyone in the Borders, or indeed across Scotland, wants to reopen that divisive debate we had back in 2014,” he said. “They want Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP to be focusing on the day job of sorting out our police, our NHS, our schools, and all the other public services they are responsible for in Scotland. In contrast, today I’ve been in Hawick High School meeting with the headteacher and staff, and now I’ve got a petition on the high street in Hawick, asking people to sign up against a second referendum to break up Britain.”

No one, anywhere across Scotland, wants to reopen the debate on independence. It’s actually hard to think of a statement you could make about Scottish politics which would be less true than that.

After all, clearly the SNP leadership wants to talk about it, as well as the party’s grassroots support. Then there’s the Greens. And the Radical Independence Campaign. In fact, according to polling, about 45 per cent of the population are still pretty keen on the discussion.

But it’s still hard to escape the feeling that none of those groups likes talking about the prospect of a second independence referendum as much as the Scottish Tories do. It’s like catnip to them.

In his case, Lamont’s comments were made especially confusing by the fact he delivered them in front a massive banner plastered with ‘No to Second Referendum’ in large letters. It must have been some printing mix-up, to be honest.

But at least things moved forward slightly with the publication of the SNP’s Growth Commission report, with the party doing its best to convince people that a Yes vote would not necessarily lead to economic ruin.

And, perhaps predictably, Davidson reacted with concern. “More than four years ago, the SNP delivered an independence blueprint which they claimed was the final word,” she said. “Today, they are telling us to ignore the old version and have instead produced an entirely new manual which we’re expected to believe is credible. One thing hasn’t changed: none of it adds up.”

No, indeed. Something doesn’t add up.

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