Nicola Sturgeon's route to independence is based not on unity but division
On the 24th of April 2019 I sat in my seat in the Scottish Parliament and listened to Nicola Sturgeon set out her plan for another referendum.
She started well: “I have therefore asked Mike Russell to explore with other parties, perhaps with the help of a respected and independent individual who can broker such discussions, areas of agreement on constitutional and procedural change...”
Fine words. But this never happened.
The First Minister went onto to say: “This exercise should not start with our taking any fixed position – if parties can find it in themselves not to do that – but should openly consider the challenges that Scotland faces and the solutions that might help us address them. If serious and substantial proposals emerge, this parliament could present them to the UK Government in a unified and united way. If other parties are willing, I give an assurance today that the Scottish Government will engage fully and in good faith.”
Again, fine words. But his never happened.
She added: “I therefore confirm that the Scottish Government will establish a citizens assembly that will bring together a representative cross-section of Scotland, with an independent chair, and which will be tasked with considering, in broad terms, the following issues. What kind of country are we seeking to build? How can we best overcome the challenges that we face, including those arising from Brexit? What further work should be carried out to give people the details that they need to make informed choices about the future of the country?”
All very sensible. But again, this never happened.
And she finished with: “I will also seek to open up space for us to come together and find areas of agreement, as mature politicians should do. In so doing, I will try to set an example of constructive, outward-looking, and respectful debate. In recent times, we have seen in Westminster what happens when parties fail to work together, when leaders take a ‘my way or the highway’ approach and when so many red lines and inflexible preconditions are set that progress becomes impossible. Tensions rise and tempers fray.”
And therein lies the problem with Nicola Sturgeon. Hers is the epitome of a ‘my way or the highway’ approach, a 51 per cent – 49 per cent strategy based on division not on building unity. An arrogant, tin-eared approach that dismisses people, like me and many others who want to see radical constitutional change but reject the economic prospectus she puts forward.
Where is the attempt to understand and build bridges with those of us who believe in the right of Scots to determine our own future but reject the SNP’s currency debacle, a hard border with England and the SNPs deficit reduction plan? What happened to promised cross party talks, ‘the Citizen’s Assembly’ and ‘mature discussion’?
All those commitments were PR fluff soon replaced by political attacks and divisive rhetoric roared into a megaphone to keep on board the restless base who have been strung along since 2014.
If Nicola Sturgeon genuinely wanted to show leadership and stateswoman-like behaviour, she would do well to follow the example of Mark Drakeford, the first minister of Wales. He has brought politicians of all persuasions together to discuss the future of Wales; the independence option is part of their discussions.
The remit of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales is to “consider and develop options for fundamental reform of the constitutional structures of the United Kingdom, in which Wales remains an integral part”.
It is also to “consider and develop all progressive principal options to strengthen Welsh democracy and deliver improvements for the people of Wales”. Political parties there are willingly engaging in a mature debate without hyperbole, threats, and the ridicule of those with whom they disagree. The contrast with Scotland could not be more stark.
I do, however, live in hope. Hope that one day someone in the SNP will wake up to the fact that attempting to create a new state based on a polarised, divided community is not a particularly good idea.
Hope that government ministers and their advisers will learn from what happened in the 1990s when political parties, faith groups, trade unions and civil society came together to build a broad coalition for constitutional change that delivered a 74 per cent vote in favour of creating a Scottish Parliament and 63 per cent in support of it having tax raising powers.
Hope that rhetoric, ego, and arrogant intransigence of our political leaders can be put aside in the national interest. But then again, I thought Scotland would win the 1978 world cup!
Neil Findlay was an MSP between 2011 and 2021, he is a director of Unity Consulting, a not-for-profit social enterprise