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by Louise Wilson
04 December 2022
Sketch: Alister Jack has gone quackers

Credit: Iain Green

Sketch: Alister Jack has gone quackers

The Scottish Secretary has gone quackers. Speaking to MPs at the Scottish Affairs Committee last week, Alister Jack told them UK ministers will just “know” when the time is right for a second referendum on Scottish independence. They’ll employ, he said, something called a “duck test”.

Much like a duck, Jack appeared cool, calm and collected on the surface. Underneath, he was paddling wildly for an answer to the question of how the UK Government will know when the Scottish people want a referendum.

“If it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck and waddles like a duck, it’s probably a duck,” he said wisely and incomprehensibly. “People know when we’ve reached that point,” he added. What point? The point when Scotland thinks it’s a duck? When Scots are out on the streets preening their tail feathers and clambering for bread? Probably not that far off given the cost of running a washing machine and rising food prices.

Chair of the committee, Pete Wishart, said he found it “quite encouraging” that the Scottish Secretary saw a route to a referendum. The duck test, whatever that is, is a clear route. Apparently.

Would a general election in which the SNP secured more than half of Scottish votes qualify as said duck test, Wishart asked innocently. When the answer came back in the negative, the SNP MP accused Jack of moving back into the territory of the “squishy squashy”. Because ducks and duck tests are certainly not “squishy squashy”.

Lord Offord was deeply unhappy with this line of questioning. Winning an election, he said, had given the SNP “a mandate to govern”. But because of how devolution worked, it “doesn’t give you a mandate to break up the country”. The unelected Lord opined on what winning an election might mean despite, you know, not actually ever having…

“It doesn’t give me anything at all because I’m just a mere chair of a select committee,” Wishart replied, once again deploying his most innocent gaze. Don’t be angry at him; he’s just asking questions, not being completely quackers…

Lord Offord hissed in the manner of an angry swan. “If Scots wanted to get independence, they could get independence. But you…” – and here he points at the mere chair of the select committee – “…can’t persuade them to do that.” Jack looks on, a little sheepish at the lord’s outburst. But at least Offord wasn’t waffling on about ducks.

SNP MP Mairi Black can’t help but leap on the chance to talk about mandates. She loves a bit of lord-baiting. Does he accept the Conservatives have “not received a mandate from Scotland” for many a decade?

Of course he doesn’t. He began to mutter something about the rules of the UK, but Jack has had enough of this nonsense. There has been a majority vote for unionist parties, he argued. Which isn’t the same as a majority vote for the Conservatives, but he tried his best.

Black, undeterred, went on to question how “sustained support” for holding an independence referendum would be measured.

“It’s measured in the ballot box,” replied Offord, forgetting about ducks.

Black smiled like the cat that got the cream. “The eight elections that the Scottish National Party won?”

Offord began to say the SNP didn’t increase their share of the vote, but Black had heard what she wanted to hear. “That’s great, thank you,” she said, sitting back, putting her feet up and practically taking a slug of whisky. Job done, she thinks, full of self-admiration for her own debating prowess.

Things move back to less testy ground as Douglas Ross and Alister Jack inevitably agree that the Scottish Government spending any money on independence planning is a waste. The constitution was a reserved area, Jack said. The Supreme Court ruling provided clarity to the Scottish Government on that – but not to him. Smarty pants that he is, he knew what the justices would say.

Black comes back in: doesn’t the cabinet secretary accept the UK has changed since 2014?

“The United Kingdom hasn’t changed since 2014,” he insisted. Other than Brexit, he added innocently.

“That’s one example…” replied Black. Jack took his chance: “Then give me another!”

Black is looking less feline now and more like a deer in headlights. “Another example would be that we’ve had consecutive governments that Scotland has outright rejected. We’ve had an austerity programme that has absolutely hammered Scottish budgets…” Except Jack asked for what had changed since 2014 and to be fair to him, he could quote the numbers.

Black’s colleague Deidre Brock tried to steer the conversation back to  the calmer waters of government cash. She asked about the Barnett consequentials arising from the Autumn Statement. That money comes with “no strings attached” so the Scottish Government can do with it what they wish, Lord Offord confirmed.

Brock smirked, sensing feathers about to be ruffled as she prepared to cook the Tory goose. “So the Scottish Government has the ability to choose whether to spend money on things like building the case of Scottish independence, if it chooses to?”

Scottish politics is truly ducking weird.

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