Sketch: Alister Jack raises eyebrows
How long is a generation? It could be 25 years, it could be 40 years, or Scottish Secretary Alister Jack might just be having a laugh. That, quite genuinely, is the latest state of UK Government policy on the prospects of a second independence referendum.
Nicola Sturgeon plans to hold one in the event of a pro-independence majority at the next election. Former Prime Minister John Major wants to hold two votes on the issue - one on the principle of leaving the UK, and another, to confirm it, following negotiations. And Alister Jack doesn’t want to hold one for 40 years. Or 25 years. But also he might just be joking.
But why would he do that? Given it makes no sense? Well, there’s a simple answer. It’s BBC journalist Glenn Campbell’s fault.
As Jack explained, in a totally unnecessary attempt to clarify his latest set of comments on the issue: “On a generation, I said 25 years to Glenn Campbell, and then he raised an eyebrow, so I said to him, slightly jocularly, or 40, but certainly not six and certainly not 10.”
It’s a fundamentally important decision, one which would shape the future of Scotland and everyone who lives here, and it will be determined by Alister Jack’s panicked reaction to Glenn Campbell’s eyebrows. That’s where we are now.
What if he had raised both eyebrows at once? Would that still mean no referendum for 40 years, or is each one worth an additional 15? What if Campbell had trimmed them? Would Sturgeon now be firing the starting gun on the campaign? Imagine if Campbell had fallen asleep at a house party. Scotland would be back in the EU by January.
And of course that’s how constitutional law operates. You panic because Glenn Campbell looks at you funny, and add 15 years to your cast iron rule.
But of course the main question it raises relates to his sense of humour. This is a man who understood the plan for a bridge to Northern Ireland as a euphemism for a tunnel, after all. If he doesn’t know what a euphemism is, can we be completely sure he knows what the word ‘jocular’ means? Or ‘generation’, for that matter? He may not know what a referendum is. All it could take is one tilt of the head from Bernard Ponsonby and we might have abolished the monarchy by now.
But the good news is that he is finally confident of his answer. As he explained, to the Scotland Land and Estates virtual conference, he has settled on 25 years. “Whenever I’ve looked at what a generation is, it seems to be between 25 and 30 years, and I’m settling on 25.”
Whenever you’ve looked at what a generation is? What does that even mean? Where were you looking? And ‘whenever you’ve looked?’ How regularly were you looking? This isn’t Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Alister, you aren’t meant to be talking through potential answers to build up tension. At least if it was, you would be open to asking the audience.
Well, you might not like it, but you will need to accept it. This is just how constitutional policy works now. But the good news is that, whatever the answer on indyref2, the decision on holding one won’t just be decided by whatever fevered ramblings a raised eyebrow provoke from Alister Jack.
“Once in a generation was mentioned many times in the SNP’s White Paper for the independence referendum and that’s why I refer back to it”, he said. “As regards John Major, I read his speech. I don’t agree with him, you won’t be surprised to hear.
“I stand by a generation. I think we should focus on recovery from the COVID pandemic.”
That sounded much better, in fairness. People are really worried about the pandemic. Keep going, Alister, you’re getting out of this one. Continuing, he explained: “Independence is at six or seven on the list of what people’s concerns are.”
Six or seven? Why did you put it on the list at all? Did someone nod at you while you were talking? You’re not meant to be saying these things! They’re almost all bad things to say!
It was unclear if he knew it was being filmed, to be honest. But then the other thing we need to keep in mind is that these comments were also reported via video link. He could probably see the audience too. So, at this stage, we don’t actually know if there were any potential facial expressions which might have thrown him. He might not have meant any of this either, depending on whether or not someone sneezed.
But there’s no real point worrying about it in any case, because history suggests the Scottish Secretary will be back on TV shortly to clarify his clarification. And who knows what the next move will be? 30 years? A century? Wherever it is, it will probably be entertaining. Just don’t raise an eyebrow.