Theresa May is right to call out failings by the SNP government, but her hypocrisy deserves some scrutiny
We are living in a ‘Brexistential’ world. A surreal state of post-EU referendum delirium. In a land where a vote designed to heal infighting within the Conservative Party and assuage a rise in support for UKIP led to a country savagely split apart.
And it’s one which has, bizarrely, given legitimacy to a Tory prime minister travelling to Scotland – a country that voted overwhelmingly and peacefully to remain – to lecture Scots about the dangers of a second independence referendum on the premise that we are a nation already in schism.
Theresa May says we are a country indelibly ruptured by nationalism, being led by a failing SNP government that is only succeeding to reach the lower rungs of mediocrity.
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“Politics is not a game,” says Mrs May.
“And people in Scotland deserve a first minister who is focused on their priorities – raising standards in education, taking care of the health service, reforming criminal justice, helping the economy prosper, and improving people’s lives.”
This from a prime minister whose party led us into a divisive EU referendum and a potentially catastrophic Brexit, whose government is failing on almost every public sector matrix. And for whom the word ‘crisis’ runs true. She has some gall.
Prisons: awash with drugs, inmates out of control and staff shortages at critical.
Hospitals: operations cancelled, patients lying in corridors, waiting lists expanding and the Red Cross describing conditions in A&E as a ‘humanitarian crisis’.
Welfare: claimants being quizzed on their suicide attempts, teenagers forced onto the streets, disabled people threatened, homelessness rising and soulless attempts on benefit reform so bad that Ken Loach made a film about it.
Education: teachers at breaking point, nurseries facing a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ and primary school places falling short by tens of thousands of pupils.
Councils: local services collapsing under savage cuts, libraries being shut, street lighting being turned off, rubbish collections reduced and adult social care facing ‘an existential crisis’.
And all this on top of an exponential rise in zero-hour contracts and the lowest level of wage growth in 200 years.
This is Theresa May’s ‘I, Daniel Blake’ version of a ‘just managing Britain’, where in a week that the former chancellor declared he is earning £650,000 for working one day a week for a private investment firm, the Resolution Foundation warned that falling living standards threaten the biggest rise in inequality since Margaret Thatcher was PM. And she was no great humanitarian.
This isn’t a picture of a UK that Scotland should aspire to use as a comparator but it is a bleak assessment of a country in the grip of austerity and governed by a political dogma that is literally killing the poor.
So, yes, Theresa May is right to call out failings by the SNP government, but her hypocrisy deserves some scrutiny.
But this recent salvo from Westminster is not about the SNP’s competency to govern, it is the politics of fear of another referendum. Sadiq Khan gave the game away when he spoke at the Labour Party conference just the week before.
In an ill-judged speech, he painted a picture of Scotland that most of us would not recognise. A country which, he said, had pitted the English against the Scots, where supporters of independence were no different from those that wished to separate by race or by religion and where nationalism was akin to the right-wing populism at play in parts of Europe and in Trump’s America.
The problem for Khan is that this is not the country we live in. It is the country that those politicians who oppose independence would like us to believe we inhabit. But with almost half of Scots voting for ‘Yes’ in the independence referendum and half voting for ‘No’, most of us know someone on the other side and we know the caricatures to be untrue.
Yes, there are idiots – there always are within a passionate argument – and there are those at the extremes, but they are not the norm.
So, here’s a thing: an Ipsos MORI poll published last week revealed support for independence now balances on a knife-edge at 50:50. This against a backdrop of ‘Project Fear’, of the vote in 2014, of a collapse in the price of oil, and of a weight of evidence suggesting that after ten years in power, the SNP has done little to improve Scotland’s inequities.
So, despite the obvious economic setbacks, the Brexit uncertainties and the clear party political challenges, any second independence campaign starts off with higher support than the one that came before. Additionally, it has the benefit of 56 pro-independence MPs, when before it had just six, and it also no longer has the serious prospect of a Labour Party that could give a counter-argument to the idea of ongoing Tory rule.
Hidden in the numbers to that opinion poll is the 15 per cent of voters that is left for both sides to play for. A tiny fraction of the electorate who could still be persuaded either way – mainly women, relatively well-off and predominantly left-leaning – Labour or Lib Dems. Which way will they swing, what argument will win them over and who would be their choice of cheerleader?
These are the questions that will be on Nicola Sturgeon’s mind.
But this week she will address SNP members at her own party conference. And with that one poll, they will be in buoyant mood and they will have just one thing on their mind – when do they get their second chance?