Last week, the former chief executive of NHS Scotland, Paul Gray, made a more meaningful intervention into the debate on the future of the NHS than I, personally, have ever seen before. (I must be clear, up front, that my company implemented the PR campaign around that intervention on behalf of Reform Scotland, the thinktank which hosted Mr Gray’s blog.)
In his text, Mr Gray said that the public’s vision of the NHS “is lost in the mists of time and demographics and public expectation” and that the service requires “radical surgery”.
It struck me, as I inhaled his words, that in most countries such a fundamental and, frankly, explosive critique of the nation’s public health service would set the foundation for political debate for days, weeks, perhaps even months and years to come.
Not here in Scotland, where the initial burst of public attention dissipated after 24 hours in favour of, you guessed it, the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future, which raged at the annual party conferences.
If that constitutional debate were nearing an end, the premature extinguishing of a critical national conversation on healthcare might not be quite so destructive. We could get the constitutional question out of the way, and then focus on the issues that impact people in a much more tangible way, such as the complete remodelling of the health service on which we all depend, but which is at risk of crumbling.
However, in something of an unexpected turn of events which would have been difficult to predict only a few months ago, before the Scottish Parliament election, the constitutional question appears to be stuck in the long grass.
This is all somewhat counter-intuitive. We have just experienced the most decisive Scottish Parliament election result since the 2011 election which led to the 2014 vote – a landslide victory for the SNP based on a very clear manifesto commitment. In other words, a mandate.
A mandate, but not a majority. Some readers will be saying “it’s proportional representation, you’re not supposed to get a majority” or “there’s a majority for independence in the Parliament” and I happen to agree with that.
But politics is not the home of rational argument. The narrative of May’s election was dominated by whether or not the SNP would achieve a majority and, albeit frustratingly for a party which achieved such a substantial victory, the SNP’s failure to reach a majority has given the UK Government a shot of adrenaline.
Before the election, with almost every opinion poll pointing towards a majority, the mood amongst the UK’s Tories was low, with a dark sense of inevitability about their impending concession of another independence referendum.
This was never Downing Street’s public stance, of course – “no, never” was the resolute position on which the Scottish Tories’ election campaign was centred. But privately, frantic thought was being given to how another independence referendum could be granted and structured in a way that stacked the odds as far in favour of the Union as possible.
But with the SNP falling a seat short, the resilient performance of the Scottish Tories, and the subsequent shift in opinion polling away from a second referendum and away from sentiment in favour of voting yes in that referendum, morning has broken in Whitehall and the coterie of people charged with holding the union together have a spring in their step.
Not only is a referendum off the table, in their minds, the table has been set on fire.
I have long questioned this as a long-term strategy for unionists. By what method, other than a landslide on a clear manifesto commitment, can the people of Scotland express a wish for a referendum? Does this effectively mean the UK is no longer based on consent? For how long will the 20-or-so per cent of persuadable Scottish voters, capable of being swung in either direction, find this tolerable?
As a short-term plan, though, it has something going for it. Downing Street is belligerently refusing to countenance another referendum, yet polls are failing to show anything like clear support for the Scottish Government’s stated aim of another independence referendum during the first half of this Holyrood parliament.
And, indeed, pro-independence sentiment, leading in practically every poll for a year before the election, is starting to lose again.
In my view, the Yes movement risks independence becoming a cause only for the true believers. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the hitherto mentioned 20-or-so per cent to justify taking a punt on it. We must remember that these people are largely apolitical. They don’t go on marches, or wave flags. They are not members of a political party. They don’t define themselves by how they voted in 2014, nor do they view their lives through a constitutional lens.
Largely, they will balance risk and then make a choice. The increasing honesty from those in charge of the Yes movement about the immediate post-independence transition may be counter-productive in this respect. If they know it’s going to be a tough old ten years after independence, and they have little emotional attachment to the cause, why would they submit themselves to it when they are relatively content, if unenthusiastic, with the status-quo?
Add to that the turbulence of Brexit, compounded by the trauma of Covid, the incoming twin-threat of tax rises and inflation, and the relative rarity of what many of the 20-or-so per cent would regard as a centrist economic policy, and one would expect that a middling voter exhibiting standard risk-averse behaviour will seek the shelter of the largest tent available, even if it has a few holes.
Unionist strategists also hope that their stubbornness will take its toll on the First Minister internally; that the more restless elements of her party and her movement will try to guide her finger towards the nuclear button marked ‘wildcat referendum’.
She is far too smart to press it. But the presumption of her opponents – who let us remember are looking rather likely to be in power at Westminster for the rest of this decade – that awkward times may lie ahead for her is not entirely misplaced.
Taking all this into account, I do wonder whether another referendum is actually further away now that it has been at any time since 2014.
For those of us who want to see a great national debate on issues like those raised by Paul Gray, this presents a conundrum, because as much as the prospects of the Yes movement are less rosy than they may immediately appear, the prospects of the Tories, Labour, or any other political party winning a Scottish Parliament election are as bleak as an opposition in any democracy in the world.
So we face stagnation; a diminishing chance of a referendum being granted, but almost no chance of an alternative government to the one whose primary policy is to promote a referendum. There are routes out of this, but none that any of the main protagonists appear willing to travel.
In that way, nationalism’s problem is a problem for all of us. Nationalism’s failure to progress, combined with the impotence of the SNP’s opponents, is crowding out debate on the issues which matter more, to most.
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