IT is not the weans we should feel sorry for. As Scotland woke to the realisation that no, the First Minister was not bluffing and yes, it looks like there will be another Scottish independence referendum, children moseyed to school as usual while the rest of us sloped to work or the garden centre for morning coffee and a bun. Hardly Paris 1789 on the morning of the storming of the Bastille, but it will do for us.
No, forget the weans, it is the T-shirt manufacturers and other purveyors of novelty political items we should be shedding a tear for today. Their very livelihoods depend on calling this contest right. Just imagine the poor wretches sweating over advance orders, agonising about whether to play it safe with “I’m with Nicola” badges and baseball caps, or rather more daring options such as “Who are you calling a quisling?” T-shirts.
Often the best advice in these unsteady circumstances is to go back to basics, to zero in on the essence of each side’s message. For Theresa May, that would be: “Politics is not a game.” Mrs May has grown fond of this saying when it comes to summing up her attitude towards the SNP and what she sees as its recklessness in pursing a second referendum. For the Prime Minister, the phrase speaks to solidity and tradition, of not taking unnecessary risks, even if she does owe her position to her predecessor rolling the dice on whether the UK would vote to stay in the EU.
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And what of Nicola Sturgeon? Her catchphrase is more left-field, nuanced, one for the connoisseur of sloganeering: “All in good time”. Making its debut at the Bute House press conference on Monday when the First Minister was asked what currency an independent Scotland would use, it is a phrase we will be hearing in the coming years as often as “Donald Trump said what?”
All in good time indeed. It is a smart riposte from Ms Sturgeon, one which allows her to buy time while the party appears to work out its answers on three key questions: the currency of an independent Scotland; how much of it there will in the country’s coffers; and whether the EU that the SNP is fighting so hard to remain part of will allow an independent Scotland back in on favourable terms. Here is the thing, though. What if “all in good time” should turn out to be not just a holding statement for the First Minister, but her entire strategy for leading Scotland towards independence?
It was notable yesterday that many commentators, seeking to explain the “surprise nature” of her announcement, chose to portray her as a gambler; a player, moreover, who had upended the table on Mrs May and her best-laid plans to trigger Article 50 this week. Ms Sturgeon was seen as having taken the initiative, seized the day. In reality, her move was about as out of the blue as Christmas arriving on December 25. In truth, she is no more a gambler than the vicar’s daughter in Westminster.
What she may have reasoned, though, is that the smartest way to secure independence post-Brexit is to be passive rather than aggressive about it. Do little while giving all the appearance of doing something. Why toil over trying to find responses to all those tricky questions you could not answer credibly last time? Everyone knows there are no such magic bullets; just more messy compromises that are difficult to sell to voters. Instead, why not let time, tides, and Theresa do all the hard work? Ms Sturgeon may well have seen such a future play out, and concluded that it works for her.
On the Theresa factor, it is still too soon to say whether she will be an asset or a liability. There is nothing about Brexit that will be easy. The triggering of Article 50 was not the walk in the park as advertised. The Great Repeal Bill, bringing with it opportunities for rebellion at every turn, will be a slog through bandit country with Remainers and Leavers taking it in turns to make the UK Government’s life a misery. Since the Conservatives cannot agree on what a good Brexit looks like, the divisions within the ranks can only intensify. Mrs May may be fond now of telling independence campaigners that politics is not a game, but in time it could seem to outsiders that it is her party, as ever, who are the ones playing silly beggars over Europe.
Among the industries on the up since the Brexit vote and the Trump victory is the “What just happened?” business. One of those aiming to meet the demand for answers is David Goodhart, whose new book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, is out next week (Hurst, £20).
Looking at the tumultuous events of recent times, Goodhart sees an electorate split into two main camps. There are the “Anywheres”: well-off, well-educated, well-travelled sorts who have pretty much had things all their own way for some time. If this elite had a poster boy, it would be Nick Clegg. Then there are the “Somewheres”: people who are more tied to a particular place and a specific set of values, who do not feel their views are represented by the political establishment. Think Leave voters.
While Goodhart is concerned with western and British politics as a whole, his argument about Anywheres and Somewheres strikes a chord in the Scottish independence debate. The story of Scotland in recent times has been one of contraction and expansion of ambition. In the Eighties, young Scots seeking a better life left home and became Anywheres. Today, they, and their parents, are more likely to be Somewheres – people who have a stronger sense of what it means to be Scottish, who feel part of a community.
This is where Ms Sturgeon might have called the battle to come correctly. After two or more years of watching the Conservatives in turmoil over Brexit, and Labour under Jeremy Corbyn being useless and powerless to do anything about it, she need only point south and
ask Scots: is this who we are? Is this somewhere you want to call home? Currency, oil revenues, public spending levels, the deficit: never mind the details of that, feel the difference between us and them.
Such a strategy would certainly lead to a quieter life over the next few years, not least for Ms Sturgeon and her ministers. But it is not what Scotland needs. Defining ourselves by what we are not – not Westminster, not England – dodges the hard questions of what we are, where we are, and where we want to be. That way lies a fool’s paradise, not a successful Scotland.