THE other day, I was contacted by a researcher working on the political contribution of the late Tam Dalyell. As a memory prompt, he enclosed an article I wrote in 1978 when a Scottish Assembly was in prospect.

Such reminders of youthful opinion can be embarrassing. This one was scary in its prescience. “It needs little foresight,” I wrote, “to realise that every issue with which the Assembly deals is going to develop into a wrangle over where ‘powers’ lie”.

Matters like unemployment and bad housing would be used “as sticks with which to beat – not the capitalist system or even its maladministration – but ‘Westminster control’ and ‘London government’.”

It was, I suggested, “a barren philosophy which is incapable of appeasement” and a “naïve error” to think otherwise.

Time moved on and nationalism played the long game, helping to bring down the Labour government in 1979, which ushered in the Thatcher years and an irresistible mood that a bulwark had to be created against the same thing happening again. As Donald Dewar used to say, Mrs Thatcher was the true midwife of devolution.

That did not invalidate the previous analysis. Indeed, it should have become even more important to combat the risk of Holyrood becoming the permanent playground for a battle over ‘powers’ while its potential for driving social change was neglected. Nationalism, as I wrote, is not about “men and women of goodwill, anxious only to arrive at the optimum form of government for Scotland”. It is about the creation of a separate state. Full stop.

This reminder of my prose from the past chimed with other events of the past week. First, we had the Scottish local election results which were actually not great triumphs for anyone. Instead, they confirmed the sterile constitutional stand-off and, more hopefully, reminded us that Scotland’s political map remains far more diverse than is often suggested.

One in seven Scots voted for the SNP. This is a higher proportion than for any other party but scarcely represents the cry of a risen people. Every poll confirms only a hard core minority want a referendum any time soon. No recent polls point to a majority for independence – far less 60 per cent, once the supposed benchmark for another referendum. That is without the hard arguments about finance and borders being engaged in.

However, the nationalist gallery demands the drum must be beaten, so another few years will be wasted on engineering conflict over legislation to enable a referendum. The question of whether this would even be legal – or a pointless piece of play-acting – could be illuminated by release of legal advice, as instructed by the Scottish Information Commissioner. I assume that will continue to be treated as an inconvenience best ignored.

All this was in close accord with the analysis from Professor James Mitchell in his paper for the IPPR which concluded that the Sturgeon government has been “remarkably small ‘c’ conservative” and “has really not redistributed wealth in a way it could have done under devolved powers”. Well, of course it hasn’t because that’s not what it exists for.

While everything is about plotting a second referendum, the actuality is of “managing decline”. Professor Mitchell added: "And that's what the Scottish Government is doing. We could maybe carry on doing that – it's a very conservative option. But that's where we are." Exactly as I predicted, the last thing the SNP can afford to do is create the impression that devolution is actually a sufficient engine of change.

From my perspective, there were encouraging signs of Labour getting back in the game in Glasgow and elsewhere. There were excellent results in areas like West Dunbartonshire and East Lothian, where strong, mainstream constituency parties have been maintained. Labour legislated for its own fate in local government when it introduced proportional representation – an unusually selfless political act. The same system now provides building blocks for recovery.

However, perhaps the most noteworthy outcome was the rise of the Greens as an alternative to the SNP. In Glasgow, they disposed of Ms Sturgeon’s chief sidekick (though doubtless another quango awaits) and embarrassed the council’s dismal leader. When the analysis is done, I’m pretty sure such results were achieved largely by young voters passing judgement on a mediocre Establishment party.

It is sweet irony that the SNP, as an act of convenience, elevated the Greens who now compete for a “young vote” that was taken for granted. There is nothing cool about nationalism – quite the contrary – and the phase in which the SNP were seen as “different” or radical has passed. Green voters are not obliged – or even inherently likely – to support independence since the environment does not respect borders. It’s an interesting new dynamic.

Returning to my 1978 article, I suggested that “a parallel can be drawn with the development of politics in Ireland over the past half century” with both jurisdictions paralysed by entrenched parties defined by the constitution. In the North, it was the politics of sectarian headcount. In the Republic, they were still voting along the lines of the 1922 Treaty debate. The warning for Scotland was against our political dividing lines being redefined by the constitutional question.

Slow-forward four decades and we now find Sinn Fein being held up as the new best friends of Scottish nationalism. The enemy of our enemy must be our friend, the argument goes. Both want to break up the hated Union, so they are on the same side. Yet again, Ms Sturgeon’s opportunism triumphs over rationality far less historical understanding.

If Ireland does proceed towards unification, it will be a long-term process on the basis of consent, north and south, both of which remain distant prospects fraught with complications and deep suspicions. The last thing Ireland – or Scotland – needs is Ms Sturgeon’s unseemly rush to claim Sinn Fein as a soul sister in order to meddle in that delicate process.

The paradox of supporting the removal of a border within one island while devoting her life to creating a new border in another island should not be lost on anyone who truly believes that bringing people together is a healthier doctrine than driving them apart. That truth has not changed over the decades.

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