Parliamentary clashes are all about the leaders but sometimes you have to peer past them, to the next generation, to grasp the mood in any given party.
Nicola Sturgeon had come to Holyrood’s independence debate as the First Minister, in rhetoric at least, and issued a plea for civility.
She told MSPs: ‘Many others across our country will follow the example that we set in the chamber, so let us ensure that it is the right one. Let us recognise and accept that we are all sincere in the opinions that we hold and always remind ourselves that the person on the other side of the debate is not an enemy, but simply someone with a different but still valid point of view.’
This was very high-minded though coming from Nicola Sturgeon it was a bit like the head swordsman of the Yakuza calling for the Mafia to dial back the leg-breaking. Ruth Davidson was punchier. At one point, Miss Sturgeon leapt to her feet (attached to a recently contentious pair of legs) and readied a devastating comeback to some Tory taunting.
‘Sit down,’ scolded Miss Davidson. You’ve never heard a sound like 128 breaths hurtling to the backs of throats at the same time. Down sat the First Minister, stunned. The SNP benches sputtered in disbelief, like a devout congregation encountering blasphemy for the first time.
But the best speeches came from the up-and-comers across the parties. And noticeably, the young pretenders struck a more conciliatory tone.
Ben Macpherson, one of the smart cookies of the SNP, urged friend and foe alike to drop labels like ‘nationalist’ and ‘unionist’. Politicians had to follow the example of the public, who, he assured us, were champing at the bit for another referendum. It was the talk of Scotland’s coffee shops and supermarkets, said Macpherson, who apparently can’t nip out for a bag of frozen peas without being accosted by voters armed with dog-eared copies of the Claim of Right.
The Lib Dems’ Alex Cole-Hamilton was on fine form. As he described his determination to see the UK return one day to the European Union, the Nat benches scoffed. ‘That is my party’s policy,’ Cole-Hamilton shot back. ‘I have been fighting for lost causes all my life.’
Andy Wightman doesn’t quite represent the next generation, though who knows given the malleable definition of the term these days, but he is the strongest, most persuasive voice in the Scottish Greens. He was careful to acknowledge that ‘the prospect of another referendum on independence is not welcomed by some voters’; for them, ‘the referendum in 2014 was not the joyous civic carnival that it is sometimes portrayed as’.
Mr Wightman tried to justify his party’s ratting on a manifesto pledge to let the public decide on indyref2. He was doing a half-decent job until he brought up the cherished Green principle of ‘radical democracy’. Neil Findlay, the bolshie imp of the Scottish Labour benches, piped up: ‘Radical democracy? It’s pretty radical to have a referendum, lose by 10%, then completely ignore the result. But it’s hardly democratic.’
Kate Forbes, who keeps her vowels in a glass case and polishes each one before and after use, said independence was like a boat. We needed a map to chart the course of the boat. But Brexit meant there was no map. So the boat wasn’t going anywhere and that’s why we needed a second referendum. By this point, her analogy was on the rocks and Miss Forbes’ colleagues were sending up distress flares. Then she read out a poem in Gaelic. It didn’t have much to do with the debate in hand but it was a welcome change of pace.
The common thread running through the Nationalist contributions was the ‘sovereign will of the Scottish people’, a rousing notion that has no constitutional purchase or legal force but which is nonetheless beloved of Nationalists. That they were praying it in aid to push a second referendum the country doesn’t want, is curious but inadvertently helpful. We finally have a definition of this nebulous concept: Nicola is sovereign and the Scottish people will do what she says.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.