Will Sturgeon pursue recovery or referendum?

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, May 17, 2021.

Tomorrow afternoon MSPs will assemble at Holyrood to elect the next First Minister. It’s safe to say the odds heavily favour one candidate in particular. So, unless things go splendidly wrong and Jackie Baillie ends up in Bute House, we can expect to thole a little longer under the rule of Nicola Sturgeon. 

In the dizzy days that followed the 2014 referendum, when Sturgeon was selling out concert halls and sloshing a tin of yellow emulsion across Scotland’s electoral map, there was an intoxicating certainty among nationalists that she would lead them to the Promised Land. Six years on, the Ayrshire Moses is still parked at the shore of the Red Sea, frowning: ‘Too choppy’. The true believers are waking up to the reality of being led by a cautious, poll-watching solicitor unwilling to allow belief to outrun political circumstances. 

The political circumstances that Sturgeon must contend with include the ongoing wariness of Middle Scotland towards the independence enterprise, growing disquiet at the mediocre outcomes from 14 years of SNP government, and internal tensions dragging her party in this direction and that. However, no circumstance is as momentous as the continuing Covid-19 pandemic and the economic revival that needs to come next. Supporters of separation may pretend the First Minister can lead Scotland through the pandemic and into another constitutional battle at the same time but no one sensible believes this. 

Even if you are convinced the full powers of independence would deliver a better recovery, the disruption that would be caused by the campaign to acquire them would more than reverse any benefit. The Scottish Government must work with the Scotland it has because the Scotland it wants is not available right now. 

Nationalists and Unionists are bound up in an interlocking Catch-22, the constitutional equivalent of mutually-assured destruction. If the nationalists drop another referendum into the middle of a pandemic or the recovery it could drive undecided voters into the arms of the Unionists. Yet, if Unionists convince the SNP to put the recovery ahead of a referendum, such a display of moderation and wise governance could allay the very fears holding undecideds back from supporting a split. 

How, then, to navigate both the constitution and Covid? The answer is: you can’t. There is no Holyrood solution to the constitutional conflict. That can only come by Westminster granting a second referendum that leads to a decisive result or by Westminster grasping the thistle and reforming devolution to stop it being used as a steamroller for separation. Until such time as either occurs, MSPs have a choice: they can be a recovery parliament or a referendum parliament. They cannot be both. 

Politics is not about power. It’s about what you do with power. Winning elections is the easy part — the hard part is the choices that come afterwards. Once in government, you have the ability to do a great many things to transform the country and the lives of those living in it for the better. But powers are not ornaments to be displayed with pride on the mantlepiece. They mean nothing beyond political vanity if they are not used. That is the question that faces the new parliament and the new government that will lead it: will the next five years be about the powers they have or the powers they don’t?

Scotland, like the rest of the UK, has been lulled into believing the end of the medical pandemic means the end of the economic and social crisis. We are like the surviving characters of a horror movie who, convinced the mad slasher is dead, turn their backs and breathe a sigh of relief. As any fan of fright flicks will tell you, this is invariably followed by a sudden shriek of the musical score and the villain sitting bolt upright and turning his head menacingly in the direction of his oblivious prey.

Sooner or later, the axe is going to fall for us too and in all likelihood it will be a bloody affair. The economy is being held in aspic for now by the Chancellor’s job retention scheme and other pots of money designed to keep as many people in work as possible. Ministers know that consent for the kind of sweeping restrictions necessitated by the virus has been contingent on removing the need for most of us to go around job-hunting during a pandemic. When that trade-off comes to an end, that will be the real test of political leadership. 

The sixth session of the Scottish parliament will be more consequential than any that preceded it. Those were the theory parliaments — this one is the practical. The dominant questions of the 2020s will not be about building projects or constitutional conversations. They will be about economic growth, job security, unemployment, the skills economy, and restoring prosperity in the knowledge that another coronavirus variant can pop up on the other side of the world tomorrow and place London, Paris and New York in lockdown within a week or two. 

Even if we could be guaranteed that future outbreaks could be contained, the scale of recovery required and the obstacles to achieving it are both daunting. The potential for large numbers of people to become unemployed and stay so is at least equal to that which followed deindustrialisation in the Seventies and Eighties. Without a relentless focus on growing new industries, supporting jobs and investing in skills, the ‘new normal’ we keep hearing about could be mass unemployment and the social fallout that comes with it. 

A letter published yesterday by Scottish Business UK, a non-party organisation of entrepreneurs, spelled out the challenge. It warned ministers: ‘The stakes could not be higher. Scottish voters want and deserve a Scottish Government that will focus all of its energy on recovery from the pandemic — saving lives and livelihoods, protecting jobs and ensuring that businesses survive.’

Scottish Business cautions that ‘a divisive and distracting referendum on separation would put any chance of sustaining economic recovery at risk’. Instead, it wants ministers ‘laser-focused on the Covid-19 crisis and recovering from the significant economic damage it has caused’. 

Ministers, least of all those who believe they hold the patent on ‘standing up for Scotland’, should not need to be told any of this. In the contest between the interests of the nation and the interests of nationalism, a true patriot would not pause before choosing the former. Tomorrow MSPs will not only be electing a First Minister. They will be entrusting someone with the lives of more than five million people who, whatever their politics, need a leader who puts their futures ahead of her party’s dreams. 


How far can you run in 15 seconds? For most of us, that’s a question of physical fitness but for the people of Sderot it’s a matter of life and death. In the small Israeli town, located near the boundary with Gaza, 15 seconds is how long residents have to reach a bomb shelter when an incoming rocket is detected. 

Thankfully many of these missiles are destroyed by Israel’s high-tech Iron Dome defence shield, but others make it through. Last Wednesday, one struck a home in Sderot, killing Ido Avigal. He was five years old and loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex and the loss of life in Gaza no less heartbreaking but, contrary to the reigning dogma among Western elites, there is no equivalence between Hamas and Israel. When an Israeli air strike kills Palestinian children, it is regarded in Israel as a grave tragedy and a matter for investigation. When a Palestinian rocket kills Israeli children, it is regarded by Hamas as a victory. 


‘Chaos’. ‘Carnage’. ‘Madness’. That’s how the Sunday papers reported the lawlessness in Glasgow. I’m so inured to such front pages that I barely raised an eyebrow. Only when I saw the international coverage did it hit home: the world’s eyes were on Scotland and what a pitiful sight we gave them. 


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk. 

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