That old cosy consensus

Oh dear! Martin Kettle was doing so well. His analysis was pretty impressive… for a London-based commentator. A standard which, it has to be said, shouldn’t be difficult to better. But then he lost it. He lost it big style. With a couple of paragraphs he reverts to type in truly majestic fashion. It is worth reproducing those two paragraphs in full; because they are two paragraphs packed with the weapons-grade wrongness so tragically typical of journalists who presume to lecture us on the subject of Scottish politics from their vantage point within the bubble of the British media. Two paragraphs that neatly encapsulate much of the ill-informed incomprehension that has come to form the cosy consensus subscribed to by all but a small handful of political commentators in the mainstream media.

Sturgeon has equivocated throughout the campaign about this, presumably to try to keep everyone on board. It makes activists who were drawn into the party by the excitement of 2014 impatient. At the very least there will be pressure for a much more explicit commitment in 2020 and 2021.

The reason why Sturgeon is uncertain about a second vote will not go away, either. There is not enough support. The big question that the yes campaign failed to answer in 2014 – the currency of an independent Scotland – is still unanswered. Meanwhile Scotland’s oil industry is contracting, both because of extraction costs and because of the fall in the world price of oil.

Sturgeon has not “equivocated” at all on the matter of the next independence referendum. She has been totally explicit in stating her desire and intention that the people of Scotland should have another opportunity to exercise their democratic right of self-determination. But she has been equally clear that this is a matter for the people, and not for politicians. She has made it plain that it is not for her to dictate when there will be another referendum. Or to stipulate any pre-conditions. The people will decide. A concept that Mr Kettle and his colleagues appear to be totally unable to grasp.

Contrast Niicola Sturgeon’s position with that of the British parties in Scotland, who insist that there will be no second referendum regardless of the views of voters. They maintain that it is for British politicians to decide whether and when the people of Scotland will be allowed to have a say in the constitutional status of their country. They unabashedly reject the democratic process. Is Martin Kettle talking about this brazenly anti-democratic stance? Are any of his colleagues questioning the appropriateness of denying the democratic right of self-determination? No! Because, for them, parliamentary sovereignty is normal and right. The primacy of a Westminster elite over the people is simply taken for granted. It is the British way! Why would anybody think to doubt its righteousness and efficacy?

Kettle then descends into the most woeful drivel. The currency issue was the “big question” of the first referendum campaign! No, it wasn’t! The media obsessed about it. But that was only because they were complicit in the scaremongering. The British media fully cooperated with the British establishment’s efforts to keep away from the constitutional question – where unionists have no arguments – and take the debate into the realm of economics – where scare stories are surpassingly easy to manufacture.

It is a total myth that the question of what currency Scotland would use was never answered. It was always blindingly obvious that Scotland would continue to use the pound. Because sterling is Scotland’s currency. And there would be absolutely no reason to change it. But the falsehood was peddled so vigorously by the British establishment during the first referendum campaign that it has now become part of the cosy consensus mentioned earlier.

Eager to demonstrate how completely he has subscribed to this cosy consensus, Martin Kettle goes on to spout some vacuous drivel about oil. Including the dishonest representation of a falling oil price, when the reality is that the price of oil has been rising for months. But facts which don’t fit the unionist narrative are casually discarded, if not assiduously obliterated.

This lapse into the rhetoric of the British nationalists aside, Martin Kettle’s thesis appears to be that the success being enjoyed by the SNP – or, presumably, any other party – contains the seeds of impending failure. Being popular leads to being unpopular. Being in government necessarily means becoming “the establishment”. It’s a thesis simplistic enough to be highly dubious. Not least due to the fact that “the establishment” isn’t necessarily synonymous with “that which the electorate reacts against”.

Just as Kettle’s analysis is, to an unfortunate degree, informed by a perception of Scottish politics as British politics in miniature, so his thesis relies on the notion that a Scottish establishment will be some sort of “Mini-me” version of the British establishment. This fails to recognise that a distinctive political culture will tend to give rise to a distinctive establishment.

Despite all this, and somewhat curiously, Kettle makes a remark in his penultimate paragraph which hints at a more perceptive take on Scottish politics. When he argues that “if the Scottish opposition comes together and reinvents itself root and branch, anything might happen” he seems to be recognising that the significant divide in Scottish politics has moved on from the Tory/Labour, or even a left/right dichotomy. He seems to have at least some awareness of the fact that principal divide in Scottish politics is now between Scottish and British parties. Between a popular progressive movement in search of a new politics, and the forces of an old guard desperately determined to preserve the old order and the old ways.

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