Real politique would say the SNP is in the best possible place right now.
They are a genuine force at Westminster, the heart of the Union, a motive force – the third largest in the House, never to be ignored.
Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh and Mhairi Black are household names. Chris Law is as famous for his car as his pony tail. Their various leading MPs get regular air time on national television, whether or not what they have to say is worth listening to. They are members of all the Commons committees and Chair some of them. Pete Wishart led the Scottish Affairs Committee to Dundee to take evidence from the city’s knock-out creative industries. They get serious money from Westminster, as the third largest party; and individually are as well found as are all MPs.
They have a much awarded First Minister who is the talk of the town in London as much as Edinburgh, in fashion mags, in radio shows, in the media parish; and who is clearly capable of delivering the delicious chastisement that thrills the Tory gentry to the marrow – or thereabouts.
They have a scorching victory in the UK General Election behind them, leaving Labour and the Liberal Democrats eviscerated in both the United Kingdom and the Scottish Parliaments. They clearly have another such victory ahead of them in the Scottish Election in May 2016, five months away. They have a massive membership single mindedly dedicated to delivering Scottish independence. They had a party conference so heavily populated they had real problems finding a venue to contain it – and literally hundreds of the national and international media there to record and sniff out the scene.
They have had no opposition worth the name in the unicameral Scottish parliament. [Unsurprisingly, they are strongly opposed to having a second chamber.] They have a tame Scottish media which dare not seriously challenge them. They hold and relentlessly use the levers of patronage and its withdrawal; of funding and its withdrawal; and of political powers which, although they have never used those they have, are about to grow to the extent that they will skew the constitutional stability of the entire union.
And then there’s Scotland
The country it is all supposed to be about is neglected, divided, misgoverned.
Every one of its major services – health, education, policing and transport infrastructure is led by, at best, deeply unimpressive ministers; starved of crucial resources through serial government underspending; in chaos and closer to dysfunctional than anyone cares to think about – except the hordes who have no option but to confront it as they spend most of a working day to get from Fife to Edinburgh and back – to do a second working day.
There is no economic development strategy worthy of the name for the country as an entity. There is no respectable robust plan for anything. It is all a short termist pursuit of popularity, larded at very regular intervals from the pork barrell, cynically trickling modest fat throughout the territory to achieve the simple contentment that has a chance of keeping the currently compliant natives from looking too hard at the state Scotland is actually in.
This is a government of complacent, unchallenged and culpable mediocrity.
How on earth can its two worlds – of stellar superficial celebrity and headline-grabbing mischief-making in places where it really doesn’t matter, Westminster; and of hard universal failure in government where it absolutely does matter, Scotland – coexist for long without internal fracture?
The impact of the SNP’s embeddedment at Westminster and its relishing of that, has been shown to have changed the perspectives of the party’s MPs. One of the six senior SNP first fleeters in the House of Commons, Pete Wishart, wrote in a recent blog piece entitled ‘Health Education and the Police’: ‘Expect to hear a lot of misery about this little troika of domestic issues [Ed: our emphasis] from our Unionist friends in the course of the next few months…’
So there you have it from the Capercaillie’s craw. The view from the pomp of Westminster already – after little more than six months – is that the degraded state of these mission critical services in Scotland is no more than ‘a little troika of domestic issues’. They’re only about ‘up there’, after all.
This is how Scotland now looks to it own nationalist MPs – and how much it matters in the hierarchies of those elected to champion it.
Back home, who can point to a single substantial success in any department of government? Or to a single substantial success as a government minister save, now solely, the First Minister, the status of whose personal profile is hard earned and genuinely remarkable.
Everywhere you look in Ministerial and departmental performance in government, there is little but serious fundamental failure, crises and future crises – as with the IED that is the Named Person atrocity.
For the first time, these governmental failures involve the Deputy First Minister and Finance Secretary, John Swinney, who has hitherto been sacrosanct in presumed capability but who has progressively been seen to have serious limitations. The Russian roulette he played with public safety on the Forth Road Bridge and the covert major debt burden he is accumulating [£50 billion by four years time] could not be more damaging for the party, because Swinney had been the class card, the gold standard, the talisman that warded off evil doubters.
Holyrood and the Scottish government is in so much of a shambles, with worse to come, that it is hard to see what Ms Sturgeon can do about it. This is especially so since the greatest failures have come from Cabinet Secretaries she herself appointed – most prominently and sadly, from those who were appointed principally because their gender allowed a trivial political point to be scored. The price for this has been too high – for Scotland, not only for the party.
The Achilles heel at the top
While real politique would celebrate the SNP’s unique position today at the heart of the Union, nationalism is about as far from real politique as it gets. Nationalism is all or nothing.
The great swell of the infantry – who rushed forwards in a charge to party membership in the immediate wake of the loss of the 2014 independence referendum, who gave the media and the party something to talk about other than failure, who rescued the leadership and the party from despond and, historically, who turned genuine defeat into a willed triumphal progress – are increasingly demoralised.
In her lack of courage, in her failure to be decisive and in her inability to recognise the moment that had been put within her grasp by the SNP faithful after the night of nationwide electoral shock the infantry delivered in the UK General Election results, Nicola Sturgeon has single-handedly denied the SNP the certain achievement of its reason for existence – Scottish independence.
The leakage of energy, even of trust, following that failure to seize that moment – and the nature of the events that have happened since, have irrevocably changed the game. As they say, ‘events’ are everything in politics.
Had the First Minister seized the day and sent the party on campaign at the party’s October conference – to deliver the Grail of independence to the SNP through a mandate for indy in the May 2016 Scottish Election, the fatal later events noted below would of course have happened anyway. But the infantry, programmed to go for it and thrilling to the charge, would have paid them no attention; and the country and the media would simply have been rivetted by their surge and by their sweeping of others into their train.
Not now, though – and possibly now, not ever.
The lack of that focusing campaign has allowed the events that have taken place to occupy unchallenged the centre stage they deserve – and there is a wide understanding of their significance, though the faithful infantry refuse to recognise it, even in themselves.
As Harold Macmillan may or may not have said, ‘events’ are what he and all politicians most fear – the unforeseen demands on the rudder that force a different course.
For the SNP Scottish Government, the first ‘event’ is the heavy cost of the failure to take the very action that would have swept sent it soaring.
Ms Sturgeon may have made herself everyone’s celeb of choice – but however powerful her party is and will continue to be for a while, the gig’s over.
The change is in internal divisions, in shifts in public attitudes, in the lack of distraction from what is now a steady spotlight on the deep and widespread failures in the SNP’s government of Scotland, in greater understanding of the profound risks of indy and of the pragmatic safe haven of union.
There is talk of an Independence party – which the SNP swiftly scotched. Then the SNP branch in Shotts in Ayrshire had to be prevented by the party from splitting in two, with one group effectively a pro-indy ginger group. Holyrood itself has seen a cluster of the determined indy infantry take to living in tents outside the parliament building – for the duration to indy and saying: ‘Nicola Sturgeon said she wanted to see commitment – well here is commitment’. That however, has been met by recourse to law to remove such commitment from its visibility at the heart of government.
The indicatively named People’s Voice campaign has been served with a legal notice to quit in forty eight hours. That was six days ago. Whatever way this works its way out, in a permanent encampment or in forced eviction, it is emblematic of the change in the nationalist movement.
‘Events, dear boy, events’ – the collapse of oil prices
These manifest beginnings of political shifts sit alongside the profound change wrought by two major events, of equally enduring force:
- the unanticipated action by OPEC that has taken away the floor below the price of oil;
- the defence and security situation, which is now certain to be a permanent feature of 21st century life.
Taking the first of these, the flawed indy prospectus was built on oil revenues available to pay for many of the indulgent spending promises made. The Institute for Fiscal Studies [IFS], theoretically accepting the SNP’s £7 Billion+ assumptions of annual oil revenue, still showed, in an indisputable analysis, a progressive structural deficit that, with Full Fiscal Autonomy, would have seen Scotland with a £9.6 Billion deficit by 2019-20. [It is time now for the IFS to do a second study of Scotland’s finances based on the reality of the North Sea oil & gas sector today.]
The global glut in supply fuelled by OPEC has seen the 2014-15 oil revenues for Scotland projected at £250 Million; and has driven Brent crude oil prices to below $37 a barrel. There is no sign of change to that glut for 2016.
Were OPEC to start reducing supply in 2017 – and new energy factors outside the oil sector now make that unlikely – the glut itself would not dissipate for some time because stockpiles are high. If and when price recovery came, it would be gradual; and prices would not immediately support new investment in the North Sea – with its high production costs.
In the meantime the operating picture in the North Sea has changed for good. Old wells that were being kept in modest production by artificial stimulation have been permanently shut down. This process is seeing changes being made to the subsea pipeline infrastructure. The industry in the UKCS is moving to an emphasis on decommissioning.
If and when the price of oil recovers substantially, the North Sea sill never be the same again. Moreover, at that point, the big players will first recommence greater pumping volumes in the areas where production costs are low than in the difficult North Sea.
The loss of an assumed £7+ billion in annual oil revenues is a 23% hole in the current annual £30 Billion block grant to Scotland. No one can sensibly propose that this picture does anything but knock seven bells out of any credible budget for indy.
‘Events, dear boy, events’ – a new energy world
The very different future of the North Sea. though, does not stop with OPEC and oil prices.
Six days ago, an event with enormous significance for energy generation was widely noted but not carried through to all of its conclusions.
Scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, after nineteen years work, switched on a stellarator nuclear fusion reactor, and created the fused plasma.
The point about the stellarator reactor – as opposed to the tokamac reactors that most other fusion experiments use – is that this new reactor has the capacity to be developed to retain and contain the plasma at the superhigh temperatures fusion requires. This makes its deployment in clean, green energy generation – running on sea water – achievable.
This will not be quick but experts have suggested that with the Max Planck team’s breakthrough, we could be seeing fusion reactors in use by the 2030s.
They would not be in universal use nor producing to capacity – but they would be the present reality of a new energy with durability, with no toxic residues and no carbon emissions.
At that point, with developments coming fast, driven by worldwide need, much of the world’s remaining oil reserves will stay in the ground. The North Sea’s reserves, with their high production costs driven by the difficult and costly extraction circumstances, will be the first to be abandoned.
With this prospect, the strong likelihood is that OPEC will keep pumping like billy-o from now on, to earn as much as possible from oil before it become redundant. Exhausting their reserves will be a matter of no concern; nor will any continuing glut and its accompanying low prices.
And here the advantage of easy and cheap production which benefits OPEC is reversed in the case of the North Sea.
‘Events, dear boy, events’ – the defence and security situation
The worldwide threat to security – and to internal security – in the rise of Daesh from the most primitive primordial depths, changes utterly the nature of defence policy and the extent to which an independent Scotland could even hope to protect itself.
In the wake of the recent Paris massacres, Scottish security chiefs admitted that Scotland would be unable to respond effectively to such an attack.
Scotland’s vast mainland and island coastline is almost universally ‘soft’, open to the easiest of intrusions from the sea for gun runners as much as drug runners and for terrorists themselves.
Coping with homeland security alone would require a budget and a capability that, if an independent Scotland were to attempt to deliver, the impact on its lavish spending promises and/or its taxes would be deeply painful.
The ‘softness’ of the formal border with Scotland consequent on the degree of its coastal security ‘softness’, can only raise the very real issue of a hard and guarded physical border between Scotland and England were Scotland to become independent. The continuing UK could not contemplate increasing its own internal security while open to intrusion from a markedly soft Scottish border.
Living behind the wire is not the myth of indy even the most passionate of bravehearts have envisaged.
Then there is the Scottish Government’s policy of using substantial immigration to help to drive economic growth – which can only create divisive suspicions and dangerous realities of an enemy within.
First there was Al Qaeda with its attack on the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers in New York, its multiple July 2007 attacks on London and the attack on Glasgow Airport, also in 2007. Next and now there is Daesh, with the unimaginably barbaric murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in London in 2013; the December 2015 attempt at Leytonstone Tube Station in London; and the prevention by security forces in London the other day of a planned major attack.
The changes to the nature of conflict, of defence, of security and of the focus of the last two, have radically changed the geopolitical landscape. The notion of Scottish independence is having to start to adapt to that fundamentally different context.
The value of the shelter of Union is becoming increasingly obvious to all.
The EU Membership Referendum, whenever it happens, will brings another potential change of circumstances but not now one where indyref 2 will rear its head – whatever Scotland votes and whatever the EU as a whole votes.
The powerful events above have established an enduring diversion.
The consequences of the SNP leadership’s failure to grasp the moment following the party’s achievement of the deforestation of its opposition in the UK General Election in May 2015, are that everyone has remained undistracted from absorbing the unrelievedly bad news:
- on oil prices and their impact on the future of the North Sea oil industry – and the impact of the arrival of achievable nuclear fusion;
- on the threats to normal life that are driving different attitudes to multicultural multifaith society and to necessary and acceptable levels of security;
- on the serious and widespread failures of the SNP in government in the most critical key services and in responsible budgetary management.
Had Ms Sturgeon loosed the troops in October the inevitable victory would have been disastrous for Scotland and for the Union [even more disastrous than it would have been in 2014] – but it would have been the irreversible achievement of the SNP dream and, of course, its raison d’etre. For the SNP, dedicated to achieving independence at all costs, this was their moment and they were entitled to take it at all costs.
Fortune favours the brave; and the successful generals are the ones who recognise the moment to strike when they see it – and who understand the need to leave as little time as possible for ‘events’ to derail the planned direction of travel.
The SNP leadership is canny, not brave; and the leadership was actually fearful of the power of the moment they had within their clutch.
The lack of the single focus of the big ‘last push’ campaign for indy means that too many people have become aware of the impact of these events. The failure of the SNP to deliver the competent and trustworthy government of Scotland will lose them a lot of the anti-indy votes they would otherwise have had on account of the former perception that they were governing Scotland well.
The irresponsibility that has led to the commercial catastrophe of the Forth Road Bridge closure will inevitably – and rightly – cost the party hard in that coming Scottish election. The one thing no government can afford to get caught playing ducks and drakes with is public safety. The bridgemaster’s decision to close the bridge to particularly heavy loads underlines how lucky John Swinney was to get away without a human catastrophe, whatever the scale of the financial and political one.
And more failures are flying in to their roosts on a almost daily basis.
Yesterday, 16th December, it was big and it was education. The international body, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD] called for a major overhaul of Scotland’s misnamed Curriculum for Excellence [CfE], to address a collection of its most signal failures.
Who knows what’s on its way in to land today?
The entire post-UK General Election scenario adds up to one thing. It’s ‘Goodnight Vienna’ for indy.
While we have ended up on very different sides of this particular fence, the faithful and betrayed infantry, the engine of the SNP, has our genuine sympathies. ‘Put not your trust in princes’ – or princesses.