Orcadian Column, 30 June 2022

Holyrood rises for the summer recess later this week and I’m looking forward to some time spent at home, including attending the shows, getting out to the isles and generally catching up on things that prove impossible while parliament is in session.

It comes at the end of a busy period, where parliamentary sittings have regularly been extended, often forcing the cancellation of evening events, including Cross Party Groups, briefings and receptions. This is unfortunate as such activities, so important to making parliament and MSPs accessible, have only recently re-started after the lifting of Covid restrictions.

However, it reflects the unusually heavy legislative workload on parliament at present. In the last month alone, we’ve completed consideration of half a dozen bills, a process that involves lengthy spells in the Chamber voting on amendments. While quite normal later in a parliamentary session, this volume of bills is unheard of at the end of year one.

One of those bills saw the extension of some of the emergency powers introduced during the pandemic and, along with rising case numbers, underscores how the effects of Covid are still with us. It also shows that Holyrood has enough on its plate, in addition to dealing with a cost of living crisis, climate emergency and public services that are creaking across the board.

What better time, you might ask, for the First Minister to launch another crusade for independence. Nicola Sturgeon’s statement to parliament this week on plans for a referendum followed an earlier press event at Bute House, which was noticeably muted. It was as if the First Minister’s heart wasn’t in it and she was going through the motions.

Given her previous comments on a second referendum, it’s not hard to see why she might think this is not sensible, deliverable or even winnable.  In 2015, she talked of the need to prepare the ground and for polls to be showing consistent support for independence at around 60%. Neither has happened, yet here we go again with all ministerial eyes fixed on October 2023.

Unlike 2014, of course, the legality of this move is wide open to challenge. But then this isn’t really about holding a referendum, so much as stirring up grievance about not being able to do so. And no wonder, given that polls suggest little public appetite for another divisive contest beyond the most hardened members of the independent movement.

Over the last eight years, or a ‘generation’ in SNP terms, none of the groundwork has been done. The answers to questions on currency, pensions and defence are no more convincing now than in 2014. Indeed, amidst a cost of living crisis and conflict in Ukraine, they are arguably even less convincing.

As for Brexit, viewed as an ‘ace card’ by many nationalists, this poses as many problems for Nicola Sturgeon as it does opportunities. It demonstrates the perils of unpicking unions; of promising everything to everyone; and of establishing borders between you and your most important market.

Boris Johnson, of course, remains the gift that keeps on giving for his opponents, including the SNP. Yet the party has plenty of issues of its own: increasing examples of financial mismanagement, epitomised by the ferries fiasco; a drugs deaths crisis where Ms Sturgeon admits to having ‘taken her eye off the ball’; health waiting time targets that have never been met; lengthy court backlogs with threats of swingeing cuts to police and justice budgets to come; and plans to centralise care services that have alarm bells ringing.

Add to this the calamitous handling of sexual misconduct allegations against the SNP’s former Chief Whip at Westminster, and SNP MSPs encouraging protestors outside abortion clinics or being photographed waving flags of ultra-nationalist organisations at Bannockburn commemorations and any claim to competence by the SNP is proving difficult to sustain.

Contrast all this with the polished and supremely self-confident demeanour of the SNP-led effort back in 2014. This time round, despite years of preparation, the campaign seems to have hit the ground stumbling and grumbling. Given all the other issues that should be taking priority right now, that is no bad thing at all. ‘Pretendyref’ is the last thing we need right now.

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