A few years ago, it got back to me that the First Minister regarded me as something of a “one-man focus group” in her attempts to woo former No voters on to the side of Yes.
I could see her point. I had been an impassioned backer of the Union in 2014, but found that subsequent events had tested and stretched my loyalty. There was Brexit, obviously, a course of action inflicted on an unwilling Scotland by a much larger English electorate. What perhaps hit me even harder was the collapse of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn into an unelectable and wholly unattractive far-left rabble.
The arrival of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister hardly helped – as one of those who had worked with Johnson at the Telegraph, it was clear to me how unfit he was for the post. His chasing after English nationalist voters, and the contempt shown by his administration for the British constitution’s rules and conventions, made for a tawdry and demeaning experience. British cultural strengths and values were being hollowed out on a whim.
As someone who is instinctively non-tribal, passionately pro-devolution, and who takes a largely (though not timidly) centrist approach to politics and policy, events were building a picture of a Britain that seemed to have less and less to offer me. And as a Scot, the idea of creating a new state that could potentially shake off many of these troubles, in which decisions could be taken closer to home in what might be a more sympathetic political environment, didn’t lack for appeal. We could take our ball and go home.
I wrote as much over a period in the New Statesman and elsewhere, much to the horror of hardcore Unionist readers who had regarded me as a solid ally, and who let me know what they thought of my “betrayal” in robust terms. Nicola Sturgeon was aware of the shift too, and apparently reckoned I made a useful test bed for her attempts to attract 2014 No voters who had since been left feeling disenchanted, or homeless, or angry. I was certainly a bit of all three.
It’s always interesting to see yourself as others see you (at least, when those others are worth your time). I got a bit more of this in a column in the Herald recently by the academic and former Tory MSP Adam Tomkins.
Adam, who is a friend, had picked up on what he saw as another shift in my thinking. My gentle flirtation with independence seemed to be over, he said, his judgement partly based on a New Statesman column in which I described Sturgeon’s equivocatory response to aggressive protests at the Tory leadership debate in Perth as “contemptible”.
“Before 2014, Deerin wrote some scathing columns about Nicola Sturgeon’s predecessor, but Ms Sturgeon’s resolute opposition to Brexit, her commitment to social democracy, and her love of reading have, over the years, impressed him,” he wrote, accurately. “You could sense his mind becoming increasingly indy-curious. He is precisely the sort of sensible, thoughtful voter that the Nationalists need to win over if they are ever going to turn 2014’s No vote into something they can celebrate. To see a writer such as Deerin talk of the First Minister’s reaction as being ‘contemptible’, then, should set every red light flashing in SNP HQ.”
To be clear, I don’t regard my opinions as being worth more than anyone else’s. I have a single vote, like each of my fellow Scots. And I’m aware that writing about someone writing about me risks one’s disappearance up one’s own fundament.
But still, recent events have brought the issue of Scotland’s persuadable middle to the fore again. And if I am, or ever was, a “one-man focus group” I thought it would be worth exploring what I now think and why I think it, on the basis that others in a similar position may be feeling the same, or at least trying to work out what they feel.
It is undoubtedly true that I feel less warmly about the prospect of independence today than I have in recent years. One reason for this is that I’ve been hugely disappointed with Sturgeon’s record in government. Some argue that this has little bearing on the case for independence or how an independent Scotland would perform, but they are kidding themselves if they don’t see the link.
The Scottish education system, one of the key responsibilities of the devolved parliament, is undeniably in decline. There is a lack of transparency and truthfulness: school and pupil performance is something of a black box, with only limited data made available, and ministers choose peripheral metrics that suggest success rather than the more important ones that show nothing of the kind. Education was supposed to be Sturgeon’s big passion, but ultimately she has lacked the courage to do what bright kids from difficult backgrounds needed her to do – cut through the bureaucracy, tackle the vested interests, enforce a rigorous system that demands excellence and that frees schools to innovate and thrive. Instead, the basic, stultifying comprehensive model has been protected, educational fashions have been pursued, bureaucrats have been mollified, and pupil performance – and therefore life chances – have suffered.
Sturgeon’s personal allergy towards the business community is both baffling and harmful. Relations, after seven years in office, remain minimal and cool. There has been little serious debate about how to encourage wealth creation, or to tackle the deep-seated deficiencies in the Scottish economy. There is nothing right wing about desiring and enabling a thriving, profitable private sector – this is where the economy gains and keeps its edge, where good jobs and tax revenues are built, where most individuals can pursue their career aspirations, and where innovation can lift Scotland up the global league tables. Other than the Logan report on the digital ecosystem, which provides an intelligent pathway to strengthening Scotland’s tech economy (and was anyway driven by the promising Economy Secretary Kate Forbes) it is hard to alight on many instances of the Sturgeon administration instituting brave or meaningful reforms in the area.
In fact, the First Minister effectively turned her back on people like me by taking the Scottish Greens into her government. The Greens are kilted Corbynites: anti-growth, anti-Western, pompous, unserious, and the most left-wing party ever to hold office in the UK. It remains unclear if they are there because Sturgeon is sympathetic to their policy agenda, in which case hell mend her, or simply because it allows her to claim the governing parties at Holyrood have a majority for independence, in which case it’s a shabby stunt and a horrendous miscalculation of priorities. Of all the decisions she has taken, this one has probably hardened my heart the most.
You can look across the piece – to an unreformed and wilting health sector, to the brutality inflicted for years on local government budgets and the apparent fear of empowering councils to take decisions on behalf of their own communities, to the disastrous ferries contract, to the constant refusal to accept any responsibility for policy failure. This, coupled with what has been the long, unchallenged electoral dominance of the SNP, meaning they have not and cannot be properly held to account, has cast gloom over a largely ineffectual Holyrood.
And then we come to independence itself. There is nothing wrong with the idea of independence, and plenty of Scots are convinced by the prospect. But more, still, are not. In the past few years we have gone through the Covid pandemic, there have been massively disruptive changes to the way we live and work, profound and frightening economic upheaval, and now a war in Europe that will redraw the global map one way or another. Each scenario has, ludicrously and exhaustingly, been confidently advanced by Sturgeon and the SNP as making the case for independence more urgent and essential.
Scots have been given no time to find their feet amid all this rapid and chaotic change. Instead, they are constantly being rushed towards a referendum that a large majority do not want. The SNP seems unable to shut up about independence for a second, regardless of context or the facts on the ground or the competing demands of governance and the day job. Sturgeon has unilaterally announced a second referendum will be held on 19 October next year, though it seems all but certain the Supreme Court will rule such a move out of bounds. She then intends to treat the next UK general election as a “de facto” referendum, which is a Boris Johnson-style mockery of democratic norms.
All this running around, screeching at people, shouting “fire!” and banging pots and pans in their ears, does not feel like a measured, coherent strategy so much as a panicked awareness that the era of Nationalist hegemony may be running out. Or perhaps it is driven by Sturgeon’s awareness that her own time as First Minister is drawing to a close, and that her chance to be remembered as the mother of an independent Scotland is closing. Once, I wouldn’t have considered that of her.
I didn’t see this headless chicken approach coming. But the SNP should understand that it has the opposite effect to reassuring the floating voter – and that this remains the case regardless of how crazy things are at Westminster. Being a bit less disorganised and unappealing than the other guy is not a winning argument for major constitutional change.
Independence, if it is ever to come, needs to be built on successful and bold devolved governance, a considered, convincing plan for dealing with the challenges of separation, and to be chosen by an electorate that feels ready to make the decision. Patience used to be and still should be the SNP’s watchword.
For what it’s worth, and with some regret, the verdict of this one-man focus group is that I am not ready for independence, am unconvinced by the case as it is being advanced, and am especially unimpressed by the strategy for its pursuit. For now, then, it has to remain a No from me.