Will it ever be the 'right time' for Scottish independence referendum, Gordon Brown? - Lesley Riddoch

What’s the new argument to kill the case for independence – the old one. Now is not the time for a second divisive referendum, Gordon Brown told Andrew Marr yesterday because Scotland must heal from Covid and the associated recession.

There was no timescale for an acceptable indyref2 (presumably never), no embarrassment about trotting out Theresa May’s tired old slogan and no real reason the world should pay attention.

Still, former PMs apparently make news and Mr Brown got to hammer home his main point several times – Covid provides a new and insuperable obstacle to constitutional change in Scotland.

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Now, of course the pandemic is unpredictable and should be monopolising the attention of governments on both sides of the Border, so plans may not be in place for a 2021 vote. No one’s talking about having a second vote during an active pandemic – but no one on the Yes side will accept indefinite postponement either. The easiest way to avoid “disruption” is an Edinburgh Agreement-style process. Is Gordon Brown now agreeing to that in principle?

Gordon Brown says now is not the time for Scottish voters to be faced with Indyref2
Gordon Brown says now is not the time for Scottish voters to be faced with Indyref2

Meanwhile, his comments focus attention on just how much disruption is acceptable during a pandemic – as long as it’s generated by Number Ten.

Let’s be charitable and say the Dominic Cummings’ meltdown was just bad luck. But can the same be said for Boris Johnson’s determination to press ahead with Brexit – the biggest constitutional change in 45 years – at the height of the second wave?

If it’s utterly unthinkable that a Scottish Government should contemplate a referendum over constitutional change late next year, why is the carnage being wrought right now by the Tories not worthy of mention? It seems the good ship Britannia may create tsunami-sized waves of uncertainty without rebuke but if the wee dinghy Alba even thinks of a different course, alarm bells sound.

Has the British government so completely cornered the market in disruption and division that no devolved government can henceforth move a democratic muscle?

Or is Westminster-induced chaos somehow superior – the M&S chaos of the political world. Undoubtedly if Carlsberg did chaos, it would look like this. Serious, yes. But also… reassuringly normal. Who thinks the intelligent Scottish voter can’t spot such double standards a mile off?

Mind you, Gordon Brown is acknowledging that the status quo – the old unitary centralised British state – is no longer a viable option.

Unfortunately, we’ve heard that before.

In August 2014, Gordon Brown told this paper: “We’re going to be, within a year or two, as close to a federal state as you can be in a country where one nation is 85 per cent of the population.”

The former PM has never uttered truer words.

With devolution rolling backwards, not forwards, thanks to a Brexit our electorate and parliament have consistently opposed, Scots are indeed as close to a federal state as we will ever be – several galaxies away.

Will Keir Starmer change that? Is the new Labour leader ready to dismantle Westminster control and devolve powers to English regions just to sort ‘the Scottish problem’? There’s already annoyance that one tiny Celtic nation has become the tail that’s wagging the mighty British bulldog. Northern Ireland could yet be the rock upon which deals with the EU and US founder.

Can anyone imagine Westminster politicians letting Scotland become the next irritant, with problems that can only be resolved by a total (and apparently unwanted) transformation of English society? And while we’re at it, how does English devolution escape the Scottish “curse” to be enacted without disruption or division? Is there an approximate timescale for this transformation, given that Labour proposals were rejected by north-east voters in 2004 and the Tories clearly plan to keep “levelling up” instead of devolving control for the next four years in government?

Basically, given the low odds of a Labour victory, the lower odds on its top priority being constitutional change and the inconvenient fact Scottish voters will probably have endorsed a party advocating a very different democratic future meantime, how long does Gordon Brown think Scots should wait for the cavalry?

Five years, ten years, 20 – maybe a nice round 40?

It’s the same problem with Neil Findlay’s resurrection of Devo Max. It takes two to tango in a partnership of equals, but evidently, in the British state, one dancer keeps forgetting all the steps. Does anyone trust a power-sharing solution with a government that’s preparing to break international law?

The only reason devolution is ever mentioned by a Union-supporting party is the organised push towards independence, which took another step forward this weekend with news that a national grassroots membership organisation is being launched outwith the SNP to (loosely) co-ordinate the Yes movement.

So, Gordon Brown is right. The status quo is no longer an option – because it won’t even exist after Hogmanay. Brexit and the Internal Market Bill have together started hollowing out of the devolution settlement – even if its most prominent architects and supporters look away and spend time bemoaning the “destructive power” of independence instead.

No one is suggesting self-determination is risk-free. But without a trustworthy British Government or a functioning status quo, no constitutional alternative is risk-free – as the mayhem unleashed by Boris Johnson is fully demonstrating.

As it is, the case for the Union advanced by Gordon Brown looks and sounds like a giant exercise in double standards.

Is that really the best No campaigners have got?

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