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19 August 2004 Edition

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Is the dream of Scottish independence over?

MICK DERRIG courts controversy with the contention that, as the current battle for the leadership of the Scottish National Party takes place, the dream of Scottish independence has been successfully defused by Tony Blair.

Scotland's annexation into the Westminster state created Britain — the Britain that finally colonised Ireland. England did not conquer Ireland — though it surely tried time and again. It was Britain.

Today in the Six Counties, unionists claim to be different and superior to their nationalist neighbours because of the British connection. That connection is draped in the Cross of St Andrew.

An independent Scotland would signal the end of Britain and the end of a huge component of the belief system that motivates pipe bombers in Ardoyne, coat trailing Orangemen and the grim suits of the DUP.

Any commissioning editor of TV drama would reject the current situation in Scotland that has developed out of the resignation of Scottish National Party (SNP) leader John Swinney.

However, as with good drama, timing is everything.

It is hard to imagine a situation that would have seemed less likely to the activists for self-government in Scotland throughout the 1970s and 1980s than that which pertains now. In the 1970s, nationalism in Scotland, dormant for so long, was kick started by the discovery of oil in the North Sea.

"It's Scotland's Oil," ran the poster campaign throughout the 1970s. The Oil-Fired SNP, which frightened Harold Wilson almost as much as the uprising in the Bogside, ran into the buffers of a gerrymandered devolution referendum. The 40% rule meant that a non-vote was a no vote.

Of those who voted, there was narrow majority for accepting the neutered parish council on offer.

That was 1979. Shortly after that, Thatcher took power and the 1980s saw an anti-Thatcher, anti-Tory and, frankly, anti-English political zeitgeist in Scotland.

The John Major Government attempted to address the contempt in which most Scots held the entire Westminster shooting match, including returning the Stone of Scone, an act of imperial theft dating back to Braveheart times.

Despite this nice tourist board PR gesture to the Jocks, the 1992 election saw the Tories wiped out in Scotland.

The detachment of the Scottish electorate from the rest of the island was there for all to see. The only Unionist party that could secure Scotland was Labour. It was no coincidence that the only policy that the young Tony had when he was Blair-apparent to Number 10 Downing Street was Scottish devolution.

In this he differed from Thatcher. The Iron Lady had taken briefings from her fellow fascists in Spain throughout the 1980s and had been advised that the creation of a regional assembly in Euskadi had not neutered the demands of ETA nor, indeed, public support for its electoral manifestations.

She saw even the most anaemic parish council as the wedge in Edinburgh that would break up the United Kingdom. I thought she was right. Blair took different counsel.

He is the quintessential upper class Scot. Educated at Fettes in Edinburgh, he knew a thing or two about the role of the Scottish ruling class in selling out their birthright.

The crowns of England and Scotland united in 1603 when James VI of Scotland became James I of England. It was not until 1707, though, that the Act of Union united the parliaments of England and Scotland. Though Scotland retained its own church, education and legal system, the Scottish public saw the Act of Union as an abandonment of the country's independence.

Most Scots saw the Act of Union as the decision of the Scottish ruling classes with an interest in preserving trade with England.

When questioned on his ethnicity soon after taking the position of leader of the Labour Party, Blair referred to himself as "a naturalised Englishman".

Blair thought that an Assembly in Edinburgh, which he likened to an "English parish council", would defuse the entire demand for Scottish self-government.

The leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond, had gone into the British general election in 1992 with the slogan "Free By '93!" His view was that once the Scots got a taste of even limited power, they would want more.

At time of writing, Blair has been proven totally and utterly correct.

It is hard to get across on the written page the extent to which this saga is tied up in a building site in Edinburgh near Hollyrood palace in an area of the city called Watergate.

Let me explain. The new Scottish Parliament Building is now the budget overrun that killed a nation's desire to govern itself. The budget started at £40 million; at the last count it was over £400 million. The inability to build, well, a building, has crystallized in the minds of millions of ordinary Scots that "that shower in Edinburgh" don't deserve the power that they have, never mind deserve to be entrusted with full sovereignty.

During the period of the SNP leadership 'race', the civil servants have finally moved their stuff into the building itself.

Within this malaise, the SNP has steadily fallen in the Scottish polls.

Salmond confidently stated after the first Assembly election: "We are the opposition. Opposition in time becomes government."

That too is now looking increasingly unlikely.

Salmond unexpectedly stood down in 2000. His surprise resignation was never really explained. What now looks like an interregnum of Swinney at the helm — although there seemed to be very little steering going on — is now over and Salmond will resume leadership of the SNP.

Labour in Edinburgh has been very much like Labour in Westminster — all spin and deception. As with Labour in Westminster, they have benefited from a largely inept opposition. Even the opposition that Blair gets at the despatch box in Westminster is neutered in Edinburgh by a useful arrangement.

The Lib Dems rule in a coalition with Labour in Edinburgh. The PR system on the Assembly makes coalition almost inevitable. Some SNP activists I spoke to believed that Blair engineered this so that an outright SNP majority in Edinburgh, arguably a mandate for independence, would never take place.

Moreover, the job that Charles Kennedy does in Westminster — being the real leader of the opposition as opposed to the Tories' me-tooism — is lost in Edinburgh.

The malaise in the SNP under Swinney has been a real boon to Blair's northern lieutenants.

Salmond's announcement that he was running for party leader came almost four years to the day after he stepped down. He gave up his position in the Scottish Assembly and held on to his Westminster seat. He recently confided — on the record — to an experienced Scottish journalist that the past four years in Westminster had "been a joy". He said he was "dismayed" at the low standard of debate in Edinburgh, the problems over the building, etc.

The irony of a leader of Scottish nationalism preferring life in Westminster to driving forward the national project in his own country is not lost on his opponents. Despite that, he is the bookies' certainty to be the new leader of the SNP. The previous favourite, Nicola Sturgeon, an MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament), renounced her candidacy when Salmond threw his hat in the ring.

Until Salmond made his announcement, it was starting to look like an election. She is now his running mate as his number two. However, she stated last weekend that she would not be "interfered with" as the top dog in the Scottish Assembly.

For an independence party this already is starting to look very messy.

Last week, Salmond and Sturgeon staged a hastily called press conference, where they appeared on the same podium in Edinburgh in an act of unity. Now it looks more like a coronation than an election.

This makes the other contenders for the leadership — Roseanna Cunningham and Mike Russell — even more unlikely to succeed than they were when Salmond was not in the race.

It is the first OMOV (One Member One Vote) election of an SNP leader.

The irony is that despite its impeccable democratic mechanism, there is now little evidence that there will be a real contest.

The postal ballots go out at the end of the month.

The winner will be announced to a disinterested Scotland on 3 September.

The only problem is that the crowned and anointed king of his people sits in a foreign parliament and doesn't see any problem in that.

Scotland has a tradition of kings in exile. However, this one poses no real threat to the 'United Kingdom'.

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

  • Don't miss your chance to get the first edition of 2019 published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of An Chéad Dáil and Soloheadbeg.
  • In this edition Gerry Adams sets out the case for active abstentionism, Mícheál Mac Donncha takes us back to January 21st 1919, that fateful day after which here was no going back and Aengus Ó Snodaigh gives an account of the IRA attack carried out on the same day of the First Dáil, something that was to have a profound effect on the course of Irish history.
  • There are also articles about the aftermath of the 8th amendment campaign, the Rise of the Right and the civil rights movement.

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