I spent my weekend watching the entire proceedings of the SNP spring conference in a live Facebook feed. I'm glad I did. Normally I can't bear party conferences. The last one I actively attended was the Communist Party conference in London in 1974. My Young Communist League pal and I signed up to make sandwiches for the grown-ups as a wheeze to gain entry into the top secret 'closed session', hiding behind sandwich platters. We were sadly thwarted by the stewards, despite hours of margarine-spreading.
I remember returning to Glasgow by coach, the preferred option for inter-city travel in those days. We were joined by a couple of Russians who held court for many hours at the front of the bus, talking mostly and disparagingly of the novelist and historian Solzhenitsyn who, for his book 'The Gulag Archipelago', had just been expelled by the Soviet Union. My pals and I got bored with the Russian's salvo fire, so retired to the back of the bus to sing 'party' and rebel songs with gusto and much hilarity. At the next meeting of the branch, we were reprimanded for being disrespectful to our Russian comrades. Yep, those were the days.
Thankfully, the SNP conference was less authoritarian, if not as intriguing. My favourite moment was the young lad making his first conference speech, arguing against a new Scottish statistics agency because the result would be two sets of stats – one UK, one Scotland – one used by one side and one by the other, encouraging distrust and allegations of fake news. He added, to audibly disgruntled delegates, that we need to face up to GERS stats that don't suit us. 'This is not going well', he admitted, to sympathetic chuckling from the audience. Bravo, lad.
'Oh no. Not again'
Light entertainment was not my motivation for paying close attention to the SNP's conference: the Growth Commission debate, and what turned out to be one of Nicola Sturgeon's finest speeches, was. As all the indications suggest, a second independence referendum is likely to take place in the next couple of years, I had to start paying attention. Scots would be forgiven for uttering 'Oh no. Not again'. Many Scots did not feel that the 2014 campaign was a 'festival of democracy' and will dread a repeat of a divisive referendum. But this time, it's different.
The burden of political proof always lies with those who would break-up political unions that have served us passably well. In an uncertain world, bigger is better, if only because risks are easier to manage for large and powerful groups than for small. In 2014, the Yes campaign faced an uphill battle in trying to persuade (sometimes bludgeon) Scots into leaving a union with which the majority were fairly content. What was the serious problem to which independence was the solution? It wasn't obvious to non-nationalists.
The UK is not perfect, but it is no Soviet Union or Yugoslavia. No burning injustices were serious enough to move a majority of Scots to reject the UK. Add to that the inability of the Yes campaign to alleviate concerns about the currency or provide a convincing blueprint of what an independent future would look like, it was not particularly surprising that Scots decided the burden of proof had not been met.
But again, this time it's different. Scots are now being asked if they would prefer to remain part of the EU if, or indeed when, England eventually leaves. On this occasion it looks as if an independent Scotland's membership of the EU is highly likely, although that would need to be confirmed. Sundering the union with an England consumed by toxic nationalism has become an attractive consideration.
It is imperative that we think deeply this time about whether an independent Scotland is worth pursuing. For soft No voters and waverers, this is no easy task, especially during a campaign. Too much noise, passion and irritating marches, rallies and flag-waving get in the way. This time, it would be advisable to mute the noise online, read thoughtful, objective commentary rather than opinion pieces by the usual suspects. In other words, get informed, think, decide. Future generations of Scots will thank us, hopefully.
What the hell, Labour?
Out for dinner on Sunday night in London with a Labour politician, we lamented the state of the Labour Party and its inability to set out a coherent Brexit position which activists and voters can coalesce. Such is the disarray, even party members down here are not certain they will vote Labour in the upcoming EU elections. Polling suggests that Farage's new Brexit Party will top polls everywhere apart from Scotland. Change UK, the other new party, has not yet cut through, so who do English Remainers vote for?
In the EU elections and any forthcoming general election, it is predicted that Remain votes will be split between Labour, LibDems, Greens and Change UK. As for Scotland, the view seems to be that the Labour leadership in London are not concerned about losing Scottish seats because if they succeed in forming a government, they will do so in the hope that a deal will be cut with the SNP. This is hugely disappointing to put it mildly, and foolhardy, since SNP support should not be assumed unless Labour embraces a Remain position. Disappointing, because losing the likes of MP Paul Sweeney, would be a huge loss to British politics. Of course, if Paul were selected as a candidate for Holyrood, what a boon that would be for Scottish politics, and, dare I say it, the future of Scottish Labour. Cloud-linings and all that.
My Labour friend and I talked of that feeling we have of living in interesting times destined to be studied closely by the next generation of undergraduates. We had a bit of fun with the 'Cleopatra's nose' view of history, that is: the role of individuals, or individual events, that have shaped historical narrative e.g. Cleopatra's beauty, Franz Ferdinand's assassination, Caesar's river crossing and so on. We wondered who would be held responsible for the fall of the UK, and possibly the EU, in its wake.
Out of left field, my friend nominated 'that' punch in the Stranger's Bar in 2012. If it were not for that solitary punch, a counterfactual narrative would be quite different: no Falkirk voting fiasco, no change in the Labour voting process, Corbyn wouldn't be leader therefore Remain would have won the referendum. May's government would either not have existed or have been defeated long ago. It's the small things.