Yesterday, 16 March 2017, was a day of major news for this country: child poverty and inequality has risen dramatically in just one year, from 22% to 26%, according to Scottish government figures published yesterday. In raw data: 260,000 Scottish children are living in relative poverty in Scotland compared to 220,000 in the previous year. Income inequality has also risen sharply: the top 10% of the population had 38% more income in 2015-16 than the bottom 40% combined. In a country as rich as Scotland, these are shocking statistics. So what were we served up by our political classes yesterday? More constitutional self-indulgence on a plate of increasing acrimony between the Tories and the SNP. According to the excellent Holyrood magazine, John Dickie, director of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland, said the figures demonstrated the need for an increase in child benefit, which he said could reduce the numbers of child poverty by 14%. But he was 'talking to the hand', as they say.
It is difficult not to get pissed off by the current political class: Tory Brexiteers ('we are all Brexiteers now', it would seem); the sclerotic, appalling opposition which is Corbyn's Labour; and it is hard not to concede that the SNP has become obsessed with constitutional matters over more important Scottish issues. History will not treat our current political leaders kindly. Populism throws up politicians characterised by the lethal combination of mediocrity and self-indulgence (some of whom become dictator). Our young, across the whole of the UK, will pay heavily. The poor? Well...
The Scottish government's Child Poverty Bill will, apparently, set a target to reduce the percentage of children living in poverty to 10% by 2030. Yes, 2030. By then Scotland may well be independent. Fine and good. But frankly, independence matters less than the state of inequality, child poverty and the lamentable political classes of this dreadful era. As Mr Dickie said yesterday: 'We cannot afford to lose sight of the tens of thousands of children across Scotland that lie behind these statistics'.
Well, it would seem we can.
Both the first minister and the prime minister may have committed tactical errors in their exchanges over a second referendum. Nicola Sturgeon's announcement about her intentions was earlier than many people expected, no doubt partly because of the opportunity presented by Brexit, but also because of pressure from SNP enthusiasts. But the evidence of a more general appetite for another vote among the wider Scottish public is, at best, inconclusive. Furthermore, some observers have suggested that the move was at least partly designed to deflect attention from the growing list of policy failures by the Scottish government and by perceptions of the administration as increasingly dictatorial.
As for Theresa May, she probably feels she has enough on her plate with the negotiations over withdrawal from the EU, but the tone of her dismissal of Ms Sturgeon's request could be seen as further evidence of Westminster insensitivity towards Scotland. The fact that the Tories have so little support here gives some force to nationalist claims that their stance is undemocratic. Moreover, they too could be portrayed as seeking a diversion from bad news: in this case from the embarrassment following the retreat on national insurance contributions for the self-employed and the fine for disregarding the rules on expenses during the 2016 election. But these would soon seem trivial matters if the result of the prime minister's response to the first minister's planned timetable is an upsurge of popular feeling in Scotland, with street protests and sustained unpleasantness on social media.
If the issues were not so serious, the prospect of two strong women wielding handbags at dawn might be quite entertaining. As it is, both are putting political expediency above their national responsibilities. Instead of principled leadership, what we have is power posturing.
We all knew there was going to be a second independence referendum. Brexit made it inevitable. So the outrage currently being expressed by David Mundell, Ruth Davidson, Kezia Dugdale and Willie Rennie comes over as somewhat manufactured and increasingly desperate. Sad, too, to hear Dugdale and Rennie, political heirs of the staunch home rulers of the founders of the Labour party and the Liberals of yore, being so frantically keen to talk down the very possibility of Scotland once more becoming an independent country. They're sounding increasingly like apologists for a Tory government in Westminster.
Scottish independence is an aspiration that won't go away. It's grown over the years of democratic deficit. With only one Tory MP in Scotland, it's Theresa May who doesn't have the mandate to block a second referendum or what she might call the clearly-expressed will of the Scottish people to remain within the European Union. For her to tell Nicola Sturgeon that politics isn't a game demonstrates breath-taking arrogance. The cynical gamble taken by David Cameron, Boris Johnson et al. means that May is the hapless captain of a ship heading straight for the rocks. Her clear belief that Britain can somehow get a brilliant deal from the EU would be laughable if all of this wasn't so serious.
Nicola Sturgeon is going to stand her ground, that much is obvious. Theresa May clearly doesn't understand Scotland and the Scots, or want to. She may rue the day she thought a wagging finger and a stern refusal would magically cause support for independence to skulk away.
You know those people you instinctively avoid because they distort everything you say? You give them a breadknife and they shriek 'murder'? That's the sorry state of the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon et al. have reduced governing Scotland to a distorted and eternal fight with England. Where this will lead is uncertain. Certain, though, to be lots of caterwauling.
I was a Remainer, nowadays even an occasional Remoaner, but Theresa May – as many Scots both pro- and anti-independence, will, I hope, grudgingly accept – is attempting to carve out a workable Brexit deal (and let's not forget the 1,018,322 Scots Brexiteers). Apropos Scottish independence, she's not ruling out another vote: she's just saying that we Scots should know what we're voting for. After all the hopeless floundering after the Brexit vote, how is that not sensible?
And I wonder, as the first minister slips off her heels, is that a little smile I see? Could it be that her proposed referendum timing was designed to be rebuffed; that had Mrs May agreed, Nicola might have been forced to use those stylish stilettos to spike the idea herself? Because what Scot who really cares about Scotland would vote to cast off from the UK and EU simultaneously?
As a child, I read an account of a stricken warship. As the ship sank, horses were released from the hold. And there they were, free, free, free, and swimming, swimming, swimming. Heartbreakingly, they drowned.
In the first referendum the people who voted yes – 45% of those who voted – were endorsing a hugely optimistic vision that promised people greater prosperity in an independent Scotland that would be able to spend more, borrow less and not have to raise taxes. It was largely based on an oil price that has since plummeted. A new prospectus for independence would have to be upfront about the changed economic circumstances. A case for independence that is less glowingly optimistic economically and yet still maintains that independence is better than remaining in the UK will be a harder sell than the first time round.
However the political case is now stronger than it was in 2014, as Alex Massie maintains. Playing on a sense of grievance plays well in Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon is an astute politician who knows how much mileage there is in ramping up the rhetoric. The narrative that Scotland and England are so fundamentally different that it makes no sense to be part of the same nation has been bolstered by the EU referendum result. Some Scots' sense of grievance has been further reinforced by the PM's stated position on a second referendum.
The first minister will not want to hold another referendum until she is convinced that a majority supports independence. The last thing she wants is another failed referendum if held too soon. This would finally put paid to the dream. Theresa May has played into the SNP's hands, fuelling Sturgeon's strategy of playing the long game, ratcheting up a sense of difference and resentment that can brew and brew, perhaps eventually generating enough steam to achieve the SNP's heart's desire – but not quite yet. The heart sinks at the prospect of the next few years.
One of the ironies of this age of political disaffection is the number of politicians willing to speak with absolute certainty on behalf of countries that are obviously divided. In response to yesterday's announcement, Alex Salmond presumed to speak for a small nation but typically gave the impression that his first loyalty was to his continental ego. His comments about self-respecting Scots, Westminster prime ministers and Scottish nationhood didn't appeal to those of us wanting no advice from him on any of those things. If it's unfair to expect a youthful legislature to have produced statesmen or women able to provide wise counsel after leaving office, Salmond is the loudest confirmation that this is nevertheless the case. The SNP shouldn't believe that unionists with reservations about Theresa May's position will consequently support independence next time out.
The grand rhetoric of SNP figures suggested it is just about all they can offer in the face of UK government intransigence. The Scottish parliament will vote next week to endorse the Scottish government's call for a section 30 order. The minority government will achieve this outcome with support from the saintly Greens who will quietly forget their 2016 manifesto statement that a second referendum 'should come about by the will of the people'. The SNP will also benefit from the support of an unknown number of its own MSPs who will vote for a second referendum despite the outcome of the EU referendum being the one they wanted. But if the UK government continues to say no, then what? It's almost a century since Sinn Fein decided to abstain from Westminster and Mhairi Black, for one, would be pleased about a repeat. More likely, the SNP will seek to have the Scottish parliament withhold its consent for the Great Repeal Bill.
For what it's worth, I think May has played right into the first minister's hand. If you listen to the speeches in question, Sturgeon was flexible about timing. She may have quoted dates and repeated that schedule today but at least some of that very measured speech was about the need to be accommodating if some kind of compromise could be debated. May seems to have an inexhaustible fund of meaningless responses: 'Brexit means Brexit' and 'Now is not the time' spoken in the aggravating tone of mummy trying to convince a child to eat her greens.
If now is not the time, when is? Because either a definite 'when' is implied in the statement or it is indeed the kind of response a parent gives to a recalcitrant child. 'Not now, dear, but we'll see'. This is no way to speak to the first minister of a devolved administration and throws the PM's arrogance into sharp relief.
Although Brexit negotiations may take some time, Sturgeon has ensured that Scotland will be the unwelcome ghost, shaking its gory locks at Westminster throughout every miserable course of the unpalatable Brexit feast and demanding 'if not now, when?'
The answer will have to come sooner or later. And given that there is even talk of EFTA as a possible alternative to full EU membership for Scotland, that delay may suit the Scottish government as well as a more precipitate referendum.
One is forced to the conclusion, nevertheless, that unlike the original Brexiteers, Sturgeon – who never seems less than fiercely intelligent – had it all planned out in advance. Another of May's facile repetitions is 'politics is not a game'. But we all know that it is. It's just that while May seems to be involved in a game of snakes and ladders, Sturgeon is playing chess.
I count myself among those who listened to the first minister demanding yet another independence referendum with deepening gloom. More months – years – of endless bickering, hearing the same voices making the same arguments more loudly than ever. More ill-feeling, more division, more extremism. Who can doubt that in the new politics of the social media age, the pressure from the nationalist side to win – at any price – will this time reach a new level of intensity. I am frightened by the prospect. We're told the country is now split 50/50. So no result will turn out to be a good result. I see only a legacy of even greater bitterness and division. I can't get excited about the exact dating of such a second round of independence polling. But I do say that if there is a second poll, the question on the ballot paper should not be the loaded one that featured last time, and the issue of the disenfranchisement of Scots living outside Scotland has to be addressed.
This is the classic situation where short-time loss is long-term gain. It ensures that Theresa May, rather than Nicola Sturgeon, is in the front line for the lengthy and unwinnable Brexit process – and that the problems ahead can't be blamed on a Scottish referendum.
Scotland can now focus on the economic opportunity of living next door to a wealthy neighbour who has decided to abandon financial prudence and take up gambling.
1. Approach Norway and ask that it and EFTA grant various Scottish ports freeport status for tariff-free exports to Norway and EFTA – and hence on into the single market.
2. Ask Norway and the EFTA countries to grant citizenship and accompanying European travel rights to anyone living and working in Scotland who has paid their taxes in Scotland and meets appropriate standards.
3. Meet the demand of people and businesses moving to Scotland by bringing together financial institutions with representatives of architects and builders, to open the way for a massive house-building programme. Bring in local authority planners to encourage the highest standards in new eco-towns on brownfield sites and eco-villages in long-depopulated parts of the countryside.
4. Gear up the enterprise networks and development agencies to cope with the flux of enterprising and innovative people and companies moving to Scotland from the rest of the UK and the US.
5. Similarly gear up Scottish agriculture and horticulture to meet the demand for food from within Scotland and from the rest of the UK.
6. Around 2020 graciously accept Theresa May's thanks for rescuing the UK from some of the worst effects of Brexit. Suggest that a confederation of collaborating nations will be the appropriate structure to best help Scottish economic growth spread through the British Isles, and that such obviously mutual benefits make a referendum unnecessary.