Scotland has decided it wants a different future — and we need to get there together
In the dead of election night, I polled my Twitter followers about whether my next move should be tea, coffee or gin. The result was overwhelmingly gin. A bottle, not a glass, one suggested. Intravenously, said another.
But I chose tea. A strong mug of Scottish Blend. I was reminded of election night, 1987. In the bar of the Imperial Hotel in Blackpool, amid a trade union conference as a 20 something activist, I had drunk quite a lot of gin.
Indeed, copious amounts of drink had been taken all round when a friend announced it was time for tea — to save us from ourselves. I was grateful the next day. I texted her last night, just after the exit poll, and suggested it might be time to take her advice again. ‘With a hemlock chaser’, she replied.
We lived in England back then, but we’ve both long been north of the border. We’re still at one on some things. But last night I voted SNP for the third general election in a row. It was strange then, to find myself on the winning side yet feeling such an acute sense of dislocation.
Eschewing the poll, I decided it was a moment for the clearest possible head. For tea, not gin. I’ve since resorted to strong coffee to stave off the effects of sleep deprivation. But I still think tea was the sensible choice, not just for me, but for the nation.
By nation, I mean Scotland. I spent my first 42 years down south but I can’t answer the question as to who should speak for England now. Except fearfully. Yesterday was my fifth general election here. My past seems more like a foreign country than ever before.
Boris Johnson claims to be a one-nation Tory, though not by any definition of the term I know. But one thing is true. That nation is England, the only country where the Conservatives (or their allies in Northern Ireland) won both the largest share of the vote and the greatest number of seats.
I was asked many times on a recent visit to London — not for nothing known colloquially as the Imperial Capital — what was happening in Scotland and what the outcome of the election might be up here.
Having only been here 16 years, I still feel like I’m intruding on private grief. But I knew had more insight than my metropolitan pals and could get away with taking a punt. And anyway, after all this time I’d look daft if I couldn’t.
It’s a different election, I said — as much about independence as Brexit and barely about anything else at all. There would be gains for the SNP, more at the expense of Labour in the central belt than of the Tories in the North East or the Borders.
It turns out that wasn’t wide of the mark though I didn’t anticipate the scale the SNP’s success. But then neither did anyone else, including the party itself. The result was, unsurprisingly, not as emphatic as the exit poll, but a good deal better than had been predicted.
Yet whatever celebrating or commiserating might be taking place this weekend, come Monday cool heads and calm reflection will be critical.
We are at a profound political and social moment. Understanding how we got here and what that means for where we go next is something every party must face up to. Doubt will be as valuable as certainty when the dust settles.
As Richard Holloway said this summer at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the stories we tell ourselves matter. But as the former SNP MSP, Andrew Wilson, said, repeatedly, in the BBC Scotland studio last night, everyone needs a new narrative now. Old stories won’t do.
Nicola Sturgeon says the SNP’s victory provides a mandate for them to offer the people of Scotland a choice over our own future. That’s undeniable, but we still need a robust conversation about the terms of a referendum.
And unless the party — and the wider Yes movement — can persuade people who are undecided that an independent future is viable, the desire to have a choice about it may wane. Flags and marches won’t wash.
For the Scottish Conservatives, last night was a defeat though not an unmitigated disaster. But they paid a price for towing Boris’ Brexit line because he has no mandate for it here. And obsessing about a second independence referendum had its limits.
For Scottish Labour, it was an unmitigated disaster and they remain between a rock and a hard place. Ian Murray was right to say the party must listen. But to claim a stronger commitment to Europe and the UK would have worked ignores the facts. There is significant support for independence, not least in what were Labour’s heartlands.
Unequivocal support for Europe and the Union wasn’t enough for the Liberal Democrats to cut through. They must now face up to the fact that their implacable opposition to another independence referendum just isn’t consistent. And the accusation that Scottish nationalism and xenophobic British nationalism are somehow equivalent doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
The blunt truth is that questions about Scotland’s future aren’t going anywhere. And entrenched soundbites won’t be good enough. Meanwhile, we must learn to face home truths about home rule together, wherever we’re headed.
This matters for the country as much as for individual parties. Whatever happens next, everyone has to get on with the day job in the Parliament we already have.
That means shoulders to the wheel on the things where there is consensus — and respectful disagreement on things where there isn’t — based on the issues, not the constitution.
That’s what mature democracies do. And it’s time we redoubled our efforts to be one — for the sake of Scotland’s citizens, especially those most in need.