Originally published in the Scotsman on Friday, March 12, 2021
When a senior politician appears for a major media or parliamentary appearance, they are handed a document headed “lines to take”.
It’s a necessary checklist of issues-of-the-day allowing them to look slick and informed instead of dithery and off-guard.
It means they only have to glance down to call upon a sharp rebuttal on any number of topics.
Whenever the UK Government request assistance from Scotland with such lines, the only game in town is independence.
And in the years following the referendum of 2014 the suggested rebuttals were easy.
“Everyone agreed this was a once-in-a-generation vote, and the SNP should respect that,” would usually be the first.
If more detail was required, you might stray into: “The people of Scotland made their feelings clear decisively in 2014, now the SNP should focus on the day job.”
But in truth, as the years rolled by, these lines were wearing thin.
The elections were rolling by too, and the SNP kept winning them.
Now it’s 2021 and we’re in the seventh year since indyref. It’s been a long seven years too, with multiple unexpected political events both here and abroad.
The problem with “once in a generation” was that people were beginning to feel perhaps that generation was almost up, or at least would be by the end of the next parliament.
Not that anyone’s been able to definitively nail what a “generation” actually represents, which is probably why the Yes campaign chose that word so carefully.
So as the tide was beginning to come back in again, where on earth was the UK Government going to get its new lines to rebut the demands for indyref2?
Were the SNP to win a majority in May at Holyrood, what reasonable and democratic justification could Boris Johnson actually give for turning down these demands again?
After all, “now is not the time” had been done to death by his predecessor, even if it’s probably more apposite now than it was then.
Anxiety was building in Edinburgh where the Scottish Conservative’s director Mark McInnes - a behind-the-scenes but hugely influential and intelligent figure – was worrying just how blasé Westminster was being about all this.
He’s not one for having his name in lights, but he was forced to rush down to the government’s cabinet last year to give a warts-and-all emergency presentation to ram home just how bloody serious this whole situation had become.
It certainly had an impact, but it didn’t get the government any further forward with the fundamental point of being able to reject another independence referendum while appearing reasonable to the Scottish people.
Well, the UK Government need worry no more.
The self-inflicted madness which has suddenly poisoned the SNP and the Yes movement, culminating in arguably the most explosive political week in devolution’s history, has done the hard work for them.
In the Scottish Conservative press office we used to complain how various UK Government gaffes and ill-timed interventions would write the SNP’s press releases for them.
Whether it was blundering remarks about a unified British football team, or senseless policies like the bedroom tax and the two-child cap, UK ministers made life very difficult for a party in Scotland which was supposed to be focused on holding the SNP administration to account.
Now the roles have reversed.
This astonishing fiasco shows no sign of abating, and leaves the incredible situation whereby the independence movement’s two most revered and significant figures now can’t sit in the same room together.
It completely takes the heat off Westminster, and will do so for some time to come.
No longer will you hear pro-UK politicians referencing “once in a generation”, because they won’t have to.
Instead, the lines-to-take scripts will read: “The SNP can’t even keep their First Ministers in order, how are they supposed to run an independent country?”
Or: “Perhaps the nationalists should keep themselves out of court before threatening constitutional ruin for the whole country.”
I can easily imagine Boris Johnson jesting at Prime Minster’s Questions to the guffaws of those behind: “The SNP wants to break-up Britain… there’s not a bone in the Yes movement’s body that’s not already smashed to smithereens.”
It’s the dream scenario for politicians on the back foot; if you can successfully address an accusation without engaging in the substance of a tricky issue, you tend to emerge unscathed.
On the spot, it makes you look witty and comfortable, and – if delivered correctly – makes a right fool of your opponent.
The SNP specialises in it. We often hear the First Minister avoid the thrust of a question by responding: “I will take no lectures from the party who…”
Now the tables have turned, and it will be more than enough for the UK Government to swat away referendum demands for the foreseeable future.
Ironically, the one SNP politician in Westminster who has the intelligence and heft to cut through all this new-found spin, Joanna Cherry, has been inexplicably sidelined to the point she’ll rarely get the chance to do so.
More serious observers of politics will probably despair at this conclusion. Surely a “good line” shouldn’t contend with serious discourse and considered, detailed debating?
It probably shouldn’t, but it’s the reality. Soundbites trump sound debate, and one-liners eclipse dissertations.
For years Westminster have needed convincing rebuttals which look good in print and will be accepted by a sufficient proportion of the Scottish public at face value.
With every day that passes of this astonishing self-harm that the Yes movement is carrying out, those lines become more effective.
For so long the unionist side have worried about how to talk down SNP rhetoric on the supposed need for another independence vote.
Not a single one of them would have thought egos on the other side of the divide would deliver the answer in such a spectacularly helpful fashion.