IT’S not Indyref2 any more, it’s ScotRef, the SNP informed us this week after Nicola Sturgeon set out her timetable for a fresh referendum. Within minutes of the First Minister’s Bute House declaration, and without even pretending she was still seeking a last-minute deal on a bespoke Brexit, her party launched a campaign website to put us straight on the etiquette.
It’s because #Indyref2, as most people had been calling a putative referendum, sounds too much like a rehash of the first #Indyref. And that would imply Nationalists were simply returning to gnaw their favourite bone, rather than leading the country to a bright new future. Party activists duly pumped out the message. Indyref2 is dead. Long live ScotRef. A new dawn has arrived.
If only things were as easily changed in the real world. Less than a week in, the campaign for a new referendum is already showing many of the worst traits of the old one. Small wonder it has been dubbed Indyhog Day in tribute to Groundhog Day. In the film, Bill Murray’s curmudgeonly weatherman uses the extra time he has while his life is on repeat to improve himself and become a better person. Our politicians are making no such effort.
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The low-rent mudslinging started immediately. Ms Sturgeon even trolled Mrs May on Twitter: “I was elected as FM on a clear manifesto commitment re #scotref. The PM is not yet elected by anyone.” It was a textbook Alex Salmond move: play the man, not the ball.
First Minister’s Questions on Thursday was lousy too. Tory MSPs banging their desks like prisoners readying for a riot when Ruth Davidson said she wouldn’t stand for another referendum, Nicola Sturgeon accusing Labour and the Tories of reprising Better Together.
It took a constituency question from Labour’s Neil Findlay to reintroduce some sobriety. “As politicians get all flustered about constitutional politics, back in the real world 400 workers face losing their jobs at Ethicon in Livingston,” he said, silencing the rowdies.
This week our MSPs have another golden opportunity to let their constituents down again, or just possibly redeem themselves. Unusually, Holyrood has set aside two days of debate on Ms Sturgeon’s plan to seek a Section 30 order from Westminster to get a referendum. The extended timetable is intended to give as many MSPs as possible a chance to speak. Instead of each side ticking off attack lines pre-cooked by party HQ, the parliament could take the high road and stage a passionate, but thoughtful, debate on the biggest issue of the day.
There is a strong self-interest argument for doing so. The SNP regards the current stand-off with Mrs May as the first round in a negotiating process. Ms Sturgeon’s demand that Holyrood should have complete, no-strings control of the referendum process was her opening gambit. She does not actually expect to have unilateral control of what by definition would be an agreed process between two governments. She signed the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012 alongside Mr Salmond, after all. The First Minister expects Mrs May to play the same game, overstating her initial red lines, then coming to an accommodation. Well, perhaps.
The key to who prevails is public opinion. Both sides need to reach out beyond their existing supporters and win people over. The First Minister therefore intends to spend the coming months trying to push up support for another vote. That will not be achieved by falling back on the drab tropes of 2014. Likewise, if the Unionists want to be seen as champions of fairness and reason, rather than a reheat of BetterTogether, they need to offer more than kneejerk complaint. This week at Holyrood will be a real test of which parties are capable of raising their game.