Early on the morning of May 6, 2011, David Cameron lit the touchpaper that has led to nearly a decade of constitutional upheaval for Scotland. He signalled acceptance on the part of the coalition government that the majority won by the SNP in the Scottish parliamentary elections held the day before was effectively a mandate for a referendum on independence for Scotland.
He, like many others, believed that a decisive outcome to that referendum would settle the question for a generation. Little did he anticipate that his other ill-starred referendum venture would re-ignite the constitutional question and ten years later leave Scotland still staring into an uncertain future.
That uncertainty is not going to disappear any time soon. The SNP might so succumb to internecine conflict that the party loses its chance of a majority in this May’s elections. The UK government might come up with such a compelling offer to the people of Scotland as to reconcile a fair majority to a continued future within the United Kingdom. One outcome is perhaps more probable than the other, but neither can be relied upon.
This leaves all who crave some sort of stability in an unsatisfactory place, not least the world of business as it grapples with the fallout of the pandemic and seeks to get to grips with the additional burdens that come with the UK’s new trading relationship with the EU.
Many will be tempted to wish a plague on all political houses in the hope that uncertainty will go away. It won’t. The times are uncertain because too many of us, not just in Scotland but in the rest of the UK and much further afield, are out of temper with the world as we find it. Politics is a mirror in which we see our own discontents.
Politicians will of course play hard to their own advantage, even if that means equivocating on the consequences of the position they advocate. We saw that in spades on Brexit and we have seen it constantly in the debate on independence. We are asked to buy not only the ideological belief but faith too that in its realisation will come all sorts of improbable benefits.
Is it too much to expect of politicians that they have the honesty to build on the value of their core proposition, be it leaving the EU or independence for Scotland, without larding it with false promises? Almost certainly it is, which leaves it to the rest of us to be sceptical of their promises and plan as best we can for an uncertain future.
Philip Rycroft was the lead civil servant in Whitehall responsible for constitutional and devolution issues between 2012 and 2019.
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