Ian Swanson: Year of sound and fury signifying what exactly?
A FRESH bid for independence, later postponed; a surprise election with a surprise result; chaotic progress towards Brexit; and all change at the top of Scottish Labour. No-one can say 2017 has been uneventful.
But as the year draws to a close, the future direction of the country seems no clearer than it was before.
Nicola Sturgeon’s Bute House announcement in March that she wanted a second independence referendum between autumn 2018 and the Brexit deadline of spring 2019, to allow Scots to choose an alternative path before it was too late, seemed a logical move following the rhetoric which she and other senior Nationalists had been using ever since the divergent results of the EU referendum north and south of the Border.
But it was a gamble – the polls did not suggest a majority in favour of independence.
The initiative came up against an immediate obstacle with Theresa May’s refusal to give the Scottish Parliament the power to hold a fresh vote. “Now is not the time,” she insisted.
And the plans for a new referendum were scuppered by the SNP’s setback in the June general election when it lost more than a third of its seats.
Mrs May took everyone by surprise when she called the election after months of firm denials that she would contemplate such a step.
She wanted a clear mandate to strengthen her hand in negotiating Brexit but she got the opposite, losing her Commons majority, seeing Labour performing better than anyone expected and ending up as a lame-duck prime minister, able to hold on to office only because of internal divisions in her party and the fear of sparking another election.
The Tory election campaign was a disaster. The Prime Minister appeared reluctant to meet voters as she toured the country. And the flagship policy was a proposal on the future funding of social care which placed the burden firmly on natural Conservative voters.
But the election gave a boost to Labour. Even though the party was 55 seats behind, the fact was it had been expected to do much, much worse. At the start of the campaign, commentators had written off Jeremy Corbyn completely, saying Mrs May could refuse TV debates with impunity because she was a dead cert to win.
Labour did much better than expected in Scotland too. There had been fears Ian Murray, the party’s sole Scottish MP in the previous parliament, could lose his seat in Edinburgh South, but he was re-elected with a 15,000-plus majority. And he was joined at the Commons by six other Labour MPs from Scotland. But less than three months later, Kezia Dugdale’s announcement she was quitting as Scottish Labour leader was a big setback for a party showing signs of recovery from its poor performances.
Labour then endured a long, acrimonious leadership battle between centrist Anas Sarwar and left-wing Richard Leonard before Mr Leonard emerged as victor, only for his win to be overshadowed by Ms Dugdale’s controversial sojourn in the I’m a Celebrity jungle and allegations against former deputy leader Alex Rowley.
So, little has been resolved over the past 12 months. Indyref2 is in abeyance but has not gone away. Labour’s Scottish recovery could be going better. And Mrs May’s premiership is precarious, though she is hanging on for now, as the country stumbles towards Brexit.