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Indyref2 Is a Distraction, Not an Inevitability

28/07/2015 15:26 BST | Updated 27/07/2016 10:59 BST

There was a distinctly Orwellian flavour to the story that dominated Scottish politics over this past weekend. Former first minister, and current SNP MP for Gordon, Alex Salmond appeared on the Andrew Marr Show to inform us that a second referendum on Scottish independence was now "inevitable". This came as a surprise to some in Scotland who thought that the issue was settled last year and that the Union had a convincing mandate as a result. It is also odd that what had been described only last year as a "once in a generation/lifetime" event - in the Scottish Government's own white paper no less - can now have an unavoidable sequel. If you have ever read (and you should have) George Orwell's dystopian nightmare Nineteen Eighty-Four and remember the part where the focus of war changes from one foreign territory to another and it is quickly 'remembered' that this has always been the case - you may recognise the phenomenon.

Mr Salmond, it could be said, gave us his best baritone doublespeak on Sunday.

Anyone who thinks that what the man who didn't quite win the independence referendum did was spontaneous or unplanned is deeply mistaken. The SNP have a well-coordinated media machine capable of planning everything in full and to the smallest detail. Mr Salmond, I suspect, gave us a deliberate sneak-peak of the upcoming Scottish Parliamentary elections, how the SNP will act and, by implication, what the challenge for the opposition parties will be.

Going into an election, the roles are usually quite clear. The government (that means the SNP - they often forget) is responsible for defending their record, highlighting their successes and outlining why they ought to be allowed to continue. The opposition, to use an unavoidable a truism, is there to point out where the government (the SNP - remember) has gone wrong and also how their alternative proposals would make an improvement. Add a dash of spin, a few gaffs and a liberal sprinkling of late night talking head television and you've got yourself an election.

This election, it seems, will take an unconventional form - and Mr Salmond's remarks are indicative of this. By insisting that a second independence referendum is "inevitable" and at the behest of Nicola Sturgeon (a subtle shift from it being at the discretion of the people of Scotland) he is setting his party up to adopt their favourite position - that of the opposition in government.

The SNP have shown themselves to be masters of this political balancing act; they are excellent at taking credit for what does go right in Scotland whereas everything else, from food banks to the state of the NHS, is the fault of Westminster. The classic Nationalist politics of division, blame shifting, externalisation of failure and internalisation of success has served them well so far and Mr Salmond's comments appear to be setting up this familiar stall. It does indeed seem that if it is not broken the SNP have no intention of fixing it. Distraction, in this case, is preferable to action.

This is not to say that the SNP have a choice - they don't - at least not a viable one. Their record in government is nothing to be proud of. No matter where one sits on the political spectrum, there is a lot of scorn to be poured upon the Nationalists for what they have (or have not) done during their time in power.

There's the massive waste known as Prestwick Airport (now spiritually twinned with Pyongyang Sunan International Airport) that is hemorrhaging money at an embarrassing rate. See also the numerous screw-ups and controversies in Police Scotland which now appears to treat policing the Highlands and Islands the same way as policing inner-city Glasgow and has armed police officers in a way which is alien to the tradition of Scottish policing - to say noting of the beleaguered Sir Stephen House. Worryingly, every child in Scotland is to have - to carry on the Orwellian theme - an appointed "Named Person" (posing the interesting question of what an UnNamed Person might be) to supervise their family life without the consent of the child's parents; the sinister reports have only just started on this policy and many others are sure to follow.

These are just some examples of how the SNP may be held to account and there are many more; everything from corroboration, to hospitals, to energy to schools. The important thing is that they must be held to account for everything that has gone wrong in Scotland on their watch.

This is the sole responsibility of the opposition parties.

The Scottish Tories, Scottish Lib Dems and (if they can get their act together) Scottish Labour ought to focus on their specific strengths in policy terms and fight among themselves, and against the SNP, to wrestle control of Scotland's political narrative in their preferred direction. To allow the SNP to have it their way and make this next Scottish Parliamentary election about the relationship between Holyrood and Westminster - with the prospect of another referendum hanging like the Sword of Damocles above us all - would be to waste a valuable opportunity to evaluate how Holyrood, and the party that dominates almost all of it, has performed.

We need our opposition parties to be on top form.

Scotland faces a choice of future directions. The first direction sees the Scottish National Party maintaining control of the discussion and using further agitation, populism, euphemism and their signature distraction tactics (including talk of a second referendum) to draw attention away from their genuine failings as an administration in Holyrood. The other direction involves one or more of the opposition parties taking the initiative; holding Nicola Sturgeon's government properly to account and piling in with genuine pressure and alternative, better, plans. I hope we take the latter direction, for the good of our democracy and not let ourselves be misdirected into discussing what, quite frankly, should not be the issue this time round.