Returning to Westminster after the Scottish Parliament I was stopped by an English Labour MP who enquired mischievously of me why I was in London. “I thought,” he said, “that you had just voted to be independent.” It was, of course, a flippant comment but one which highlights in many ways how difficult it is to explain where Scotland stands after 5th May. In the past it was all fairly straightforward. If you wanted Scotland to be independent then you voted for the SNP. That started to change in 2007 when the SNP formed their minority government. There was then another reason for voting SNP which had more to do with the way in which they conducted the business of the devolved Scottish government.
Throughout the last parliament they sought to move us towards a referendum on independence and roundly denounced anyone who stood in the way of this. As a government we had the big conversation (an online consultation) followed by a draft bill and a white paper. In fact the referendum was never going to happen as long as there was a majority in the Scottish Parliament against it. That changed on 5th May when the SNP got their majority. Surely now they would run the referendum that they had been declaring their wish to have for years. Er no, as it happens. It seems that we will not.
Now that they are in the position to deliver on the policy that has always been at the heart of their reason for existing it seems that they would prefer not to do so. The discussion in recent days has been about what extra powers the Scottish Parliament can have under devolution. A series of nationalists have explained that the party does not want independence after all. Why the change of heart? Here I can only guess but it seems to me that Alex Salmond and his inner circle at least have come to realise that talking about independence makes them unpopular.
Is it still what the party stands for? Is it what Scotland voted for on 5th May? The answers to these questions are as yet unclear but if all the talk of extra devolution and “independence lite” is to be believed then ironically the belief of my English Labour friend is wrong.
More than that it would seem that the election of a majority SNP government may have made independence less and not more likely. Politics can be a funny old game.
Meantime it was announced this week that the job of making some more sense of it all as leader of my party will fall to Willie Rennie. I was disappointed that Tavish did not want to continue as party leader although I could understand why he reached the decision that he did.
Willie will be a worthy successor. I first met him when he was a student in 1987. He impressed me then and has continued to do so ever since. He has an enormous task of rebuilding the party but I can think of no-one better placed or able to do it.
Alistair Carmichael MP