Gently probed in a podcast about his sudden conversion to Home Rule, Kenny MacAskill did what I predicted (in a previous post) advocates of ‘independence within the UK’ would do – he quoted Michael Collins’ famous line about gaining “the freedom to achieve freedom”. I could be cruel to the Alba MP for East Lothian and echo Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s famous putdown of Senator Dan Quayle in the 1988 US Vice-Presidential debate. I could say “Mr MacAskill, you’re no Michael Collins.” But I don’t want to be cruel to Kenny because I think this fellow Hibernophile’s heart is in the right place. It’s just his head that needs sorting.
To begin with, it’s important to know the context in which Ireland’s most revered freedom fighter accepted something that fell short of a fully independent, united Ireland. Why did the Commander-in-Chief of the original Irish Republican Army settle for an Irish Free State that was still a semi-province of the British Empire with Dominion status? Historians still debate the question, but this much is indisputable: in 1921 there were strong indications that the brutal dirty war being waged in Ireland by Crown forces and their notorious auxiliaries, the Black and Tans, could be about to enter a terrifying new phase. There were even fears that Lloyd George might authorise aerial bombardments of John Bull’s other island if an Anglo-Irish Treaty was not negotiated on terms acceptable to his government. General Collins had proven himself a master of guerrilla fighting but even the “big fellow” knew that asymmetrical warfare on such a scale could be suffered for only so long.
Equally important was why the Irish had launched their War of Independence in the first place: the British Establishment had refused to accept the outcome of the 1918 general election, in which a political party unequivocally committed to outright independence for the whole of Ireland had won a landslide victory. Sinn Féin is Gaelic for “We Ourselves” so there was absolutely no ambiguity about what this party was all about. It wanted to free Ireland from every last vestige of British subjugation and saw no great merit in partial autonomy.
The advocates of Home Rule for decades had been the Irish Parliamentary Party, initially led by the legendary Charles Stewart Parnell, but latterly by a much less charismatic man called John Redmond. Sinn Féin eventually eclipsed the IPP because supporters of Irish emancipation grew sick of the Redmondites’ seemingly futile gradualism. The problem for Kenny MacAskill is that he wants to be a Caledonian version of Michael Collins but seems closer to a Scottish version of a Redmondite. Although later accused of bending to the Brits more than his rival Éamon de Valera would have done, the first chairman of the provisional government in Dublin would never have countenanced Home Rule nor insulted his followers by waxing lyrical about ‘Independence in the UK.’ In fact, Mr Collins would have laughed at any nationalist revolutionary disclosing to the imperial enemy what he’d accept in future truce talks. I hope Mr MacAskill’s next book isn’t on the art of negotiation.
At this stage there should be absolutely no ambiguity about Alba’s position on the constitutional question. But there now is, thanks to Mr MacAskill. The lack of clarity was introduced by this former SNP MP in a poorly considered column he submitted to the Unionist Scotsman. Before posting my counterblast to that on Jaggy – titled ‘Alba Means Independence in the UK?’ – I was careful to dissect several times what he had written. I also listened carefully to what Mr MacAskill said on Sunday to the blogger Barrhead Boy on his Through a Scottish Prism podcast. I took time to ponder his pronouncements during that virtual interview before sitting down to pen this post. My response still remains what it was last week: the former Scottish Justice Secretary has hung himself. At a crucial early stage in Alba’s evolution, Mr MacAskill has left many people shaking their heads and wondering why he and Neal Hanvey ever bothered to break away from the SNP contingent at Westminster. Give him the benefit of the doubt however much you like, Mr MacAskill is saying pretty much the same as his arch enemy Nicola Sturgeon said during a televised Scottish leaders debate on May 4:
I want Scotland in the fullness of time, in due course, to become an independent country.
The only difference is that the First Minister wasn’t daft enough to confuse the electorate, hand ammunition to her political opponents or ignite serious divisions within her party by saying that she would actively lobby for Home Rule in order to break the logjam and move the country forward. She would never – certainly not in advance of seeking to negotiate a New Union Treaty – utter such an incendiary phrase as “Independence in the UK.” Which is exactly what Kenny MacAskill wrote in his Scotsman column and pretty much reiterated during his Sunday interview.
I realise why it’s mighty tough for some of my fellow pro-Indy bloggers to accept my interpretation of events. Self-declared fundamentalists like Barrhead Boy (aka Roddy MacLeod) think Kenny’s a kindred spirit so dinnae want tae gie him a kicking. Understandably, they see Alba as their last, best hope of achieving independence in their lifetimes, so the last thing they want is some speccy bampot telling them it’s no better than the SNP. Believe me, I’m not saying that (or questioning Roddy’s interviewing skills). But I am saying you would now struggle to slip a Rizla paper between Ms Sturgeon and Mr MacAskill on the crucial constitutional question. That cannot be hastily brushed over – unless we’re content to see Alba (and the alt-Nat blogosphere) become an auld pals’ act, in which harmful gaffes get excused because they were made by one of the guid guys.
To conclude by coming back to Michael Collins, it’s worth mentioning that his most famous utterance wasn’t about the freedom to achieve freedom. It came when he was about to append his signature to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Turning to Lord Birkenhead, the Irish rebel solemnly remarked that he was about to sign his own death warrant. I fear Mr MacAskill has done the same. No, of course, he won’t be literally gunned down, as Mr Collins was in a secluded boreen in his native County Cork. Mercifully, the struggle for Scottish independence has always eschewed political violence. A civil war between Indy supporters only ever happens in newspaper headlines. Still, to me and I suspect to many members of Alba, Kenny MacAskill has just unwittingly signed his own political death warrant. It pains me to administer the second killer bullet here but the struggle for Scotland is bigger than him or any single one of us.