A pause to the independence campaign? It never started
Ukraine and the Scottish national question. Part 2.
This week we continue our mini-series on the impact of the war in Ukraine on the Scottish national question and the independence campaign. Before we get into it, I would like to thank each and every one of you who have taken the time to subscribe. In the space of a few weeks, hundreds have signed up, which exceeded expectations!
The content does take a fair bit of time to research and edit, so it makes it all worthwhile to know that people are reading it. Even if you don’t agree with everything, I hope you at least find it of some interest. As ever, critical feedback is always welcome.
Now, in last weeks newsletter I looked at some of the potential impacts of the international crisis and the horrific war in Ukraine on a range of issues related to independence. Notably we looked at the chilling effect it might have on independence campaigning and SNP calls for a referendum, as well the shifting terrain for arguments around NATO and Trident.
“…if the SNP were cautious about taking on the British state before, they will be many times more apprehensive now. Last week I speculated that the SNP may introduce referendum legislation in the run up to the May council elections, mainly as an electoral stunt. Barring a significant - some would say miraculous - turnaround in the situation, I think the odds of that have vastly reduced.”
This seems to have borne out in events since then. Ian Blackford made headlines when he appeared to put the brakes on any lacklustre momentum there was in for a near-term referendum:
“I want that referendum to take place in a timely manner. I want us to be able to execute the mandate that we have. To those that are expressing a desire for us to get on with our job, of course, we will do so, but we have to be mindful of where we are.”
So - the reference to 2023 has been effectively dropped by the leader of the SNP at Westminster. As ever, of course the SNP really will get on with the job. At some stage undefined, after years of next to zero planning have already come and gone.
Then Alyn Smith, of the SNP defence team, was asked about referendum plans. He responded by saying that this was “a question for the First Minister” (note the lack of internal cohesion, a product of long-term vacuous and vague thinking on independence strategy). He picked up a bit of gusto in the rest of his answer though, by saying that Scotland could have a more effective voice on foreign policy matters as part of the EU.
But, Alyn, come on. You are also arguing for a currency position (sterlingisation) that doesn’t allow for EU membership because you need an independent national bank to gain formal membership. In any event, the European Commission are not going to be interested in the break up of the UK, especially at a time like this. The primary focus of the major European powers is Ukraine and Russia. Germany has already stated its opposition to Ukrainian membership of the EU and is navigating a very complex set of issues in the midst of a transnational crisis.
Now, as Blackford himself hints at, the absolute priority is to galvanise the Western security order. Here the SNP aim to be loyal partner, not a disrupter. This has been a sentiment visible in the Scottish press too. The Herald’s Neil Mackay argued that Blackford was merely carrying out an inevitable expectation management exercise:
“He’s softening up the hardcore base of the independence movement for the inevitable, indefinite delay of another referendum.”
Gerry Hassan also made the following point:
“We have had Brexit, COVID & Ukraine & people & politicians are exhausted. Does anyone really see today's SNP in a place to lead an indyref? Pause.”
My view is that Ukraine has indeed fundamentally altered the parameters of the independence debate. But it is also the position of this newsletter that the SNP leadership have never been serious about delivering independence as even a medium term objective.
We need a consistent analysis of this process, and not to go up and down with every statement the SNP make on the national question. They have, as I’m sure SNP special advisors will attest, utilised the issue very effectively (though cynically) to cohere a substantial base of voters to help them win electoral dominance.
Pause the campaign! Erm, what campaign?
So let’s halt the campaign. Stop the printing presses primed to publish the “credible independence plan.” Disassemble the coalition of civic Scotland, grassroots campaigns and celebrities set up to popularise the independence message. Put all of those posters, leaflets and pamphlets many of you have donated towards producing back in the cupboard. That advertising campaign to hit billboards and buses to take the campaign to the public? Not now, save your work for when it is needed.
The truth is it won’t be needed for the foreseeable, and of course the above sarcasm shows how little has actually been done. Indeed, when it comes to independence, almost nothing has been achieved. No mobilisation of the big vision for a bright Scottish future, no promotional materials, no coalitions built. Nothing. No wonder the polls are stagnant and paralysed at around the 50/50 mark.
Again - none of this is a bad thing for the SNP leadership - they are only interested in independence as a distant principle, as an electoral tactic and to raise funds from people they know they are duping.
I think this is a really callus and disrespectful way to operate. The independence movement at the very least deserve some honesty. Not only have people been duped, they have had their energy and votes for radical reform handed straight over to the corporate lobby. As I recently tried to explain, independence has indeed been captured.
Despite it all, and this is important, the above strategy has worked for the SNP. Delaying a referendum they were never really going to deliver anyway, will not lead to an overnight collapse in their vote as some have speculated. I think that is especially true now, given the international political situation. Blackford drew some limited criticism, but quite understandably, nowhere near what he might have under different circumstances.
An era of crisis, an era of delay?
The problem for independence supporters though, is this: we live in an era of crisis. There is not going to be a state of global peace, economic stability and environmental harmony any time soon. What there is going to be is a state of semi-permanent crisis. This poses the question: is there a vision of independence that can meet the challenges of the 21st century?
I think there can be. But we are well beyond “wish trees” at this point. A prospectus needs also to have power behind it, and the problem is that the SNP leadership don’t want to know. Isn’t it ironic that there is talk of extending North Sea oil production in response to reliance on Russian supplies, when we could have had our very own publicly owned National Energy Company as promised back in 2017?
That could have offered a living example of the kind of radical thinking that would make a real difference in a crisis situation. SNP members vote time and again for such proposals. But the refusal of the SNP leadership to even mildly dishevel, never mind confront, the status-quo in the immediate term only stores up bigger problems over time. They are to put it simply, a paint-by-numbers government, with only a day to day press strategy, not a long-term vision for the nation.
So each and every crisis can offer a route to further delay. The party leadership in alliance with the corporate lobby prevent any radical policy content that their own members vote for from meeting reality. Then they assuage them with promises of a referendum they never plan for, and never organise around. When the next crisis comes, as it inevitably will, there is room for further indefinite delay and further political entrenchment.
The way forward, on independence or indeed on a series of domestic issues, is going to require absolute clarity and honesty about the true nature of the SNP, the strategy of its leadership and the structural challenges involved in winning real change.
Perhaps that starts, if independence is indeed off the table, with a renewed debate about the successes and failures of the SNP government on devolved policy issues free from our constitutional preferences. Maybe for some that is a provocative thing to say - but in my view it is a healthy discussion for independence supporters to be part of.
Why? Because we need to build up the long-term intellectual and organisational resources required to deliver independence in a way that goes against the grain of the present, stultified and paralysed thinking. We also need change and action now, as Scots face an excruciating cost of living crisis.
In the meantime, we are in a period where instability is the norm including on global issues such as war, climate catastrophe and economic despair for millions. If a vision of independence can’t relate to these kinds of questions, many will ask: what is the point?