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A question of trust
A weak and divided Tory party has exposed the lack of independence planning
Recently I was speaking to a veteran SNP activist and campaigner. I take a lot from our conversations, especially when he recounts tales of his time in the SNP when the party existed at the fringes of Scottish politics. I have a real fondness for this generation, who have seen their organisation grow to a position of political prowess surely unthinkable in the branch meetings of the 1970s.
Of course, we don’t agree on everything, which makes the exchange all the more enjoyable and interesting. But he did make a point that stuck with me. He said that there are moments in politics when a door opens momentarily, and that if you are not ready to dash through, it shuts and the opportunity is missed.
For several years now, many of us who support independence, have been arguing that the SNP has been ill prepared for capitalising on moments when the door lies ajar. The first edition of this newsletter, focussed on the unlikelihood of a referendum in 2023, made the following point:
“As of now there exists no coherent plan for independence - and certainly not a detailed one. Of course, if a party was serious about winning independence, such a prospectus would already have been developed and indeed popularised in the years following Brexit. This means that the independence movement - such as it is - campaigns with a rod up its back. Key opportunities over recent years may have been seized to promote a serious and popular vision for independence. But those have been passed up.”
It turns out that even Andrew Wilson, the architect of the Growth Commission, somewhat incongruously, agrees there has been a malaise when it comes to making the case for independence:
“What we’ve yet to hear, post 2014, is a modern, forward-facing case for independence. The ‘why’ we should go through the process in the first place.”
Simply put, despite what we have been told over the years, there is no plan. Yes, there are some policy papers to be released to start a “discussion.” When will they be published? According to Ian Blackford, in the “coming period.” It all seems so fluid, and so difficult to pin down.
A slogan is not a strategy
We’ve had so many variations on the referendum theme. A referendum will occur after the “fog of Brexit” has cleared. Or it will happen, “covid permitting.” The people of Scotland will “have their say” in the not too distant future. As I pointed out in a previous newsletter, elasticity is built into the formulation.
This is smart from the point of view of the SNP leadership, because they know the ground work hasn’t been done. Moreover, by keeping the actuality of a referendum at bay, they are able to pitch themselves against the Tories, while avoiding the hard questions around borders, currency, EU membership and so on. Added to the bargain, they can defer criticism of their domestic policy until sometime after the glorious day, when independence has been achieved.
A mirage, movable and emotive, can be a useful tool in politics. It has been for the SNP. In an article for The Herald last year, I wrote:
“The establishment is assuaged. Scottish politics is captured – and static. In 2014 independence was seen by a grassroots movement as a key to unlocking real change. Now, independence is being held hostage – kept on the boil but never to overflow. This does take skill. It requires a careful and constant tweaking of the message. It can go wrong. But so far, it has worked.”
The critical words here are “so far.” For the first time I am beginning to question if the SNP leadership and their special advisors have made an unforced error when it comes to the national question. By building more scaffolding around their mirage, with a definitive timescale for its manifestation, they have opened themselves up to certain risks. I say unforced, because there is no evidence that not pursuing a referendum next year necessarily damages their electoral dominance. Nevertheless, the year of 2023, is when it is all meant to happen.
Yet this week we saw the extent to which the SNP plan for independence really is hallucinatory, after the vote of confidence in Boris Johnson. Where there should have been a campaign machine firing on all cylinders, a well embedded prospectus and a ratcheting up of momentum, there has instead been confusion and stultification.
There is little point in repeating what has already been said about Johnson and the votes of Tory MPs. The man is obsessed with his own power and position above anything else. He believes himself to be a figure of history. An eccentric one who will be remembered, and in the long-run even admired. He is, though, merely the product of an elitist system which breeds these kinds of fantasies.
The result illustrated the sclerotic nature of UK politics. In Johnson’s puffed up interview following the vote, some commentators alluded to his apparently inebriated state. Maybe he was. Either way his boisterous tone showed not a hint of contrition to his own, 143 of whom voted to give him the sack. He stood there, occasionally jumping up and down, as the living embodiment of a failed politics.
In 2014, hundreds of thousands of Scots seized the opportunity to build an alternative to all of this through independence. I have friends who campaigned on the opposing side, and they too accepted that the driving force behind the Yes campaign was far more than narrow nationalism. In the process, people who had never voted before, got a taste of their own power. That is something that is not easy to forget, far less to let go of.
Even after defeat, they exercised discipline. They kept the flame alive by voting for, and joining, the SNP. An opening would come again. So they donated to fundraisers. They kept marching in the streets. Of course, some came to question the strategy. Over time the distance between leadership and movement increased. But still, where else to put your hopes?
They were told at every party conference that independence was coming. It was just a matter of time. Those who raised doubts were advised not to worry. There is a secret plan, being worked on behind the scenes. Just hold on, and you’ll see it come to fruition. The cards were falling into place. At the critical juncture the SNP would pounce. That moment was, always, tantalisingly close.
New opportunities did come along. Another chance to feel the sense of agency that impacted so many in 2014 reappeared on the not too distant horizon. Perhaps the loyalty, the patience, the money and the votes might be rewarded with some real mobilisation. Many openings had already been passed up. But surely now, when the Tories are at their weakest and most divided, when the SNP have a renewed mandate and when the leadership have promised a referendum next year, the faithful would see action.
Poised for mediocrity
Let’s be absolutely plain. Any party truly focussed on having and winning a referendum next year would have a campaign in place, drawing together a platform of recognisable people and organisations with broad social weight. They would not just be on the verge of, possibly, releasing some policy briefings “in the coming period.” They would have had the argument deployed, and the case strongly made, several years in advance. They would have a clear and identifiable strategy for exactly how independence would be democratically delivered.
None of this is in evidence. Still though, the least we might expect is some inspiring rhetoric as Johnson survived the confidence vote, limping on as a weak and reviled Prime Minister, overseeing a fatally divided party.
Shockingly (well, maybe we shouldn’t be all that shocked), not even that was on display from the SNP. What we got, after all is said and done, were crude calls for party recruitment:
Followed by recycled comments about the democratic deficit:
Then, we watched media interviews which appeared to studiously avoid mentioning a referendum. Ian Blackford was afforded a five minute long slot on Sky News the following morning. An ideal chance to say that Scotland was gearing up for a momentous campaign. He didn’t mention independence once:
This lacklustre response didn’t go unnoticed by journalists:
Meanwhile, it appears the SNP didn't even have a line to offer up to The National. Instead, the paper somehow conjured a front page exclusive from the following footage. Far from a rallying call, the First Minister looked irritated when asked about referendum plans, and changed tack from 2023 to “in the first half of this parliament.” It all, quite genuinely, seems such a far cry from addressing world leaders on climate change or speaking alongside Nancy Pelosi in the US Capitol:
For those who support independence, the situation is stark: no campaign to join, no graphics to share, no leaflets to distribute, no prospectus to argue for, no coherent party line, no media strategy and no plan. After all this time: nothing.
No easy answers - but honesty is important
The balance of forces after the defeat of 2014 was always going to make delivering another referendum in the short-term a difficult task. I remember sitting in a meeting in October of 2018 arguing that the British state would not grant a referendum on independence for at least a generation, possibly longer.
True, Brexit did alter the situation. It gave the SNP a new mandate. But the party preferred to focus on “stopping Brexit” instead of pursuing independence. This was a much easier space for the SNP leadership to inhabit. Opposing Brexit, alongside the European Union and the liberal mainstream across the UK, was far more appealing than running up against the British state.
In this vein, in 2020, I wrote:
“Among a litany of failed initiatives, designed to satiate the independence grassroots, there has been a dearth of vision around the case for independence itself. Instead, it became obsessed with ‘stopping Brexit’. This has led to the slow erosion between the SNP leadership and a large part of the wider movement. Nicola would appear at the Stop Brexit demonstration, alongside a who’s who of the British establishment, while independence demonstrations would get a tweet.”
It should have been noted for quite a long time that the SNP didn’t have a realistic independence strategy, though they relied on the issue at times to shore up their base. If it wasn’t obvious then, it has become abundantly clear in recent months.
There has been no planning, as even figures like Andrew Wilson have publicly accepted. This is a paint by numbers government, who’s modus operandi is simply to get through each day. It’s not that the independence strategy is missing, because time has been spent building one around industry, for example. There is just no strategy to speak of at all.
Of course, these are not easy matters. Some personalise the question, and argue that a simple change of leadership might bring about a radically different outcome. To me, that doesn’t really address the huge structural challenges that come with departing from the UK and building an independent state.
But maybe that’s not actually the point. Those who have put their faith in the SNP understand many of the difficulties and obstacles that lie between here and independence. What I think they will find increasingly difficult is the sense that they have been taken down the primrose path. That they have been merrily led on a journey which never really had independence as its destination. Or, at the very least, that the destination was never going to be reached anywhere near the time the conductor had promised.
In this sense it is not the non-delivery of a referendum that will erode support for the SNP. Instead, it can become a matter of trust. In many ways, it already is. The problem for the SNP leadership, should trust begin to wean, is there is not much in the way of a domestic record to hold up in its place. This is especially true in a period where tens of thousands of public sector jobs are to be slashed, and as a severe economic crisis takes hold.
Maybe, just maybe, it will happen?
Sometimes people say in response to the above: “but there might be a referendum next year, you don’t know there won’t be.” I suppose at one level there is a vanishingly unlikely scenario in which all of the legislation is passed without legal rancour, a question is tested and accepted by the electoral commission, and for some reason the Tories simply sign off a referendum without any extensive negotiations.
Maybe all of this will be achieved by, say, May next year, so that the apparatus can be put in place for a short campaign that concludes sometime in September. While this is all happening, a really coherent and robust prospectus will be released and taken to the public, via a well oiled campaign machine.
The problem is, I don’t see any material evidence for this. But hope is a powerful thing. And if your hopes are pinned on this SNP leadership delivering independence, it’s understandable that you might not let go of that until the last moment.
The point is this. Even if absolutely everything were to be actioned tomorrow, independence supporters would still be campaigning with a rod up their back because so much has been left underprepared. So many years that might have been spent on assembling the winning campaign have been wasted. Frankly, at this stage, I’m not even sure it would be desirable to have a referendum next year given the state of things.
There can be no doubt about the scale of the task. It is certainly not easy. No doubt, the pandemic has taken its toll. None of that is in question.
What is at stake is respect, and as I say, trust. These issues are laced with a deeper, unspoken, injustice. Since the referendum not a few have prospered as direct result of the independence movement, and by extension, the rise of the SNP. Some have become MPs and MSPs. Some have had newspaper columns and media call ups. Others have become integrated into a deferential civic sphere and go on to enjoy relationships with parts of the Scottish Government which the grassroots of the movement of 2014, and beyond, never get close too.
Sure, being strung along in this context is more bearable. As they say, if you can’t beat them, join them. Supporting independence has also become a neat cultural indicator: you oppose Johnson and Brexit, and support progress. For many, it doesn’t really matter if it is actually realised.
But what of the great mass of people who didn’t make a dime? What of those who spent their own money funding the independence cause, and then the party of independence? Who speaks for those who were never invited onto the media, but who continued to organise the demonstrations which kept the issue alive? And what of those electors, who never truly benefited from the policy of the SNP, but who turned up to give them their vote because they were the only hope for a different future under independence?
For my part, it has always been the peaceful and democratic coming together of those citizens which catalysed a sense of excitement and change. In the end, it is to them that this newsletter is dedicated. Because to rejuvenate the paralysed debate in Scotland, we need a clear assessment of the reality of things, instead of yet more spin.
From there, new hope might emerge.