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The post-holiday blues have well and truly hit. As I write, looking out on what seems to be a semi-permanent building site, the beauty of Spoleto is indeed already a distant memory. I can’t complain, of course. It’s very possible that air travel within affordable limits is on its way out. As record temperatures blazed across Europe, I wrote this column last week for the Herald on some of the pressures on the airline industry, and the various class issues bound up in climate breakdown.
As the latest crisis gripped Italy, all things Scottish politics were avoided in order to gain some perspective. Speaking to a middle aged German teacher one day, we talked about the emerging situation in the Euro Zone. I was quite surprised that she had never heard of Nicola Sturgeon. Maybe the world is not as small as we often think.
There is no point in lying. Catching up on developments here has not filled me with enthusiasm, outside of the ongoing RMT strikes. But if Scotland felt stuck before, it feels all the more paralysed after taking some time away. That, however, will change, and perhaps in unexpected ways. The depth of the “cost of living crisis” is generating the circumstances for all kinds of unpredictable social explosions. For now though, the independence front looks and feels like it has seized up once again.
Where is the noise?
I say this for two primary reasons. Both of these concern events which seem to have come and gone without much in the way of comment. It is as if they have breezed past, probably because there is an undeniable sense of hollowness around the idea of indyref 2023, even if it is unspoken by many independence supporters.
The first was Boris Johnson’s last act before his resignation. He formally rejected the First Minister’s Section 30 request. It was a simple enough response, and one we expected. That said, it has not been uncommon to hear from parts of the independence movement and commentariat that the UK Government could not possibly refuse a Section 30 order. To do so would make them pariahs in the democratic world. They would run too high a risk in sparking a backlash of opposition to the Union.
Yet despite the evident disarray in the Tory Party, they held their position. Not only did Boris Johnson formally shun a referendum as a parting shot, the Tory leadership candidates also made it clear that they too would act to block a legally binding, consented, referendum.
So, the first stage in the SNP strategy for independence has come to nothing. Next, it will go to the Supreme Court. There is little point on going over the ins and outs of this process again. But it is worth dwelling just a little on the response to the Tories saying “No” to the Section 30 request in a moment where they themselves were in meltdown. Because there was none of any significance from the SNP.
Beyond a same old tweets, there was precisely zero in terms of any creative, distinctive or inspiring counter-proposition from the First Minister, the SNP Yes campaign, or the party as a whole. Nothing to galvanise the forecast rage felt by Scots at the denial of their democratic right to self-determination. No attempt to utilise Tory obstinance to propel a “summer of independence.”
That in itself is quite telling. Many forms of action could have been employed:
An emergency press conference could have been called, inviting not just Scottish but international media outlets. This platform could have been used to press home the veracity of the democratic mandate, and the intransigence of the Tories at a time of near total chaos at Westminster.
Symbolic demonstrations could have been arranged. I’m not talking poll tax riots. The SNP could have organised its hundred thousand strong membership, and the wider movement, into peaceful and democratic displays for self-determination in city centres, towns and villages.
The SNP MPs could have walked out on mass. They could have formed a protest outside Westminster. They could have deployed some creative stunt. Something, anything, to throw a spanner in the works to raise the issue could, and should, have been arranged.
Yes Groups could have been sent pre-prepared materials anticipating the Section 30 rejection which could have been plastering localities. Public meetings and events could have been arranged.
This last point can’t be made strongly enough. There should have been an already existing campaign involving a broad cross-section of Scottish society and high profile figures to transmit a message to the Tories beyond the orbit of the SNP. So much time has been wasted on this front. The result? A key part of the independence armoury for such a situation is just not on the field.
We could go on. The response to the Tories rejection of the referendum mandate wasn’t so much that it was weak. Sometimes good ideas can be badly implemented. In this case it was just absent. Again, there appears to be very little in the way of planning. If you support independence, you should be asking serious questions about this. Because none of this is a recipe for securing national independence, and all that it entails.
Nor is it building the kind of momentum required for a campaign. Round one has, unfortunatley, gone firmly to the UK Government, despite their disastrous condition. They rejected a democratic mandate without so much as a second thought, and they didn’t get much more than a whimper in return.
Where is the substance?
The second reason we can flag up that indicates a stuttering independence “drive” is the publication of the latest independence paper outlining the new prospectus. It appears (readers can correct me if I am wrong) that this had next to zero impact. The received wisdom behind filleting the revamped independence case was in part that each segment would provide a new round of energy and excitement to gee up the independence movement. Not so in this case, and for good reason. This paper is even worse than the “scene setter,” which Independence Captured covered here.
Indeed, when you get to the end of the document - this one dedicated to independence and democracy - you are left wondering if you had perhaps missed several sections somewhere. It is unbelievably thin soup for such a big and important topic.
The word “unbelievably” is used advisedly. Democracy has been in many ways the core principle of the independence cause. It is the primary wedge into broadening the discussion about sovereignty and represents the ultimate safety zone for the SNP. For all of the criticisms that one might make of the SNP leadership, the common refrain is this: “that is as it may be, but we will have a renewed Scottish democracy after independence through which we can make better decisions.” Yet there is no evidence of even tinkering with things, never mind anything genuinely innovative.
In the paper on democracy the writers enjoy a lot of freedom. They get to evade the more difficult questions posed around currency, borders, EU membership and so on. Here, if anywhere, there was scope to publish a pioneering vision. Yet there is so much left unsaid.
As someone who spent countless hours registering people to vote in 2013/14, and who helped to organise and develop a campaign of mass canvassing to engage those ostracised by the political system, it is a huge let down even on the low bar set by the SNP leadership when it comes to independence.
The paper spends a great deal of time showing why the UK system isn’t working. It compares proportional representation with first past the post, looks at trust in Scottish institutions as compared to Westminster, exposes the democratic deficit and highlights issues like the voter I.D. and the House of Lords. Fine. That is all well and good, and it must be said. But it should be a mere preamble to an ambitious focus on a revamped and flourishing Scottish democracy. In this regard, the paper is a desert.
Let’s take one example: poverty. Those who are most economically disadvantaged also experience higher levels of alienation when it comes to voting and political institutions. An Institute for Public Policy Research report published in 2010 revealed some interesting data which showed how stark this dynamic is:
“In the 1987 general election there was only a four-point gap in the turnout rate between the highest and the lowest income quintiles; by 2010 this had grown to 23 percentage points. Only 53 per cent of those within the lowest income quintile voted, compared to 75 per cent of those in the highest income quintile. This meant someone in the richest quintile was 43 per cent more likely to vote in 2010 than someone in the lowest income quintile, with clear inequalities of influence between rich and poor at the ballot box as a result.”
Since 2010 we have had a decade of austerity, and all of consequences that brings. And, obviously, this was also the period in which the independence referendum took place, and with it an upsurge in voting and popular political campaigning. I remember presenting the results of our canvass returns at a press conference just weeks before September 18th, which really helped to shift the narrative on who was voting for independence.
We argued that working class Scotland had broken with Labour, and were now intending to vote Yes. This position, which we expressed in social movement form, became the dominant idea of Yes Scotland especially in the last 6-8 weeks of the campaign.
But perhaps the bigger story was that of real engagement in politics. For the first time, many felt that there was an opportunity to make their vote count for something. There is a very strong democratic legacy here, involving questions of poverty, class, and democracy. Something you would have thought the paper might build on.
As it happens, the word “poverty” exists just once in the entire paper, and that is a comment about devolution. There is no attempt to explore the ways in which economic deprivation and democracy interlace. That kind of orientation appears to have evaporated from SNP thinking, as they have become more attuned to the needs of corporate Scotland.
Citizens assemblies are mentioned once in passing. But any detail about how such mechanisms might be employed in a future Scotland, or indeed now, was missing. We didn’t get a shred of analysis about how the Citizens Assembly of Scotland might inform the discussion. It’s worth saying that citizens assemblies are not especially radical. But they are, surely, part of the discussion in a paper about Scottish democracy.
Incredibly, the words “lobbying” and “transparency” don’t appear either. Again, a robust system that can scrutinise the impact of corporate lobby groups in particular is essential. Or are we to recreate the British state in Scotland? The Scottish Lobbying Register could have been referenced, with a view to strengthening it so that is has some teeth.
Such things percolate the whole system. Recent polling evidence shows how disconnected Scots feel from decision making about their community, and how much more influence they feel party donors have over policy making than citizens:
“Two thirds of people in Scotland feel they have little or no influence over the decisions that affect their community, according to an opinion poll on local government. The survey also found that 22 per cent of Scots thought party donors had the most influence over policy decisions. Only 7 per cent said it was voters who have the most say.”
Yet there is nothing about local democracy. Why on earth are none of these issues tackled? Why would you produce a document about renewing Scotland’s democracy that contains nothing in the way of proposals, ideas or discussion points about what that might look like? Incidentally, lots of things can be done right now on these questions, without independence. Leaving that to one side, the point and purpose of this paper is difficult to decipher.
Maybe that’s why I got to the end of the document and wondered if it was me who had it all wrong. Maybe the SNP were trying to answer a different question? Did it cause a groundswell of interest and inspiration that I had missed? Had I got the wrong end of the stick entirely about the nature of this publication? Reading around, I’m not alone, and can sum it up no better than Professor James Mitchell:
"What is on offer is not a proposal to renew democracy. This dismal, negative, uninspiring document suggests that the SNP would recreate a warped and discredited form of democracy, an independent Scotland that would simply be a little Britain.”
Where is the energy?
What is so troubling about this is the apparent lack of effort, thought and care applied to the project. This is supposed to be the build up to a referendum, which if lost, will render Scottish independence as a political dead end for at least a generation, but probably longer. Where is the high quality work? If this is what we get for democracy, we can only wonder what we will be presented with when it comes to the rest of the prospectus.
To think this document was delivered alone, by the First Minister, without élan, and without it causing a fuss beyond the payroll on social media makes it feel like an exercise in futility. Possibly thousands of people in Scotland know of its existence, or could reference anything in it. This is going through the motions - nothing more.
A host of issues that could catalyse big and exciting debates are avoided. You feel the main course has been cancelled. You are waiting for more, but it doesn’t arrive. It’s got a feeling of incompleteness that suggests this was done in a hurry. It in no way feels like an intellectually thoughtful piece, or that it has been read over in advance by a range of experts and campaigners.
There may be no main course, but there is plenty of fudge. As Dr Craig Dalzell, writing on the matter of a written constitution, says:
“It is disappointing that the Scottish Government’s democratic renewal white paper makes scant reference to an independent Scotland having a written constitution. It’s in there, including a reference that says: ‘The sovereignty of the people of Scotland – rather than the sovereignty of any parliament – can be written into a constitution.’ But this is far from a ringing endorsement of the idea.”
There is more that could be dissected. But you get the point. This paper, to be blunt, will not be remembered. It will not go down in history as an important contribution to Scottish democracy now or after independence. It lacks everything from flair to substance.
But it is another box ticked. That is what all of this feels like. Box ticking. The UK Government rejects a Section 30. Tick. It is time to deliver the second paper on independence. Tick. Supreme Court date announced. Tick. SNP conference. Tick pending.
Ticks that all lead to a cross next to the SNP at the next election.
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