I think we have to be very cautious about this story of a new Yes organisation. On the surface, it looks very like Jim Sillars and Robin McAlpine trying to seize ownership of the Yes movement and bring it under the control of factions whose support for independence is conditional on a narrow policy agenda. But there is good reason to wonder precisely how real this effort is. In reports elsewhere it was claimed that Women for Independence (WfI) was involved in what Robin McAlpine referred to as “talks” about this new Yes campaign management structure. WfI subsequently denied this claim. So we should, perhaps, be wary about taking any of this too seriously.
But let us suppose for a moment that Messrs McAlpine and Sillars are seriously trying to appoint themselves leaders of a movement whose organically networked nature made the very concept leadership redundant. Suppose it was actually possible for the disparate groups that made up the Yes campaign to be corralled under the direction of some committee. Would Jim Sillars and Robin McAlpine be the people we’d choose to take a lead role in this management structure? I’m dubious.
I have always maintained that it would be useful if some organisation or group emerged as the entity around which the wider Yes movement could coalesce. But I never envisaged this as resulting in a top-down organisation. What I felt would be useful is a body able to represent the Yes movement at a national level. Something akin to what we had with the official Yes Scotland. It is important to understand that Yes Scotland had a very limited role in the first referendum campaign. It set broad strategy parameters, coordinated speakers, and dealt with the media at a national and international level. But it was merely the tip of a huge iceberg made up of hundreds of almost totally autonomous groups based on localities or special interests.
If I understand the ambitions of Robin McAlpine and Jim Sillars correctly, they are seeking something much more akin to a formal nationwide campaign organisation. And I don’t think it will work.
I don’t think it will work in part because the format is inappropriate to a mass popular movement. And in part because I think anybody who wants to control this movement is automatically disqualified from doing so.
While I have great respect for Jim Sillars and Robin McAlpine, I simply cannot see them as representing a unifying force for the independence movement. Quite the contrary. I regard them as regrettably divisive. I listen to Jim Sillars and what I hear is pointless sniping at the SNP. It is not clear what role he wants for the SNP. But he seems to be in denial of the fact that the independence movement needs an effective political force able to operate within the British political system. A force powerful enough to mount a serious challenge to the British establishment. And he appears desperately unwilling to admit that this force must be the SNP. For the simple reason that there is nobody else anywhere near being in a position to fulfil that role.
To the extent that the SNP did “dominate” the first referendum campaign this was only because the British media chose to sideline Yes Scotland. The SNP took a lead in setting up Yes Scotland precisely because it wanted to avoid being the focus of the campaign. Unfortunately, many in the wider Yes movement opted to play the British media’s game by going along with the idea that it was “all about Alex Salmond/the SNP”.
Until Jim Sillars gets over his “issues” with the SNP, he can never be a unifying influence in the independence movement. Because, however much he may resent it, the SNP is the de facto political arm of that movement.
And Robin McAlpine is almost as guilty of compounding the anti-SNP propaganda of the British establishment. He criticises the Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence as if it represented a policy prescription for post-independence Scotland instead of the broad depiction of potential that it was intended to be. In other words, he adopts the anti-independence campaign’s rhetoric.
He also embraces the unionist narrative of “unanswered questions” on things like currency, when he should be pointing out how badly the Scottish Government’s position was misrepresented by the British media. And how the British media utterly failed to scrutinise the British establishment’s threat to abolish the currency union in the event of a Yes vote.
Coming up to date, Robin McAlpine has opted for a needlessly antagonistic attitude to the SNP’s stance on a second referendum. For whatever reason, he chooses to focus obsessively on talk of potential “triggers” and totally ignore Nicola Sturgeon’s insistence that demand for a second referendum must be led by the people and not the politicians. One might have thought that this championing of people-power was something Robin McAlpine would welcome. But apparently not if it comes from the SNP.
I know Robin acknowledges the need for the SNP as part of the independence campaign. It would be good if this awareness informed his rhetoric. Nobody is saying that the SNP should be above criticism. But those who are making common cause with the SNP in the campaign to bring Scotland’s government home surely have a responsibility to criticise responsibly.
Taken as a whole, this would seem to imply that we should be giving a big thumbs-down to this latest bit of plotting by those whose sole purpose seems to be to ride the independence bandwagon into Holyrood. It may well be that the Yes movement needs to come together as a “coherent whole”. But that entity can only work if it has at its core a commitment to independence which is unconditionally founded on the principle of constitutional justice. Independence is about rectifying an ancient constitutional anomaly. It is not about parties or personalities – or post-independence policies.