Nice one, Pete! Putting a reference to Braveheart right at the top of your article was a stroke of genius. Braveheart is a trigger word for British Nationalists. They are pathologically obsessive about Mel Gibson’s kilt and claymore account of a mild-mannered minor Scottish nobleman turned blue-faced, bare-arsed freedum-fighter who, having out-thought and out-fought the Englander enemy, was betrayed by his ain folk and totally went to pieces over it. Unionists were bound to latch onto this cinematic allusion and be distracted from the vague, vacuous and vacillating drivel that follows.
I like Pete Wishart. He is a superb MP. He has served his constituency and his country admirably over many years at Westminster. As Chair of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee he has proved an embarrassment to most of his predecessors in that role. His work-rate is phenomenal. He is a credit to his party. He’s one of the good guys. But this article is almost a definitive statement of the very attitudes and thinking which the SNP and the Yes movement must eschew if Scotland is to be saved.
I say this, not to give offence – although I accept that offence may be taken, possibly by Pete Wishart himself and all but certainly by others on his behalf. I say it because my dedication to the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence is as strong as his. It would be remiss of me to be reticent out of respect for one individual when such a cause is at stake. To remain silent, even for friendship’s sake, in the face of what I can only regard as dangerous folly would be to betray the cause to which we both are committed.
The article deals with three main topics. The scheduling of a new independence referendum, and the timing of a formal declaration by the Scottish Government of its intention to hold such a referendum.
The relevance of Brexit to these questions of scheduling and timing.
The form, manner and conduct of the campaign to first secure and then achieve a Yes vote in a new independence referendum.
In each of these areas I find Pete Wishart’s analysis to be shallow, his conclusions indecisive, his ideas unimaginative and his general approach cautious almost to the point of paralysis. I know it’s only a short newspaper article. But if the intention was to give an impression of his thinking in relation to the core political issue of our time then, with every gram of goodwill I can muster, I cannot do otherwise than conclude that his thinking is woefully inadequate.
On the matter of when the new referendum should be announced and then held, Pete would have us wait until we can be “certain of victory”. He would have us put off the campaign until the campaign has been won. We should wait and see. We should make ourselves slave to the polls. We should be dictated to by events.
I genuinely don’t understand this. We don’t campaign because the polls have moved in our favour. We campaign in order to move them. We don’t campaign because public attitudes have changed. We campaign in order to change them. We don’t wait for the conditions to be right. We make them right.
If there is a point at which conditions are right for a new referendum, Pete declines to define it for us. He leaves such definition to indeterminate developments and unknown circumstances.
But what of developments which have already happened, or are in train now? What of the circumstances which already exist, or can be foreseen with a high degree of confidence? Where is their influence on Pete Wishart’s thinking? If development’s in the relationship between the UK and Scottish governments since 2014 do not have a definitive effect on thinking about the need for a new referendum, then what might?
What future developments might give adequate grounds if all the broken promises and exposed lies and imposition of execrable policies and casual disrespect of the last 40 grim months is to be borne without protest? What is it going to take before Pete Wishart is prepared to say enough?
The ‘Parable of Stirling Bridge’ with which Pete opens his article has a superficial ring of wisdom to it. It sounds very plausible to say that we should “hold” until the right moment. But this is no more than superficially plausible unless we are told precisely how close the enemy must be before we unleash our weaponry. And it makes absolutely no sense at all if the enemy is already upon is.
What are the circumstances in which Pete Wishart would consider the time ripe for making our move? We are none the wiser on that score for knowing his thoughts on the matter. To the extent that he chooses to reveal them, his thoughts appear to be that there is some mystical alignment of polling results and public mood which somehow allow us to know that the moment has arrived.
But what circumstances could be more propitious than those which have already been created by the British government? What circumstances could better suit the independence campaign than those which the British state is in the process of creating? We are already in a situation where Scotland is politically and economically disadvantaged by the Union. That situation isn’t going to get any better. It’s neither paranoia nor fear-mongering nor resort to the politics of grievance to state that things are going to get a great deal worse. The British political elite is telling us this every single day.
The process of delegitimising and bypassing our democratic institutions and elected representatives is already well advanced. It is not surreptitious. It is brazenly overt. The effort to undermine public confidence in our services and our infrastructure and our capacities is so ubiquitous and relentless as to have become a commonplace of daily life. Part of the prevailing circumstances.
This isn’t happening for no reason. There is a purpose. And we cannot afford to be so naive as to assume benign intent on the part of a British state whose imperatives include preventing the exercise of our democratic right of self-determination and locking Scotland into a political union on terms that are no more subject to meaningful consultation or negotiation involving the Scottish Government than the Brexit process. We have to take a realistic view of where all this delegitimising and undermining takes us.
These are the circumstances that pertain right now. We can be as sure as we need to be what those circumstances will become if we do nothing to alter the course of events. We don’t have to wait and see. The time to “hold” is already past. Now is certainly the day! Even if now isn’t quite yet the hour.
Then there is Brexit. And, if we take Pete Wishart’s advice, more holding. He acknowledges the inevitable economic impact of Scotland being dragged out of the EU despite voting decisively to Remain. He acknowledges that we’re “doomed”. Unless we take to the lifeboats. Pete deploys the metaphor of a stricken ocean liner. If you think of it that way, taking to the lifeboats is a, perhaps convenient, option. I prefer the analogy of a tall building.
When someone is threatening to push you off the top of a tall building you, firstly, don’t want to suppose that they might not do it. You’re now standing right on the edge of the roof; the precipice only millimetres away; your assailant advancing towards you with a mad gleam in their eye and arms outstretched, screaming their murderous intent, you should be naturally disinclined to pin your hopes on them changing their mind.
Nor need you reflect long and hard on the potential consequences of that final shove. When somebody pushes you off the top of a tall building, you don’t have to wait until you hit the pavement to know that it isn’t going to end well. There may be time for a last desperate hope of a parachute. Or the miracle of flight. Maybe even a lifeboat. But your fate is sealed. Having been pushed off that building you are doomed – with a capital ‘F’.
Pete Wishart’s assessment of the situation lacks the appropriate sense of urgency. Perhaps it might if he took any account of the constitutional, as well as the economic, implications of Brexit. Think of it as a precedent. The true relevance of Brexit to the independence campaign is, not that it promises to be economically ruinous, but that it represents probably the most extreme illustration to date of the asymmetry of power – or democratic deficit – which is one of the fatal flaws at the heart of the Union. Along with the denial of popular sovereignty, it is this inherent, systemic subordination of the needs, priorities and aspirations of Scotland’s people which makes the Union untenable.
But Pete seems not to consider this constitutional dimension. His analysis focuses almost entirely on the economic aspect. Eventually, people will feel the impact. Eventually they will hit the pavement. What use will a lifeboat be then?
There is no Brexit ‘deal’ which negates Scotland’s Remain vote. There is no Brexit ‘deal’ which is not an insult to Scotland. There is no Brexit ‘deal’ which can possibly compensate Scotland for the harm done by Brexit.
I don’t want to hear reassurances from SNP politicians that it may not happen, and even if it does it may not be so bad, and even if it is we may have a way out. I want to hear our elected representatives sounding angry and indignant about what is being done to Scotland. I want to hear them talking openly about the real and imminent threat to Scotland’s democracy and distinctive political culture from rampant ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism.
I want them to stop talking about Brexit as if it is the disease rather than merely a symptom of a cancer right at the heart of our constitutional arrangements. I want to hear them tell us of their determination to cut out this malignancy. I want to hear their ideas about how we might cure this increasing unbearable condition.
I don’t want to be placated with stories of how wonderful everything will be once the cancer of the Union is gone. I want to hear them come up with some convincing ideas about how we get rid of it.
I’m not getting any of that from Pete Wishart.
He asks the question, “How do we then get over the line and win?”. But his answer takes us absolutely nowhere.
“I don’t believe that it is in simply offering the same perspective that lost us the last referendum. We need a new independence offering that reflects the Scotland we now live in and takes into account the new political environment that we inhabit. Most importantly it needs to be sufficiently persuasive to win over that section of our population that have hitherto been unconvinced.”
This makes no more sense than talk of an “early referendum”. What constitutes “early”? Relative to what? What are the rules governing the interval between referendums? Who made these rules?
Was it our “perspective” that lost us the first referendum? What was it about that perspective which put people off? We need to be told.
What would a “new independence offering” look like? What could possibly be new about independence? How many different kinds of independence are there? This is not explained.
What might constitute “sufficiently persuasive”? What is the form of words which is going to induce an epiphany in “that section of our population that have hitherto been unconvinced”? Is such a form of words even possible? If it is, why has the entire Yes movement failed to find it? No answers.
Pete acknowledges that “offering the same prospectus, with the same arguments, is likely to produce the same result”. So don’t! Accept instead that there is no new way of presenting independence that is going to persuade those who aren’t listening because they’ve already decided that independence isn’t happening. Accept that we’ve already won over everybody who can be won over by the positive arguments.
Accept that we have already harvested the aspirational Yes vote. The only fertile ground left lies just to the No side of Yesland but well short of the desert of ideological British Nationalism. It is in that ground that we must now plant our seeds. And they must be the seeds of doubt.
Doubt was what Project Fear was all about. What gave the anti-independence campaign its strength was its capacity for generating doubt. Better Together was remarkably successful in creating an atmosphere of uncertainty even where none was warranted. Especially where none was warranted. Their strategy was to play on the fear of change. To exploit the insecurity that is a characteristic of the prevailing economic orthodoxy. To take the normal vagaries of life and exaggerate them until, however little actual substance they possessed, they took on the appearance of monstrous catastrophes awaiting those who dared challenge the established order.
They did this in various ways. And, of course, the anti-independence campaign enjoyed the support and assistance of shamefully compliant and docile mainstream media. This was essential, as the creation of doubt required that everything the Yes side did was constantly and repeatedly questioned while nothing the No side said or did was ever subject to any meaningful scrutiny. Uncertainty is relative. Simply by questioning one side more than the other, that side seems to have the most uncertainty associated with it.
If we want to win, we should look to the winners for lessons. We didn’t lose because there was something deficient or defective about the Yes message. We lost because they were better at frightening people than we were at inspiring people.
We have to accept that fear will tend to outweigh inspiration. Frightening people is relatively easy. Inspiring them is seriously hard.
Not that we want to emulate Project Fear. We don’t have to. We can instil in accessible minds an uncertainty about the assumed merits of the Union simply be telling the truth. Pretty much everybody who moved from No to Yes in the past started that journey by questioning their assumptions about the Union. The positive arguments of the Yes campaign had to be there in order for them to have somewhere to go when they let go of the status quo. But it was the letting go that was crucial.
The new Yes campaign must utilise this process in reverse. We need to change the emphasis of our narrative from one of heading towards a better future to one of breaking away from the past. We need to talk a bit less about the new age we hope to enter and considerably more about the existing mire from which we must extricate ourselves.
We don’t need a new independence campaign. We need an anti-Union campaign like we’ve never had.
That is the fresh thinking we require. That is the new approach we need. A more aggressive and proactive approach. In terms of the practical measures and methods we must adopt, we would do well to take what we can from the tactics that worked for Better Together/Project Fear. There is not space here to go into detail, but, by way of illustration, we might look to the fact that the No side had a message which was simple, concise and consistent. It may, when unwrapped, have been intellectually bereft; devoid of any substance or worth; riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies and contaminated by duplicity, deceit and dishonesty but. in its short form, it was always and everywhere the same.
By contrast, there were as many definitions of Yes as there were people asked to define it. The fundamental constitutional issue came to be lost in a welter of policy positions. People couldn’t see the question for the options.
While discussion of being independent has its place, that place is alongside the actual independence campaign. It cannot be the campaign. It is too diffuse and amorphous. If we are to break Scotland out of the Union, we need something hard and heavy and with a sharp point. We need some of that weaponry Wallace unleashed at Stirling Bridge. We need to be preparing that weaponry now. But we first of all need the leaders and influencers in the Yes movement to acknowledge that these are the kind of weapons we require.
I find in Pete Wishart’s article no such acknowledgement. His thinking appears to be that, faced with the formidable might of the British state, we need only fluff up the pillows we took to the last sword-fight.
I find no sense that the day of battle is already upon us, and that only the precise hour remains to be decided.
I find no evident awareness of the urgency of our fight. No recognition that, while Pete Wishart pores over polls and strives to read the public mood from the portents and urges ever more and ever ‘wider’ debate about this and that and this again, the British political elite is not idle. It is mustering its forces. it is conducting its intrigues. It is pursuing its agenda and its aims.
We know what is intended for Scotland. We know that the British government’s plans for our future will start to take solid form towards the end of this year. We know that Brexit is merely an opportunity and a means by which those plans can be taken forward. We know that, if it wasn’t Brexit, it would be something else. We know that if it isn’t Brexit then it certainly will be something else.
We know that the British establishment is absolutely determined to preserve the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state and which advantage the few at the expense of the many.
We know all we need to know. If we don’t want to remain enmeshed in these structures; if we don’t want to be ensnared by the ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist project; If we want to do things differently, we must act before it is too late. We cannot be deterred by fear of losing. Because failure to act would bring about the same outcome, but make it even more unbearable.
We need a new independence referendum no later than September 2018. We need to conduct the Yes campaign on the basis that it is a fight to save Scotland. We need solidarity, focus and discipline. Because the front of battle lours.
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