No more Septembers

There were a number of reasons I campaigned for a new independence referendum in September 2018. It was an available date four years on from the first referendum; a perfectly adequate interval for those who consider such things important. It allowed for a summer campaign, which give advantage to the campaign which can put boots on the ground. The Yes movement was strong and becoming more mature, And, of course, a September 2018 referendum was intended to preempt Brexit; avoiding the economic fallout and constitutional consequences of that greatest of British follies – so far.

As it turned out, Brexit was deferred for a year. This gave the Scottish Government a year’s grace in which to advance the independence cause. That year has been squandered in a manner which rather justifies my concerns. And it allowed more time for signs of wear to appear in the independence movement.

All of these things I wrote about in some detail and spoke about with some passion at the time. But there were also reasons I was more reluctant to talk about. I discerned potential weaknesses in the SNP, both as a party and as an administration, and developing vulnerabilities in the Yes movement. I was concerned that the SNP administration might become tired and the leadership complacent.

I was aware that the longer a party remains in office the more susceptible it is to accusations of having ‘run out of steam’, And how susceptible to ‘scandals’ – real or maliciously contrived.

I feared the party might suffer problems as it sought to adjust and adapt to its rapid growth after initial enthusiasm stopped distracting folk from the daunting task the SNP faced in reforming itself.

I worried that the Yes movement might fall foul of the factionalism which seems always to attend grass-roots progressive movements. (Is there any other kind?) I worried to that, lacking structures and leadership and being battered by disappointments and anti-climaxes, the Yes movement might succumb to ennui and frustration and just begin to fade away.

In short, I saw the possibility of the independence movement as a whole deteriorating. Not massively. But from a very a very high base to a more sustainable level. I reckoned the independence movement would be at its peak around September 2018. After that, I wasn’t so sure.

Let me be clear! I am not suggesting that the independence movement has broken down or that the SNP has lost its way or that the Yes movement has grown stale and fragile. Merely that things have changed. And the independence campaign must change accordingly. We are none of us what we were even as recently as five years ago. This is reflected in the organisation we form to fight our campaign, and so must also be taken due account of in the campaign itself.

Perhaps the biggest threat to the integrity of any political party or movement is factionalism. By which I mean, not the ordinary discussions and debates and differences of opinion that are inevitable when a number of individuals band together for a common purpose. That is usually healthy and helps the grouping to develop its ideas and arguments. What I am referring to is the kind of factionalism which involves small, or relatively small, cliques forming within the main grouping to pursue, under the ‘flag’; of the grouping, an agenda not agreed by the group as a whole. The key thing here being that the faction seeks to pursue this agenda while retaining and exploiting its identity as part of the larger grouping.

The faction is like a parasite, drawing on the facilities and influence of the organisation for its own ends. Like many parasites elsewhere in nature, the faction can be quite harmless. Its activities need not impact on the ‘parent’ grouping significantly. The organisation may be able to accommodate the faction’s agenda. In principle, at least, it is even possible that the faction might provide some benefit to the organisation.That they may have a symbiotic relationship. Although, by the time that happens it will probably have ceased to be thought of as a faction and will have been reabsorbed into the main grouping.

But factions can also be a powerfully disruptive and even destructive force. If the faction’s agenda, or the methods and rhetoric by which it pursues its aims, are sufficiently at odds with the agreed purpose of the main grouping, conflict will almost inevitably ensue. It is not uncommon that both (or all) sides in this conflict will claim rightful ownership of the organisation and its identity – as well as its assets. It can get nasty.

Another thing about factions is that they tend to proliferate. I won’t get into the whole business of prevailing and countervailing forces here. Suffice it to say that the more powerful the prevailing force, the more it will define the countervailing force. If an organisation develops one faction this implies that it is the kind of organisation (prevailing force) that is prone to developing factions (countervailing forces) and so it is likely that it will develop more factions. It’s very much like playground ‘gangs’ or the way cliques form in the workplace. The same processes are in play. The consequences can be trivial, or not.

The reason I wanted the new referendum in 2018 was that I wanted to get it done before the Yes movement succumbed to the factionalism which I saw in its future. I am surprised and delighted to realise that I may have been overly pessimistic about this. Apart from the usual self-righteous radical factions that nobody takes too seriously, the Yes movement has not developed anything like the proliferation of factions that might have been expected of such a huge and diverse grouping. This is a testament to the power of the common objective which binds the entire grass-roots independence movement.

We would be wise, however, never to lose sight of the fact that our movement is vulnerable to ‘splits’. The fact that it hasn’t done so to any consequent degree up until now is something to celebrate. But we should remain vigilant. The tendency to factionalism is still there within the Yes movement. And, even where the factions themselves are harmless or helpful, their tendency to proliferate may be problematic.

Groups! We’ve all seen the proliferation of Yes groups over the last seven years or so. We have tended to think of this as a good thing. And, mostly, it is. But it often happens that groups are competing for the same constituency. And this can frequently be for no better reason than that somebody has thought of a better name for the group. So they set up their own.

We see it also with things like hashtags. No sooner does someone come up with a hashtag pertinent to the independence cause than somebody else decides they can ‘improve’ it. A seemingly trivial thing. But it is a symptom of a much bigger issue. One of the major weaknesses in the 2014 Yes campaign was the lack of a single, coherent message. In a single-issue political campaign, it is essential that everybody involved should have the same objective. And that they should be able to describe that that objective in a consistent manner. There was never an undisputed concept of independence. And a campaign cannot be effective if it is based on a disputed concept. Bear this in mind when you hear talk of finding or concocting a ‘better’ independence message. The 2014 campaign was badly weakened by so many people trying to find that magical form of words that would convey the wonders of being just an ordinary nation.

The Yes movement is excellent because it makes us all activists. But there is a pervasive notion that it has made us all experts. Nobody can come up with any suggestion without a chorus of people saying, “I’ll just polish that for you.” With the result that we never have a settled campaign message, or voice, or strategy. We have a proliferation of the things. Which, in campaigning terms, is effectively the same as having none.

Now, we have a proposal for a tactical voting plot which is supposed to defeat the d’Hondt system and ensure a pro-independence majority. I have expressed concerns about this proposal in the face of levels of enthusiasm which are tending to overwhelm reasoned evaluation of the plan. An additional worry is that it may prompt the kind of proliferation that is a common feature of factionalism. Once one person or group has a great idea for ‘gaming’ the voting system, what’s the betting others will think they can improve on it.

The ‘Wings Party’ proposal is critically dependent on a number of factors. Not the least of these is that it it be ‘the only game in town’. But, given our experience in other areas, what are the chances of that? And it’s no good pleading that it would be stupid to have two or more independence-only list parties.That would only prompt a dispute about which of the ‘factions’ was most stupid.

I don’t know this would happen. Not in the same way as I know that the sun will rise in the east, But I do know that what the independence movement needs most urgently is a coming together. We must resist factionalism. We must halt the proliferation of individual mini-campaigns and pull the whole movement together behind a single, concentrated effort.

That effort has to start long before the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. By encouraging the idea that it is okay to leave things until the 2021 election, the ‘Wings Party’ proposal, and all the little cousins it may engender, risks blinding people to the more immediate and lethal threat to the very elections on which they want us to depend. The threat to all of Scotland’s democratic institutions.

I won’t be discussing the ‘Wings Party’ again if I can possibly avoid it. I won’t be thinking on a time-scale that stretches all the way to 2021. I want to get back to matters which are pertinent right now – such as the effort to persuade the Scottish Government of the need for bold, decisive, urgent action and the folly of going down the Section 30 route. There’s time enough to think about the 2021 election when we can be sure there will still be a Scottish Parliament in 2021.

A great opportunity was missed in September 2018. We look like missing the opportunity of September 2019. There may be no more Septembers.



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18 thoughts on “No more Septembers

  1. I am feeling your worries Peter. That indi poll was 2 weeks ago. Yet still there is no sign of action.

    Unlike Jo Cherry , I think we do need a date. We have no idea where anything is going right now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “The ‘Wings Party’ proposal is critically dependent on a number of factors. Not the least of these is that it it be ‘the only game in town’. But, given our experience in other areas, what are the chances of that?” If, however, the SNP were not to field candidates for the List, and leave the list to Wings, the Greens and the Socialists, for Sovereigntists to vote for, and the Unionists would vote for three English based parties, would that give us an independence favouring majority? I don’t know the answer to that.

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    1. But Campbell also says the SNP support is falling. Which means they are likely to need those list seats. And since we’re playing ‘just suppose’, what if the British parties decided to turn the list into a Unionist battleground? What If the field was left to the Tories?

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      1. Peter,
        You always asked those who advocate delaying INDY how they deal with the risks of delay. I ask you the same question. How do you deal with the risks of SNP not getting a Holyrood majority or even a YES majority?

        Sure the future is not linear…but YES has had repeated warnings about ongoing weakness at the ballot box. The Greens have remained marginal, local elections and by-elections fail to see SNP turnout, and 2017 GE—-WTAF. Sure the SNP may get the most votes…that means SH!T* in the voting system. Its ONLY majority seats that count.

        The argument has been constantly repeated that SNP is YES’s mechanism to deliver INDY….However, if the SNP fail to secure Indy by 2021 (given the shitstorm Westminster is gifted them. Forget once in a generation – this is once in 300year opportunity)…If they fail, 2021 SNP election success is questionable. Just as before, how many people will not show up, drift away or just not swallow their pride anymore and not vote for some SNP (governing) position they can’t stomach?

        I am not advocating Wings Party…that is for everyone to decide themselves. However, I think it is disingenuous to lump Wings in with Rise. Wings has been a straight INDY player for years – caustic sure…but so are many YESers. Rise always had ties to Labour, who no matter how you spin it, are a Unionist party and still adhere to the Bain Principle.

        If the SNP play it right, they can cast themselves as the only moderates in the field. All they need to do is let Wings take the heat for his own history…His supporters really don’t care about his language – they are signed up for it already. YES can’t have it both ways…either The YES movement is not the SNP or it is and YES is not as strong as they claim. Its dangerous to infer SNP owns anyone’s vote. Tying those together means that anyone who stops voting SNP really has taken a cognitive leap back towards NO.

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      2. Mr Bell, in every election since 2014, the Unionist parties have made the list their own and they vote strategically for each other’s parties, even when they say they are not doing that. I think this is what the Rev has in mind: to play them at their own game. They all combine against independence when the chips are down, on both sides of the border. I would imagine that this would be a risky strategy for any new party, and I can understand why the SNP feels threatened, and there is always the threat of factionalism and vote-splitting. However, it is a common enough phenomenon for independence parties to split or to co-operate until one becomes the overall winner.

        I do believe that there would have to be some kind of agreement – loose and informal because anything else would be illegal prior to an election, and SNP and YES supporters would need to know the rules of engagement. I think it could be done, but it would be to deliberately attempt to undermine D’Hondt, a system put in place to specifically rule out endless one-party rule and allow a multi-party system. The problem there is that D’Hondt also rules out an SNP strong enough, by itself, to plough ahead with independence without reference to Westminster, and it is wasteful because it is not true PR, that reflects how people voted. Many SNP votes are wasted on the List in order to allow the maximum number of FPP seats.

        It would be fine for a state that was not devolved, but for the mish-mash that is the UK, it is not the best choice for Scotland. I really do not want to see factionalism and splits either, and I’m not sure that this is what the Rev has in mind. He seems to be saying to the SNP: get your middle digit out of your proverbial and start moving rapidly towards independence, as you were elected to do, or we will do this another way. I can’t say that the SNP has not deserved this, and I, for one, warned, in the threads of The National and The Herald, of this very thing happening because their complacency seemed so misplaced. There appears to be no way through Brexit for us that does not involve our leaving the UK: there seems to be no appetite at all in England for a top to toe reform of the political system in the UK at Westminster, where power is more equitably distributed and the three parts that are not England are given a voice on all matters that involve us + fiscal autonomy. These extreme Tories are hell-bent on dragging us, kicking and screaming into that post Brexit One Nation State UK on their terms or trying to ruin us if we refuse. What kind of government is that?

        I agree with most of what you have said here, Mr Bell, but the SNP leadership seems to be equally hell-bent on waiting and waiting, dodging and dodging, holding off and holding off. It was never obvious to me why that should be because Brexit was never going to be other than it was in 2016, and our sole avenue of escape was never going to be other than independence. There have been compromises, serious and sensible suggestions, discussions, pleadings, et all, but the Tories have not relented and Labour is as trustworthy as the Lib Dems on this, promising the earth until it came to payment. We have been here too many times before and, just maybe, this time, we really have had enough and anything is worth a try. As you know, I have never advocated a second indyref because I believe that referendums are, by their very nature, divisive and prone to results that are rarely final or uncontested. They are a very poor example of democracy in action, and, as I have said elsewhere, are open to all kinds of inanities and sheer bloodymindedness. We have an international treaty with England: this is the route by which we entered the Union and it should be the route by which we leave it, but, if that is not the majority view, then we must try something else. Without some kind of forward momentum from the SNP leadership, or someone else forcing them into it, we are doomed to stagnation till it all falls apart at the seams and goes underground, where it can only fester and ferment until it blows.

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  3. To be fair, Campbell himself has said:

    “We fervently hope the plan never has to be put into action, because that would mean it was 2021 and the SNP had completely blown both their 2016 mandate and the best chance of winning an independence referendum Scotland will ever have.”

    He is floating it now to try to galvanise the SNP leadership into action.

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    1. I read Stuart Campbell’s article. I wonder how many other people did. He should have known the thing would grow arms and legs as soon as the media latched onto it. And what are the chances of this having any effect on the SNP? By Campbell’s own argument, his ‘plan’ wouldn’t impact the SNP at all. So why should they be bothered?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It would impact on the SNP by creating another – possibly more radical – independence party, and giving people the choice to vote for either, or any other of the pro independence parties, after 2021, if there is still no independence. I am SNP and I, personally, will support them till I really can’t any longer, but the SNP, I hate to say it, has brought this on itself by not listening to its members and their genuine concerns.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree with the main thrust of your article, and Campbell’s own comments – if we do not have a referendum soon there may not be a Scottish Parliament anyway by 2021.

    However for the sake of argument, if we do not get a referendum and yet somehow still had a viable Scottish Parliament in 2021, it definitely would impact on the SNP, as they would no longer be the only big-hitting party of Independence. The SNP would have at their side a party more committed to Independence than perhaps they are; and potentially a much larger party in terms of seats than the Greens, who have managed to apply significant pressure on the Scottish government from time to time.

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    1. The idea that two pro-independence parties is better than one totally disregards the way British politics works. It is not possible to create a ‘sidekick’ for the SNP without subtracting from the SNP’s effective political power. When Nicola Sturgeon goes head to head with the British Prime Minister, she needs the FULL weight of the Yes movement behind her. The fact that she’s got a pal in Bath who also has a lot of support will count for nothing.

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      1. Agreed, Mr Bell, so we might see some forward movement from the SNP leadership soon – which, I think, if it becomes apparent, and I could be very wrong – would halt the Rev’s plans.

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  5. The Wings party option is most useful if it is never needed.

    It can only be effective if it is credible (and therefore unsettling) but all of us would much much rather the SNP leadership rendered it unnecessary by getting on with the job very very soon.

    I suspect that the U.K. will be at war soon as a hand distraction (probably Iran) -ask any farmer in Moray or Wales about how much low level military flying is going on. Brexit is being engineered to produce a perfect opportunity for ‘emergency measures’.

    The U.K. is going to get very nasty very quickly.

    There is no time for delay.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree with much of what you say, Mr Bell, and I agree that the Rev’s plan could be hugely risky and hugely divisive. My own gut instinct is to stay with the SNP, but I am becoming more and more worried by the inaction and the constant refrain that there is a plan. Okay. What is it? Waiting for a S30 Order? What is happening now is what has happened to numerous other independence movements that have stalled. There cannot be a formal alliance between the SNP and the Rev’s party – if it ever sees the light of day – until after any election, but an informal one would not break the Electoral Commission rules, and it need not be just the Rev’s party, but all the pro independence parties, but I can where factionalism would occur and I can see why the SNP would not like that because it would give them more critics with which to spar in Holyrood. So, what is the answer? It must be that the SNP leadership, in the forthcoming Autumn Conference spells out fully and clearly that it intends to take us out of the Union before we Brexit or within a few months of Brexiting, although I’d prefer the former, but time is very limited. Like you, I have watched as opportunity after opportunity has been lost when the Brexit vote of 2016 never had any chance of being overturned in England. England would implode in a massive constitutional mess and we would not be the final victors because we have Leavers in our own ranks and because, when England sneezes, we develop a cold. We either go or we don’t, and, if we don’t, and before 2021, the SNP is toast and will go down in history as the independence party that never managed to pull off independence, and the Scots as the nation that sold out itself and its best interests – again…and again…and again…and again…

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    1. ….”[after] 2021, the SNP is toast and will go down in history as the independence party that never managed to pull off independence”….

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  7. I’m with Lorna Campbell on this one. It appears to be that there are parallels to be drawn with Brexiteers in Westminster & the SNP in Holyrood. What we continually hear from Westminster is that Europe will negotiate further when they have set out from the very start what their position is & stuck to it. What I hear from Holyrood is much the same with the SNP waiting for Westminster to change it’s tune & suddenly become reasonable towards our political interest. In both cases I can see no chance that Europe or Westminster are going to change. If the SNP squander this change they will never be forgiven & I think this is the Rev’s way firing a warning shot to get then to do something.

    Liked by 1 person

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