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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