Yes Scotland, the official campaign organisation for the Yes side in the first Scottish independence referendum, was launched on 25 May 2012. Almost eight years ago. By that time we had known for fully a year that there definitely would be a referendum on account of the SNP landslide victory in the Scottish Parliament elections. Assuming the SNP had not done any preparation for the referendum in the previous 77 years of its existence, that means the party has had almost nine years to develop a campaign strategy. Nine years plus the experience of an actual independence referendum campaign. And here we have Angus “Rip Van” Robertson proudly telling us how busy he’s going to be in 2020 working out the best way to convince No voters to back independence.
Am I the only one who sees something wrong with this picture?
I don’t claim to have all the answers. But what I can say is that before September 2014 was out I had started to seriously think about the next referendum. I had tentatively worked out a date and put significant effort into consideration of what lessons learned from the campaign just past might inform a new campaign. By early 2015 I was ready to engage in meaningful discussion about a plan for the new independence referendum; from the arguments for having a fresh vote through the framing of the referendum itself to the basics of the Yes campaign strategy.
Of course, there were developments over the intervening years that had to be taken into consideration and much to be derived from discussion and debate with other independence campaigners. But I had things worked out well enough that when the EU referendum came along in 2016 I was already pretty clear about how it would impact plans for a new independence referendum in September 2018.
I say all this, not to brag – I may well have made fatal errors in my analysis and my plans could have been quite useless. The point I’m making is that it was perfectly possible to start planning for a new referendum immediately the result of the first one was known. Even if some wound-licking time was required there has been at least five years in which the not inconsiderable resources of the SNP could and should have been devoted to developing at least the bones of a campaign strategy. But here we are in 2020, with supposedly only months to go before the launch of a new referendum campaign, and the party is just now working on “understanding how and why people are changing their minds about Scottish independence”.
It would be gratifying to think that this was just a matter of putting the final touches to an already well developed plan. Or maybe adjusting details in the light of events. But nothing of what I’ve heard and read from the SNP in recent times gives me any confidence that the party has any ideas beyond simply re-running the old campaign – with added gentleness. And whatever confidence I might have had instantly evaporated on finding Angus Robertson looking to former Labour politician Douglas Alexander. That’s right! The same Douglas Alexander who made a total arse of running the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections. The man who was part of Gordon Brown’s inner circle at the time of the election that never was. The man who played a significant role on the anti-independence side of the 2014 referendum campaign.
Actually, that last might be the only thing that could possibly qualify Alexander as someone you would look to for advice about campaigning. He was on the winning side, after all.
What Angus Robertson has done with his column in The National today is remind us that it is not only in the matter of getting a new referendum that there are serious concerns about the SNP’s approach to the constitutional issue. There are also questions to be asked about the party’s preparedness for a campaign which we are assured will start in as little as six months time. Questions which, if recent experience is any guide, will remain unanswered.
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