As a follow-up to my earlier article about where we are and how we got here where we’re going, it occurred to me that it might be thought-provoking to consider how things might have been different. I know some will say that looking back like this is pointless. But let’s consider an exercise in political analysis. If it is valid to speculate about the future in order to better understand what is happening now then it is also valid to review the past in the hope of finding guidance on how to avoid unfortunate outcomes. Taking things apart and putting them back together again in a different form is part of human nature. (Were it not so there would be no Lego.) Think of this as an alternative history in broad strokes.
One might have expected Scotland’s independence movement to be laid low be the result of the 2014 referendum. But even those involved in the various campaigning groups and organisations were taken aback by what actually happened. SNP membership soared. Yes groups not only remained intact but gained new recruits. New groups and organisations formed. Arguably, the Yes movement as a whole was never stronger than in the months following defeat in the 2014 referendum. The political leaders of the movement could, quite literally, have asked anything of Yes activists at that time and it would have been done in an instant. The power was palpable. It just needed to be directed.
Recognising the potential, the SNP convened a commission to review ever aspect of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, with particular focus on the Yes campaign. The review commission drew members from across the independence movement, More than a hundred people gave evidence and thousands of other made written submissions. The activities of the commission were credited with contributing to the SNP’s stunning victory in the 2015 UK general election when the party took 56 of the country’s 59 seats in the British parliament.
Mindful of the Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2016 and urged to even greater effort by the forthcoming referendum on EU membership the review commission worked hard and fast producing a preliminary report by the end of January 2015 and its full findings only two months later. Initially, some parts of the report were not published. The argument was that criticisms of the Yes campaign strategy would be picked up on by the media and spun in the usual negative way. Likewise some of the suggestions and recommendations. After some debate, however, it was decided that openness was worth the price of the ‘bad press’ which was going to happen anyway and the full report was made public.
The main findings of the report were that, while the 2014 referendum had produced a result, it had not provided a decision. The deplorable conduct of the No campaign and the fact that it was unclear what a No vote actually meant required that a new referendum be held at the earliest possible date in order to properly determine the will of Scotland’s people. The commission recommended that the Scottish Government take the necessary step to ensure there would be a new referendum in September 2018.
Analysis of the campaign strategies and tactics of both sides produced some of the most controversial material in the report. Basically, what is said was that while the Yes campaign was good it was far from as effective as it might have been. And while the No campaign was appalling there was a great deal that could be learned from it.
The SNP leadership objected strongly to the verdict on a campaign for which the party was almost entirely responsible. Their position was that 2018 was too soon and that any future campaign should stick with the strategy that had increased support for independence by at least 50% in the course of the 2014 campaign. Others argued that delaying the referendum would allow the British government time to put more obstacles in the way of a vote and that it would be difficult to maintain the unity and enthusiasm of the Yes movement without the prospect of a new referendum in sight.
SNP leaders were also offended by the suggestion that their administration in Edinburgh might falter after a long period in office. Past examples which suggested that the sensible thing to do was to get out before the first big policy failure or public scandal. Given that the British government was intent on making life difficult for the SNP and digging frantically for something that could be made to look like dirt, the SNP administration was more susceptible than most to encountering problems in the coming years.
Pressure from delegates at two successive party conferences in late 2015 and spring 2016 forced the party bosses to back down to some extent. The Scottish Government would actively explore the possibility of a new referendum in September 2018 and it was agreed that the strategy for the campaign would be informed by the recommendations of the review commission. Nobody was happy. But very few were angry. What more could one hope for.
Then came the EU referendum. The impact of the result changed thinking about independence completely. Scotland’s vote to Remain being totally discounted and the Scottish Government being almost entirely excluded from the Brexit process were regarded, not only as signifiers of what the Union implied for Scotland, but as harbingers of what the British state intended for Scotland. The SNP quickly confirmed its support for a 2018 referendum. The Scottish Government began laying the legislative foundations for that referendum. And the decision was made that the new referendum would be totally different from the first one.
I say the decision was made. But, actually, it was more a case of it developing. The SNP had to play catch-up with the Yes movement which had matured greatly in the aftermath of the 2014 campaign. New skills had been learned – or discovered – and networking had been vastly improved. The Yes movement, while still retaining its character as a political movement, had developed the capacity to transform itself into a massive campaigning machine. A machine so powerful that even the ‘old-timers’ in the SNP had to defer to it.
One of the most crucial developments was the creation of a liaison committee bringing together the pro-independence political parties and the Yes movement. Two huge difficulties had to be overcome for this to be possible. The political parties – especially the SNP, for obvious reasons – needed to overcome it’s reluctance to be associated with any organisation it did not control. The Yes movement had to overcome its reluctance to appoint people who could speak for the entire movement. That both succeeded to the extent that they did is the single most important thing that made what followed possible.
With the backing of the Yes movement and a platform promising a new referendum, the SNP pulled off another remarkable victory in the 2017 snap UK general election, holding all but two of the seats they they previously held while, thanks to the vagaries of FPTP, actually increasing their share of the vote. British Nationalist tried to portray this as a massive defeat for the SNP and a setback for the independence cause, but even some in the British media weren’t buying it. The public certainly weren’t. In Scotland, the mood for change was growing.
Things moved rapidly after that. The Scottish Government let it be known that if a Section 30 order was not forthcoming it would press ahead with the referendum in September 2018 regardless. It was made clear that any attempt to stop the referendum would be defied and any challenge to the result would be met and defeated. After much ado, the Scottish Parliament, where the SNP still had a working majority and the support (mostly) of the Scottish Greens, passed a proposal to dissolve the Union with England subject to a referendum to be held on Thursday 20 September 2018 in which Scotland’s voters would be asked whether they agreed with this proposal – Yes or No.
The UK Government, after much huffing and puffing, backed down. Their first strategy of encouraging a Unionist boycott was abandoned when several Scottish Labour MSPs and even one Tory refused to join the boycott campaign. It was shunned also by much of civic Scotland and quite sharply criticised by the Electoral Commission. In addition, there was no mood for it in Scotland. In part this may have been due to the referendum legislation which stated that the result would stand so long as turnout was above 80% and that if the turnout reached 65% despite a boycott then the referendum would be rerun within a year.
Much to the very vocal annoyance of hard-line Unionsists, the UK Government stated that it would not challenge the referendum result so long as the upper turnout figure was met and any Yes vote was “decisive”. They would, however, take whatever steps were necessary to ensure that there would be no rerun should turnout fall below 80%. The thinking was that the political cost of obstruct would be greater than was warranted given their ability to ensure that the referendum didn’t succeed. It was a gamble. But the strategists and campaign managers reckoned that they could hold just enough of the No vote from 2014 and deter just enough people from voting – even without a formal boycott – to ensure the vile separatists were defeated. They were wrong. We now know how wrong they were.
Support for independence in the polls had jumped 5 points when the Scottish Parliament passed the proposal to end the Union. Subsequently, it stayed steady at between 50 and 55%. A low-level campaign had, of course, been running for a year or more. By the time the official campaign period started, it was clear what the Yes strategy would be. Following the recommendations of the review commission, a two-pronged effort was launched. One strand of the campaign would focus on the “positive” case for independence but, instead of getting bogged down in policy debates that had no relevance to the constitutional issue, would focus on the powers of the Scottish Parliament; building on what was known about people’s preferences for where decisions were made. Independence would hardly be mentioned. It would be about bringing Scotland’s government home.
The second strand would be the “negative” stuff that was almost entirely left out in the 2014. It would be an anti-Union campaign focusing on the ways in which the Union is detrimental to Scotland. This, together with the way the ballot was to be framed, would ensure that the anti-independence side were put on the back foot, forced to defend the Union rather than attack the idea of independence – which was difficult to target anyway now that it wasn’t being talked about by the Yes side.
Importantly, the form of the campaign strategy allowed the Yes movement to unite and focus and stay on-message. No longer did we have the multitude of competing ‘visions’ of independence which so fatally diluted the first Yes campaign. Everybody now could focus on specific powers that should rest with the Scottish Parliament and/or any of a range of lines of attack on the Union.
The result was 69% Yes on a turnout of 82%. And the rest is alternative history.
That was fun!
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One thought on “What might have been”
When put like this the missed opportunity of the last few tumultuous years is made very apparent.
The facts of the closeness of the Independence Referendum result, the subsequent surge in SNP membership, the advent of Brexit and the SNP victories of 2015, 2016 & 2017 in Westminster & Holyrood elections interspersed with a hypothetical but entirely possible response, particularly of the party leadership, to these monumental events to seize the initiative in some of the ways which you describe by focussing on the essential need for self-government and the iniquities of the Union could have produced a different conclusion. It is the reaction that makes this history “alternative” but plausible.
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