I read stuff like this – Leading independence campaigners back new Yes Scotland group – and the years just fall away. I am transported back to 2012/13 and the early days of Yes Scotland and the campaign for the first independence referendum. The Yes movement is in its innocent infancy, the term ‘Project Fear’ has not yet entered the political lexicon, and the lessons of that seemingly interminable campaign have yet to be learned. Everything seems possible because we have yet to discover the true power of the forces ranged against us and to recognise our own weaknesses. Anything seems doable because the intractable issues have yet to be encountered. We are filled with evangelical fervour and sure of the power of our message and as convinced of the appropriateness of the strategy as we are of the righteousness of our cause.
Then, with the dull, damp splat of a wet blanket landing on my face, I am wrenched back to reality. It’s not 2012/13. It’s 2020 and we are days away from an event which stands as the most compelling evidence yet of just how badly Scotland fares in this ‘precious’ Union and how tragic for our nation was the failure of that first referendum campaign. And how the lessons of that failure still haven’t been learned.
Back then, new Yes groups were coming into existence on almost a daily basis. Everybody wanted to be in on the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence. Everybody had their own idea of what that meant. Everybody needed their own group to push that idea. The buzz-words were diversity and openness and inclusiveness. It didn’t matter what your agenda was, if you tacked ‘for Yes’ onto it you were part of the Yes family. Such was the enthusiasm you could have started a group called Cannibals for Yes and nobody would have batted an eye.
Whatever your political philosophy, ethnic background, sexual orientation, form of employment, age, health or lifestyle choices, there was a group for you. If there wasn’t, there soon would be. Whenever the campaign encountered an issue, a group would be set up to address that issue. Setting up a group rapidly became an automatic response to any issue. It still is. Whenever there are signs of campaign fatigue, set up a new group – with or without a crowd-funder to finance it.
Not that all these groups turned out to be no more than a panacea for the moment. Some, like the Scottish Independence Foundation, continue to do valuable work. But all too often the launching of a new organisation, or the relaunching or rebranding of an existing one, is just a distraction or a way of being seen to be doing something. Or deferring something.
Establishing a commission has always been a way of punting hot potatoes into the long grass. The initial fanfare provides the instantly gratifying spectacle that the public (media) demands while the ensuing proceedings can usually be relied upon to be dull enough to kill any interest and protracted enough to allow time for something else to grab the headlines.
Does anybody have a tally of all the new initiatives that have been launched in the past five years? I’m prepared to bet you’ll have missed at least one or two.
There are other deja vu prompts, of course. The old familiar language of positive campaigning and listening to opponents and finding better answers is still in use. There’s always somebody telling us that this or that is the only way to proceed or that this or that demographic has to be persuaded or that doing it any way other than this or that will only put off potential converts. There’s always somebody keen to impart some pearl of wisdom which when stripped of the superfluous verbiage turns out to be no more than the less than stunning observation that if Yes is to win we need to get more people to vote Yes.
And, of course, there’s always somebody anxious to remind us for what certainly seems like the millionth time that the independence movement is “more than just the SNP”.
These things have been repeated so often they have become the phatic language of discourse around the constitutional question. It’s just the meaningless stuff people say to fill silences or to pad out a speech or to make the word count for the article. Having become meaningless, nobody now asks about meaning. Nobody asks if being unexceptionally positive is the most effective way of going about the task of persuading people. Nobody asks if listening rather than talking really is the best way of getting the message across. Nobody asks if constantly striving for better answers to the same questions is worth the effort.
Nobody stops to consider whether sidelining the party political arm of the independence movement is a smart move.
I read stuff like this and I think “here we go again”. I read, for example, Kevin Pringle talking about “the best chance of breaking the [Boris] Johnson veto” and wonder how it is possible that, with all that has happened over the last seven or eight years, such an experienced observer of the political scene in Scotland and beyond could have failed to realise that there is no way to overcome the British Prime Minister’s veto on our right of self-determination. Not when Scotland’s First Minister has accepted the legitimacy of the PM’s authority for such a veto.
How is it possible for anybody to believe that the British political elite might relent under the pressure of a moral argument or references to democratic principles? How can anybody imagine that to be the nature of the British state?
How is it possible for leading figures in the independence movement to recognise that we still need the same things – such as “cross party cooperation” – that we have failed to achieve in all those years of campaigning and acknowledge that we have yet to get support for independence consistently above 50% while simultaneous commending an approach to campaigning which is identical in all meaningful respects to the one that was taken for the 2014 campaign? The one which has become a fixture (fixation?) in the minds of those who make the decisions about campaign strategy.
How is it possible that so vanishingly little can have been learned from past experience?
I read stuff like this and I despair.
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