On Friday, just after listening to Nicola Sturgeon’s much-hyped ‘next steps’ announcement, I had to travel to Edinburgh to attend events marking Brexit on Friday and Saturday. I also met up with my wife who was traveling back from a work-related trip to Denmark, for a rare evening out together. All of this by way of excuse for not responding earlier to that speech. Although the delay may have been a good thing. I have seen some of the responses made in immediate disappointment and/or frustration and/or anger and I’m rather glad I didn’t take a computer with me. Instead, I vented my initial reaction on Twitter where such things belong.
I have, for example, seen Stu Campbell’s article prompted by the First Minister’s speech and, while he is essentially correct in his analysis, he tends towards the intemperate in some of his comments and brings in matters which would be better discussed separately. The desire to lash out may be easy to apprehend, but in Stu’s case it turns what was a perceptive account of the inadequacy of Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional issue into a vitriolic attack on her and the SNP. I think that unfortunate. I have always respected Stu’s ability to get to the nub of the matter and appreciated his ability to communicate his thoughts on matters of importance to us all. The forceful and forthright manner in which he habitually expresses himself only adds to the power of his message. I’m hardly in a position criticise anybody for adopting a robust tone.
I should not have been disappointed by what Nicola Sturgeon said as I never had any expectation that she would say anything of significance. I had actually made an effort to damp-down expectations because I knew there was nothing significant she could say from the position in which she has placed herself. Short of renouncing her ill-advised commitment to the Section 30 process, all she could possibly have to offer was another reading of the charges against the British state peppered with platitudes and bromides and leading to the now standard rationalisations for inaction.
Even the one thing she spoke of that might have seemed superficially significant – the new independence convention – was stripped of any sparkle it might have had by being at least two years too late and by the fact that it joins an already overlong list of similar initiatives which failed to strike a match far less set the heather afire.
The truth is understandably painful for people to hear, but hear it they must. The de facto leader of the independence movement in whom we invested so much trust has driven that campaign into a narrow cul-de-sac where she can neither turn around nor proceed. And her speech of Friday made it clear that she is disinclined to reverse out of that dead-end road. This is not to say that she was not and is not worthy of our respect. As a First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has done Scotland proud. Nor is it a call for her to be replaced, as has been the knee-jerk reaction from all too many people. There is no appetite in the party for removing her. And we can well do without the distraction of a leadership contest. Especially as that contest might not be as ‘civilised’ as previous contests for elevated positions in the SNP. And because there is no guarantee that a distracting and quite possibly damaging leadership battle would result in a change to the Scottish Government’s current fatally flawed approach. There is no sign of any high-profile questioning of the position taken by Nicola Sturgeon. Although I may be due Angus MacNeil an apology for saying this.
That the First Minister has made an error of judgement is now beyond dispute, although this will not stop some disputing it even though doing so requires that they turn a blind eye to the fatal flaws in the approach she has adopted – and clings to. I have previously set out my concerns about Nicola Sturgeon’s total and stubborn commitment to the Section 30 process. Concerns which have come to be shared by a number of people but which have never, to my knowledge, been addressed. The fatal flaws in Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘strategy’ derive almost entirely from this commitment and the refusal to consider any other perspective or course of action.
As an aside before I list the three fatal flaws which I maintain characterise the First Minister’s current approach to the constitutional issue, I want to say that one of the most disappointing and distressing aspects of her ‘next steps’ speech was the fact that she seemed to be totally oblivious to how that speech might be received by many people across the Yes movement. She just didn’t appear to appreciate that what she was saying – and not saying – would provoke a strong reaction. There was a distinct impression of taking support for granted. It would be gratifying to think that a salutary lesson might be learned. But experience tells us that those most in need of a lesson in self-awareness tend to be those least amenable to learning such a lesson. Look at Richard Leonard.
This is doubly distressing given that one of the things I have always admired most about the SNP is (was?) their connectedness to the people. If the party has lost that, then it is seriously diminished.
And so to the reasons Nicola Sturgeon’s approach is doomed to fail.
Firstly, there is the matter of time. Aside from anything else, Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘next steps’ speech was remarkable for its lack of urgency. At most, the threat to Scotland’s democracy was vaguely and tangentially hinted at. And there was nothing said about how this threat might be countered. The consequences of delaying meaningful action to restore Scotland’s independence were, from the evidence of that speech, not worthy of consideration.
This lack of urgency is extremely worrying. We have to assume that the British government’s aim and intention is to lock Scotland into the Union. Brexit provides an ideal opportunity to do this. And Brexit is upon us. Action to rescue Scotland from the rolling juggernaut of British Nationalism has already been delayed far too long. The message from Nicola Sturgeon and other leading figures in the SNP is that they are prepared to delay action indefinitely. The talk of a referendum this year is little more than a flimsy veil thrown over this desire to put off doing anything effective as long as possible.
I’m starting to get angry all over again as I write this. So I’ll move on to the next fatal flaw in Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional issue.
One of the central features of this approach is the notion that increasing support for a new referendum and/or for independence will put irresistible pressure on Boris Johnson to relent and grant a Section 30 order. Why is the fallacy of this not face-slappingly obvious? Given that preservation of the Union is an overarching imperative for the British state – one might readily argue that it is an existential imperative – then surely the greater the probability of a referendum leading to the dissolution of the Union the greater the incentive to ensure that no referendum ever takes place. And we know that the British political elite will be totally ruthless and completely unscrupulous in defending the structures of power, privilege and patronage which operate to their benefit.
The only thing that is going to win the kind of support Nicola Sturgeon demands before she acts is the action she refuses to take before she has that level of support. The idea that the British Prime Minister can be moved to grant a Section 30 order by an appeal to conscience or democratic principles isn’t far short of risible. Although I sure as hell am not laughing when I hear such drivel being spouted by our political leaders.
That’s the anger rising again. Time to move on to what is almost certainly the most telling of the fatal flaws in Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘strategy’.
The First Minister’s entire ‘strategy’ is critically dependent on gaining the willing and honest cooperation of the British government in a process which almost certainly would lead to an outcome to which the British government is fervently and implacably opposed.
Need I say more? Can I resist the urge to do so?
When the reality of the Scottish Government’s approach to the constitutional issue is stated as baldly as this it difficult – nay impossible! – to comprehend how any person of normal intelligence could consider an approach with such a ludicrous dependency viable. The question is not whether this fatal flaw is a reality – it is actually central to Nicola Sturgeon’s argument – but why she would embrace such self-evident nonsense and adopt such an obviously doomed approach.
But let’s leave such inquiries for another time. My purpose here is to consider what Nicola Sturgeon’s speech on Friday, and her commitment to a fatally flawed ‘strategy’ implies for Scotland’s cause. Where do we go from here?
What is obvious is that, wherever the Yes movement goes from here, it does so separately from the SNP/Scottish Government. We would be insane to follow Nicola Sturgeon into that dead-end street. This is in total contradiction to what I had hoped for and what I was urging a few months ago. Then, I envisaged Nicola Sturgeon providing the leadership that the Yes movement needs if it is to become a campaign – or give birth to a tightly focused and strongly disciplined campaigning organisation rather than a loose association of diverse groups all doing their own thing. I hoped to have the SNP providing the finely-crafted messages that would then be amplified and taken to the people by an army of Yes activists totally on board with the party’s campaign strategy. That’s not going to happen.
Nicola Sturgeon has effectively cut the SNP and the Scottish Government adrift from the grassroots Yes movement. It is my contention that we should simply accept this as it seems futile to kick against it and doing so will only result in acrimony between the party and the movement. What the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence needs is unity of purpose, not uniformity of thinking. So long a the party and the movement share the same goal, we should be able to approach the campaign in different ways without undermining that campaign. If the SNP’s approach to the constitutional issue is as deeply, fatally flawed as is now undeniably the case, then it would be disastrous to our cause if the entire Yes movement were to follow where Nicola Sturgeon leads.
There need be no bitterness or recrimination. A two-pronged campaign may be less than ideal. But as we clearly have no choice in the matter we must focus on making the best we can of the situation. We know the flaws in the SNP’s approach, and this is fortunate because it means we know what we must compensate for.
The precise form of this second prong of the independence campaign has yet to be decided. (Needless to say, I have my own ideas.) And the problem of leadership remains to be resolved. But the Yes movement is nothing if not resourceful. I see no insurmountable issues.
What we must constantly bear in mind, however, is that the SNP is crucial to the realisation of our goal. Without the effective political power of a pro-independence government and Parliament, there is not the remotest possibility of success. People power alone is not enough. That power has to be concentrated behind a government with the power to act for the people. As things stand, that means the SNP. And that situation is not going to change any time soon. So get to grips with it!
The second wing of the independence campaign must always be looking to and working towards the moment when the SNP is obliged to accept the folly and futility of its current approach to the constitutional issue and join with the grassroots movement in the final effort to restore Scotland’s rightful constitutional status.
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