The decision by the Voices for Scotland board to “pause” their campaign during the Covid-19 crisis has served only to reignite my anger at Nicola Sturgeon’s cease and desist order to the SNP membership and the Yes movement. It is a decision which is disappointing if not deplorable. It is a choice which would almost certainly been very different had our First Minister not been so inadequate and inept in her role as de facto leader of the independence campaign. She has an army of apologists, of course. None of whom seem to understand how badly she has betrayed Scotland’s cause. Precious few who are prepared to listen to any criticism of someone who, I regret to say, is at the centre of what looks more and more like a cult of personality. I am not a member of that cult. I’m just angry.
Voices for Scotland (VfS) is, as you may know, one of the brands used by the Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) in its ongoing fund-raising campaign to finance various initiatives such as the launch of VfS. Initiatives which in one of those strange quirks of fate that make life such a wild ride have tended to coincide with the SNP administration’s need for the launch of some new initiative to divert attention from its own lack of any initiative in taking forward the independence project. That they have “paused” their campaigning – although not, apparently, their fundraising – probably isn’t the most massive misfortune to befall the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence. Nor is their unquestioning compliance with Nicola Sturgeon’s order to stop all campaigning the most shocking thing to happen in Scottish politics of late. Although the order itself might well qualify for that title.
SIC has always been one of those organisations or groups by which the SNP and the Scottish Government have kept the Yes movement at arms length. That is its main purpose. The SIC sits between the SNP and the Yes movement to provide the appearance of connection while actually serving as a barrier/buffer. That it has stopped doing what it was that it had been doing won’t affect the independence campaign at all. The fact that it has been encouraged to abandon whatever part it was playing in that campaign by Nicola Sturgeon is the real scandal here. That is what people should be angry about.
To understand the politics of this and why it should make you angry you have to forget about Covid-19. The pandemic has nothing to do with it. It is marginally and tangentially relevant at best. The political situation was in train long before the virus came on the scene. It has played a role. But it was never essential to the way things were playing out. If it hadn’t been Covid-19 it would have been something else. The virus was written into the script while shooting was in progress because the plot required a plausible enabler for one of the main characters. It may seem strange to think of it in this way but, as far as this episode of the Scottish politics show is concerned, Covid-19 just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
When Covid-19 arrived on set the independence project was already at a standstill. At least, I like to think it was at a standstill. Being stalled would have been a great improvement given that the project had mostly been going backwards since 2014. The moment Nicola Sturgeon committed wholly and irrevocably to the Section 30 process, the project was doomed. Committing to the Section 30 process was probably the surest way of killing the independence project stone dead. It could not possibly lead to a new referendum. It was never going to work. It was always obvious that it was never going to work. Not even the people who supported it could explain how it might work. The people responsible for committing to it, including Nicola Sturgeon, steadfastly refused to answer any questions about the Section 30 process. They totally ignored those who expressed concerns about it other than to berate and belittle them. At no time did any of them ever address any of those concerns. Every effort was made to close down any discussion of the matter.
Why did Nicola Sturgeon commit to the Section 30 process? Was she unaware of the fact that it was both a dead end and a trap? That seems unlikely. She is not stupid. And there was nothing unclear or uncertain about the nature of the Section 30 process. The huge dead-end signs and the flashing neon arrows with the word TRAP were there as clues. And if that wasn’t enough to mark it as a very bad choice indeed then there was the fact that the British political elite had dubbed it the ‘gold standard’. Nicola Sturgeon must have known what she was getting into. What she was getting us into. What she was getting Scotland into. So, why?
These things are rarely amenable to simple explanation. When it comes to human behaviour and motivation, any explanation that is simple enough to be described in words probably doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the matter. We cannot know what was going on in Nicola Sturgeon’s mind. But we can deduce some of what must have had an influence on her thinking. We must assume, for example, that independence was a consideration. But it wouldn’t be the only one. Two other considerations come immediately to my mind. Which suggests they may very well have occurred to Nicola Sturgeon as well.
She would surely have to take account of the SNP’s electoral fortunes. She’s leader of the party. The party must always be a consideration. And it would be extraordinary to the point of freakishness had she not given some thought to her own reputation and political career. These and doubtless numerous other factors would all be fed into the calculation which resulted in the decision to commit to the Section 30 process. My own sense of the thing is that there was a powerful conflict between what was best for the independence project and what best served Sturgeon’s personal ambitions. The interests of the party weren’t decisive. The SNP’s electoral position was unusually secure. Pretty much any choice she made could be argued to be either good or bad in terms of the party’s electoral chances.
My suspicion is that the dilemma was resolved by Nicola Sturgeon persuading herself and/or allowing herself to be persuaded that the Section 30 process might work. All the talk of Boris Johnson’s position being “unsustainable” sounded ludicrous to those of us who were watching him sustain it with consummate ease and nary a hint of being affected by the “pressure” which was supposed to force him to relent. The constant repetition of the “untenable” and “unsustainable” mantra by a battery of SNP big guns never sounded convincing. But it did sound utterly convinced. They believed it because the alternative was to go against Nicola Sturgeon. And that was unthinkable. Almost literally unthinkable.
Of course, it was going to be increasingly difficult to maintain the conviction in the face of unfolding non-events. As the promised collapse of the British state’s resistance to democracy neither happened nor looked remotely likely, so it became increasingly problematic to maintain the insistence that it would – eventually. Although nobody could ever say why it might. Nobody could ever explain what it was costing Boris Johnson to say no as often and as long as was required. More and more voices were raised expressing concerns. More and more people were asking awkward questions. Nicola Sturgeon had no answers. She had no plan. She had no route mapped because there were no more options. No way out. She needed something that would eclipse the constitutional issue. She needed somewhere to put the blame for the project having totally stalled rather than have it all lying on her own shoulders.
Along came Covid-19!
Whatever else it is -and we all know what else it is well enough that we don’t need pompous, self-righteous reminders – the pandemic was just what Nicola Sturgeon needed. Politicians exploit situations. Whether you approve or not, it’s what happens. Deal with it!
Nicola Sturgeon had her justification for setting aside the independence project. And it was a good one. Nobody could possibly blame her for making the pandemic the Scottish Government’s main priority. Nobody does blame her for making the pandemic her first priority. I certainly don’t. I’m not stupid. I know full well that she had no choice in the matter. That the pandemic also happened to be politically convenient is entirely incidental. But for Covid-19 she would have had to find another excuse. I don’t doubt that she would. I can’t imagine that it would be better than the one fate dropped in her lap.
Let me repeat this because it is something Nicola Sturgeon’s apologists have great difficulty comprehending. A difficulty which, it must be said, is almost as convenient for their argument as Covid-19 is for Nicola Sturgeon’s political credibility. It is not the fact that in her role as First Minister she put the constitutional issue aside which I find objectionable. It was the right thing to do. What angers me is that she compounded her catastrophic handling of the constitutional issue by issuing that cease and desist order in her role as leader of the SNP.
In part, I was angered by the presumptuousness of her assuming command of the Yes movement. Having utterly failed/refused to provide the leadership the Yes movement craved and required to progress the independence campaign, she had the impertinence to appoint herself leader for the purpose of ordering a halt to the campaign. That rankles!
But what really angers me is that it was totally unnecessary. She didn’t have to say anything at all about the independence campaign. It would have been very much better if she had simply shut up about it. After all, she had ‘more important’ things to occupy her mind. Why was she talking about the independence campaign? Let Jackson Carlaw raise the subject. Let him provide the First Minister with another opportunity to slap him down for obsessing about independence at a time like this. But no! She had to issue a statement which included the following.
Obviously for our movement, that means suspending all campaigning – cancelling any planned social events and meetings must only be held if using remote technologies. [emphasis added]
This was contained in an email sent to SNP members but which was also made public. It is important to note that the email bears not only the SNP logo but the YES logo as well. The clear implication is that she is addressing the entire independence movement. That she is telling us all to stop any and all campaign activity. Why?
My suspicion is that she just got carried away with the role she was playing – that of ‘leader in time of crisis’. A role which was, of course, forced on her by circumstances. But a role that she could play as she sees fit. At least as much as she was concerned to look competent to the electorate in Scotland, she wanted to look good for a much wider audience. She was behaving as she thought was expected of her according to a model which owed at least as much to West Wing as to the realities of Scottish politics. When this political posing combined with her relief at having escaped the bind she had got herself into with the constitutional issue she overplayed her role. Had she been wise, or well-advised, she would have said nothing whatever about the independence campaign. But she just couldn’t help herself.
The political inadvisability of Nicola Sturgeon’s cease and desist letter to activists should be obvious to anyone who understands political communication. By issuing that instruction; by effectively declaring herself to be in charge of the entire independence movement, she has taken responsibility for the entire independence movement. She has made herself answerable for everything done by anyone in the movement. The very situation she had been so assiduously avoiding for years. That order to suspend all campaigning will come back to bite her in lots of different ways. It was a stupid thing to do. And that is what makes me angry.
It was also another entry in the catalogue of missed opportunities that Nicola Sturgeon has built up since 2014. Anyone who gives it even a passing thought must recognise that the lockdown presents the ideal conditions for online campaigning. Which happens to be one of the great strengths of the Yes movement. Instead of taking advantage of the fact that more people are accessing material online for longer, Nicola Sturgeon would have thousands of very capable activists sitting idle. We’re not all occupied dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, very few of us are. As few as possible. That’s what lockdown means. Thousands of Yes activists suddenly have more time on their hands than they know what to do with.
Groups like Voices for Scotland should be taking advantage of this situation. The entire Yes movement should be adapting to the new reality. We don’t have to be thinking about Covid-19 every minute of every day. Every one of us with a device and a connection could be contributing to the most massive organically coordinated online campaign ever known. If Nicola Sturgeon had just said nothing about the independence campaign this would almost certainly have happened. I have every right to be angry.
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