[W]hen you were hanged, dissected, whipped, and tugging at the oar, did you continue to think that everything in this world happens for the best?Voltaire Candide
Yet another headline in The National proclaiming that support for Yes is soaring. Yet another article seeking to persuade us that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Even the awfulness of the latest British regime is cause for unbounded optimism. After all, as Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss reminds us,
…if there is a volcano at Lisbon, it could be in no other spot; for it is impossible but things should be as they are, for everything is for the best.Voltaire Candide
On this occasion support for Yes appears to have ‘soared’ from 54% to 53%. But in a worldview untainted by realism anything other than the most precipitous decline may be regarded as lark-like soaring into unblemished blue skies over big rock-candy mountains. Flying is just falling with style. And nobody has style like the current SNP administration has style. Just to prove it, here comes Nicola Sturgeon herself riding on a cloud of approval ratings almost too wondrous to behold. All we need now is a rousing chorus of We’ve Never Been Closer to Independence from the Alyn Smith Choir accompanied by Pete Wishart on the organ. Instead, we get an old quote from John Curtice. But let’s not allow disappointment to show. It is, after all, the very best of John Curtice quotes and perfectly in keeping with The National’s relentlessly optimistic analysis of the state of the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence.
It’s not that there is absolutely no cause for optimism. Just that the optimism is exaggerated to the point where it begins to resemble wishful thinking, fantasy and delusion more than analysis founded in the hard truths of realpolitik. That support for independence is anywhere over 50% is a Good Thing – even if it is still within margin of error territory. And even though we might reasonably have expected it to be ten points higher given all that has happened since 2014. As it surely would have been but for all the things that didn’t happen after 2014.
That the SNP is, according to the polls, on course to take a record 74 seats in the coming Holyrood election is a Good Thing – even if we should really bear in mind that this includes the list seats that some nominally pro-independence ‘parties’ are determined the SNP should not win. And even though it takes no account of the possible (probable?) negative impact on the SNP vote of campaigning by these nominally pro-independence ‘parties’. Among the few things we know for certain is that for hope of restoring Scotland’s independence to remain alive the election must result in an SNP administration with a working majority and a massive vote share.
But it’s not enough! Optimism at this level is simply not justified by a more hard-headed analysis. Neither an SNP majority administration nor majority public support for Yes nor even both of these together and taken to levels beyond credibility is adequate to bring about the restoration of Scotland’s independence. These things are necessary. But they are not sufficient. It is disturbing that polls and approval ratings are being presented as if these were all that is required to make restoration of Scotland’s independence inevitable. It is Panglossian folly. And it is dangerous.
It is dangerous because it is dishonest. Above all we need an honest and accurate appreciation of Scotland’s predicament if we are to have any chance of rescuing the nation from that predicament. It is dangerous because it breeds complacency. And complacency is next only to apathy among the greatest killers of noble causes.
Scotland’s cause is often portrayed as a journey. As with any planned journey, it is essential to know three things – the destination; the starting point; and the route from one to the other. The Panglossian folly being foisted on the Yes movement lacks all three. In this fallacious analysis, no destination is clearly defined. Rather, there are as many destinations as there are ‘visions’ of a future Scotland or policy agendas seeking a free ride on the independence movement’s coat-tails.
The starting point is not correctly identified. As already noted, the very essence of Panglossian folly is the pretence that we are where we are not. At the extreme, we are told that we are closer to independence now than when the polls opened for voting in the 2014 referendum. A patently ludicrous proposition. But even the lesser delusions are a potentially fatal (self-)deception. Even the notion that we are but a step from independence is meaningless if our ankles are hobbled. Or if a wall has been erected where we must step. Or if we are being urged to take a stride in the wrong direction.
The route-map is totally absent. Scour the Panglossian analysis as you may, you will find no consideration of the ‘how’ that connects the favourable figures to the desired outcome. No chart by which to navigate from the misidentified start point to the ambiguous end point. You will find, moreover, that such consideration is actively discouraged. Enquiries concerning the ‘how’ will be met with the stony silence of the Twitter block list. Or spittle-flecked accusations of treachery.
Think of what, in the context of the fight to restore Scotland’s independence, would constitute the ideal outcome in the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. As noted earlier, an SNP administration is essential for the not inconsequential reason that the alternative is that the British parties squatting in Scotland’s Parliament would take control. A thought on which I prefer not to dwell. But the ideal is an SNP administration with a solid working majority. Then, the cherry atop our dream result would be the SNP getting over 50% on both ballots – regardless of winning any more list seats than are necessary to secure a working majority.
(Those who peddle that aspect of the Panglossian folly which maintains that the British state must surely buckle under the weight of democratic dissent should be smiling wistfully at this thought. Although the reality is that there is no amount of democratic dissent that the British state cannot discount with a shrug. Such is the nature of the Union.)
Let’s suppose we have this ideal outcome. Does the restoration of Scotland’s independence follow in any sort of automatic way? Of course it doesn’t! Should we be considering now what more is required? Of course we should!
Whether dream or delusion, none of it achieves anything if the SNP goes into the election with nothing more than a vague promise to yet again essay the Section 30 process despite it now having been shown beyond any reasonable doubt that this cannot serve the purposes of Scotland’s cause. All three of the things excluded from the Panglossian analysis must be put in place before the election in order that we can come out of the election prepared to take forward the fight to restore Scotland’s rightful constitutional status.
There must be an honest and explicit acceptance of where Scotland’s cause presently lies after six years of inertia and missed opportunities all disguised with stirring rhetoric and the occasional dead-end ‘initiative’ announced with a fanfare that belied the futility. We are well into the final minute of the eleventh hour and all but totally unprepared for the battle to come. Even in denial that there is to be a battle. The SNP and the entire Yes movement has to allow that bold, decisive action is essential if Scotland is to be saved. It is a choice between Scotland and the British state. And the moment of decision is upon us.
There must be a general recognition across the entire Yes movement that an effective political campaign cannot be constructed around a contested concept such as independence or on a quagmire of policy agendas. The immediate and primary objective of the independence campaign is the ending of the Union. After that, it becomes an entirely different campaign. Up until then it must be nothing other than a campaign to end the Union.
There must be acknowledgement that the route from Scotland’s current constitutional predicament to the objective of ending the Union lies through the Scottish Parliament; that the journey requires only the unchallengeable democratic legitimacy of the Scottish Parliament allied with the sovereignty of Scotland’s people and supported by a raft of internationally recognised laws, conventions and norms; and that confrontation with the British state is unavoidable.
The SNP must adopt a Manifesto for Independence which renounces the Section 30 process and all it implies; undertakes to assert the competence of the Scottish Parliament in all constitutional matters; and commits to a referendum within the next Parliamentary term on the question of ending the Union.
All of this must happen within the next six to eight weeks. I remain hopeful. I remain optimistic. But I diligently avoid all Panglossian folly.
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