In the wake of the tragedy that befell Scotland on Thursday 18 September 2014, once I had recovered somewhat from the initial wave of debilitating despondency, I looked at the situation as coolly and calmly as I could and came to a few conclusions. The first and probably most important was that it wasn’t over. The 2014 referendum had produced a result, but not a decision. British Nationalist insistence that it settled the matter effectively for all time was and remains characteristically shallow and unconsidered. The referendum failed to satisfy the basic requirements of a plebiscite. Crucially, it failed to offer voters a choice between two clearly defined, distinct and deliverable options. The Yes option was poorly defined. The No option was not defined at all. A No vote meant whatever the British political elite wanted it to mean. The 2014 referendum simply could not be decisive. There would have to be another referendum.
The second realisation was that the new referendum would be nothing like the first one. Everything about it would have to be different. The 2014 referendum may not have decided the constitutional issue, but it had comprehensively changed the ground on which that issue would be contested. Obviously, this had massive implications for the Yes campaign. It was clear – to me at least – that the entire issue of Scotland’s constitutional status would have to be reframed. If there was to be another referendum; and if we were not to run the serious risk of a similar outcome, the whole mindset would have to change. We would have to think about the issue differently in order to contest the issue effectively.
I also realised that this would have to begin immediately. It wasn’t just a matter of a new campaign strategy with tweaks to the tactics and methods. The entire approach was going to have to be different. Which meant that we had to begin immediately to change the way we thought about the issue if we were to change the way the public perceived it. We would have to prepare them and ourselves for the different fight that the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence was going to become.
It stood to reason that, if the constitutional issue was to be reframed and the campaign reformed then it would be essential to define the starting point from which change would happen. You have to know where you are in order to plot a course to where you want to be. The first step, therefore, had to be a forensic examination of the 2014 referendum, the circumstances in which it was fought and the reasoning which informed the campaigns. Note the plural! One of the most significant – and essential – realisations that occurred to me was that it was just as important to understand why the No side won as why the Yes side lost.
There was a lot of discussion of the outcome, of course. Everywhere two or more independence supporters gathered in the weeks and months following the 2014 referendum the conversation invariably and inevitably turned to the matter of why we lost. Rarely if ever was there any discussion of why the No side won. When there was, the examination was cursory and conclusions ranged from the pitifully shallow to the downright demented. The former being things such as that they had the media on their side. But with no consideration of how they used that advantage. The latter being ill-informed conspiracy theories about the count being rigged.
For all the talking and arguing and navel-gazing and ranting, I am aware of no comprehensive, dispassionate, formal analysis of the 2014 campaign having been conducted. The ‘official’ line taken by the SNP and leading figures in the Yes movement was that the solution lay in more of the same. We simply had to put more effort into conveying a better message. As ever, there was neither agreement nor guidance as to how this effort was to be applied or where the resources were to come from or what would be the content of the ‘better message’.
Nor was there any consensus on timing. In truth, little though was given to the question of when the next referendum would take place. There was talk of an “optimal time”. But it was never explained what would constitute this “optimal time” or how it could be forecast many months ahead of the vote. There was talk of polls showing sufficient support for a new referendum and/or independence. But a sad paucity of fresh thinking about how that support was to be gained. And, just as depressing, a dearth of thinking about the external factors that would determine the scheduling of a new referendum regardless of whatever the Yes side considered to be ideal conditions.
I realised that, more than anything other than the choices made by those directing the independence campaign, it was the choices made and the actions taken by the British government, as well as what they could reasonably be expected to do, which would dictate the timing of a new referendum. And I recognised that we would have to learn from the methods deployed by the anti-independence side in the 2014 referendum campaign and from the way the the British government went about achieving its aims.
Those lessons were not learned. They are still not being learned. No lessons were learned from the methods by which Better Together/Project Fear won the 2014 referendum. No lessons are being learned from the ways in which Boris Johnson and the brains behind him are succeeding. There is reluctance bordering on denial that Johnson and his regime are succeeding. But examine the facts divorced from emotion and they tell a tale of an apparent bungling clown troupe which nonetheless is winning. Winning everything. Winning consistently. Winning more and more while opponents continue to insist that they can’t possibly keep on winning but must soon collapse under the weight of their corruption and dishonesty and ineptitude.
They haven’t. They won’t. And even if they might, we have to assume they won’t. We have to act as if Boris Johnson is going to continue to get his way. The precautionary principle dictates that we can’t afford to hope the British Nationalist juggernaut will break down before it rolls over Scotland. That juggernaut has to be stopped. We must do whatever is necessary to stop it.
Arguably, the last time Boris Johnson’s mob lost was when the Leave side won in the 2016 EU referendum. Everything about the demeanour of the politicians fronting that campaign told of shock, confusion and fear. They had not expected to win. And they hadn’t a clue what to do now that they had. But others were neither confused nor afraid. Boris Johnson isn’t driving that British Nationalist juggernaut, He’s sitting up front with one of those kiddies’ toy steering wheels going “Vroom! Vroom!” while behind him sit the forces which are actually doing the steering. And these are not stupid people. They are the technocrats and manipulators whose skill set goes by the highly descriptive name of ‘Dark Arts’. They took hold of Brexit the way the forces behind George W Bush seized on the terrorist attack which brought down the Twin Towers. Opportunists and the politically adroit alike seize opportunities. And Brexit was pregnant with opportunities for those intent upon reshaping nations. Or destroying them.
If theses forces have a mission statement it might well be ‘Just do it!’. Whatever it is that needs to be done to achieve an objective or to progress a project or to recover from a setback, just do it! Don’t get hung up on legal niceties and political calculations, just fucking do it!
Do whatever it takes. Use the power of the fait accompli. Just do it because once it is done it almost certainly can’t be undone because doing it changes the ground rules. Don’t think like hyper-cautious lawyers and vacillating politicians. Think like engineers! Engineers who are dismantling an existing structure in order to build something new – keeping only the old foundations and the basic skeleton. Stripping away the facade and ripping out the interior so as to construct a new reality around the framework of the old order. Re-purposing the ancient framework of British power, privilege and patronage to assist in the re-engineering of the British state.
We may not like what they are doing or the way they do it or what it is that they are seeking to build, but we absolutely must learn from their methods. Because those methods clearly work. They are effective. We know that because they are winning. The latest round in this fight is the Internal Market Bill and all that it implies for the British state itself and for its periphery – it’s annexed territories. Boris Johnson’s regime will win. That is all but certain. Given their record to date and the advantage they enjoy and the power they wield, we have to anticipate that they will drive that legislation through the British parliament.
We have no way of stopping them. Ian Blackford can put on a show – making speeches and proposing amendments and making more portentous speeches. But the reality is that Scotland is powerless. Scotland is rendered powerless by the Union. That was always the purpose of the Union. And it is no less effective now than when it was first imposed on Scotland. The Union will be the death of Scotland. The power over Scotland that it affords the forces behind Boorish Johnson is irresistible. That power will be used to impose on Scotland a new constitutional settlement which will make the Union look like a blessing. This is not mere doom-mongering. It will happen. It is happening.
It simply is not possible to save Scotland so long as we act only as the Union allows. Because the Union allows no action which might threaten the Union. We have to think and act as if the Union is not an obstacle in the same way as the British government thinks and acts as if international and domestic law is no hindrance to its ambitions. We must emulate them whilst determinedly adhering to the principles of democracy they have discarded. We must make the end of the Union a fait accompli, and dare the British state to try and impose its dominance anew.
We must recognise that the choice facing Scotland is not a choice to be made at some indeterminate time in the future. The choice must be made now. Or there will be no choice. Our political leaders must make that choice on our behalf, allowing always that the ultimate decision lies with the people of Scotland. I have always maintained that we have two battles to win. We must first win the battle to defend our right of self-determination and assert our right to exercise our right of self-determination. Only then might we engage with the battle to use the exercise of our right of self-determination to save Scotland from the fate that the Union holds for us. The first battle is not yet won.
Nicola Sturgeon hopes to win the battle for our right of self-determination by forcing the British Prime Minister to grant a Section 30 order. A victory which would be as Pyrrhic as it would be miraculous. As already stated, Scotland is powerless within the Union. We have no way to force the British Prime Minister to do anything. And even if it were possible to squeeze a Section 30 order out of him this would only come at the cost of conceding to the British state the power to ensure that if we exercise our right of self-determination we will do so in vain.
Scotland’s First Minister has to be as determined and bold and ruthless as our British opponents, without being similarly heedless of democratic principles and internationally accepted norms. She must make a choice in order that the people of Scotland will have the opportunity to choose. She must choose to step outside the legal and constitutional framework devised for the protection of the Union in order to end that Union so that the people of Scotland might have the opportunity to choose between the British state being engineered by the forces of British Nationalism, or the Scotland to which we aspire.
The Union will be the death of Scotland. Unless we kill it first!