I have had the privilege of meeting Richard Walker a couple of times, maybe three. Such conversation as we had was, as I recall, very brief. Nonetheless, my impression I’ve gleaned from those brief encounters, from listening to him speak at various events and from reading his occasional columns in The National is of a decent guy with a deep love of newspapers and genuine dedication to the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence. He, more than anyone else, is responsible for giving that cause – a cause now supported by a clear majority of Scotland’s people – a powerful voice in the traditional media. His place in Scotland’s history is assured.
Which is not to say I agree with everything he says. I remember being particularly scathing about a speech he gave at a Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) event in which he suggested to the assembled crowd of Yes activists that we be nice to the hacks who peddle British Nationalist propaganda for pay in the hope of getting them onside with the independence cause. Or at least to give that cause a fair hearing and a fair airing. Needless to say, I thought that a wee bit naive. But, like I said, Richard Walker is a newspaperman and a decent guy. It’s in his nature, I suspect, to give the benefit of the doubt even to ‘journalists’ who apply their professional skills to denigrating Scotland and misleading Scotland’s people for the cause of paying their mortgages.
Reading Richard’s column in today’s National I first thought I another scathing critique might be called for. I even started highlighting the comments with which I take issue. Or which I thought merited a response. As I read on, however, I discovered that it was very much an article of two halves. I still intend to pick up on a few points from the first half. But I find little with which to disagree in the second – which begins thus –
Yes, there are some very deep fissures within the SNP and the deepest is the Gender Recognition Act. I know that no amount of “wheesht for indy” platitudes will build a bridge across that chasm. Nevertheless a bridge must be built, just as it was built in many of the most bitter divisions in the world. If there was a way to forge a peace process in Northern Ireland – and I know the deaths during the Troubles make such a comparison ridiculous, but I use it to show the scale of that Herculean task – then surely we can find a way of discussing disagreements without tearing ourselves apart.
Who could disagree with this? I stayed almost entirely out of the whole ‘debate’ around the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) – largely because there was no debate. There was vitriol, vituperation and viciousness aplenty. But nothing that even vaguely resembled reasonable discussion. I am not at all averse to ‘robust’ debate. But the ‘robustness’ is a matter of style. It is the manner in which ideas and opinions are expressed. There has to be some content. I found precious little rational content in a GRA debate which seemed to be all antipathy and no arguments. A couple of times I started to write articles on the subject of gender/sex/identity. But each time I was deterred by the thought that I would attract the ire of one or probably both deeply entrenched camps. Whilst being the target of abuse troubled me not at all – I am constantly amazed by the thinness of the skins people wear on entering the realm of social media – I was concerned that dealing with the content-free responses to my views would take up an inordinate amount of my time and attention. Time and attention I would much rather devote to the constitutional issue.
Even that most accomplished exponent of dispassionate forensic journalism, Stu Campbell (Wings Over Scotland) seemed to me to have ‘lost it’ when it came to the gender wars. His articles on the subject of GRA could never be described as content-free. The reasoned arguments were there. But dispassionate they certainly were not. It was as if he was struggling to rise above the sewer level of the GRA ‘debate’ but kept getting dragged down by a combination of the cloying nature of that mire of hate and the weight of his own prejudices.
What disturbs me most about this GRA contretemps is the role it has played in creating the very deep fissures within the SNP alluded to by Richard Walker. The nature of the issue; the way GRA reform has been handled by the Scottish Government; the manner in which the reforms have been influenced and defended by a particular clique, all seem designed to polarise opinion. Indeed, it may be impossible to separate cause and effect. But whatever is assigned the status of cause, the effect on the party has been sufficiently deleterious to prompt the question of whether any cause is worth it.
There will undoubtedly be a lot of knee-jerk reaction to Richard’s use of Northern Ireland as an example of the kind of seemingly unbridgeable chasm that has been opened up by the GRA ‘debate’. But I think he makes the point very well. Just as oppression need not necessarily involve actual violence, so the fact that a great gulf exists between two opposing views doesn’t need the two sides to be killing one another to be judged unbridgeable. Such gulfs become seemingly unbridgeable long before the point at which the situation descends to mutual violence. Indeed, it is largely because reconciliation is thought impossible that one or other but eventually both sides resort to violence.
What Northern Ireland proves is that no conflict is so bitter as to be irresolvable. Where the will exists, gulf between communities or ideologies or political positions is unbridgeable. It’s what democracy is all about. Not the absence of division, but the means and method to find the materials from which bridges can be built. So long as both sides adhere to the fundamental principles of democracy then each has an anchor point from which a bridge can be constructed. Before thankfully moving away from this topic, I will note only that both sides in the GRA ‘debate’ as it has proceeded to date claim to be democrats. Perhaps they need to work a bit harder at it.
I said earlier that I intended to pick up on a few points from the first half of Richard Walker’s article. To do so now might seem petty. But I’ll risk that in order to draw a line under what has gone before. And because his comments raise issues which have to be addressed because they keep on coming up no matter how often and how comprehensively they have been address previously.
Richard starts by complimenting the organisers of the recent SNP conference on the “brilliant innovation” of the blether facility on the Hopin platform. For those not familiar with Hopin I should explain that this is an area in the virtual conference centre where attendees can be brought together in random pairs to have a five minute blether. I should also point out that it is a feature of the platform and not an innovation to be credited to the SNP. Could it be that this was to only thing about the event that Richard could wax genuinely enthusiastic about.
Rightly so! I initially scoffed at this idea of virtual ‘speed dating’. But when I had the opportunity to try it out at the first All Under One Banner (AUOB)/Yes Alba assembly I have to say I was as impressed by it as Richard Walker. I met people I knew and people I knew of as well as people who were previously complete strangers. In that sense and to that extent the blether room does replicate what happens at a real conference – as opposed to a virtual one. (Or a pretend one?)
What the blether facility does not replicate is the ability to meet in groups for political or social purposes. One of the most important aspect of conference is the way it allows people who normally communicate remotely to do so face-to-face. Which, as you know, is a very different thing. Especially when we’re talking about a group rather than two individuals. In the past, I have spent the larger part of my day at conference gathered with several others to discuss matters of common interest. I missed that with the online conference. Among a number of other things. Such as actual resolutions. But I digress!
All I’m saying is OK! the blether room is fine. But let’s not pretend it made the 2020 SNP Conference just like the real thing. It was nothing like the real thing. And this wasn’t entirely due to the circumstances as imposed by the pandemic. Much of the inadequacy of the event was a matter of choice. And with that I shall move on once more.
The next bit of Richard Walker’s article to prod my irk gland was this –
Fifteen consecutive opinion polls have shown a majority of Scots are in favour of independence. The biggest lead is 58%, the average around 54%. We have never enjoyed such a decisive majority and the campaign proper has not even started. We should be united in optimism and in determination to push those figures up higher yet
We’ve definitely been here before. I don’t know how often it must be pointed out that while it is obviously necessary to build public support for the restoration of independence, this effort is futile unless there exists a means by which to convert that public support into a democratic vote. At present, no such means exists. No process is in place or in prospect which would make that crucial connection between the will of the people and its democratic expression. Without that connection, there is nowhere for a campaign to go.
As a lifelong independence supporter why would I vote for a party committed to a process which I know for certain cannot possibly lead to the free and fair exercise by the Scottish people of their right of self-determination? Why would I not fight to get that party to make a different commitment – to a Manifesto for Independence? Doing so shouldn’t engender the kind of chasm that has been opened up by the GRA ‘debate’. To the extent that it has done so this is entirely because the proponents of procrastination and the Section 30 process flatly refuse to explain how the latter will work or how the former can possibly work to our advantage. Instead, they demand that we have faith in the SNP leadership. Faith has no place in politics. It cannot be a substitute for sound reasons. Nor can the demand for faith substitute for rational argument.
Those of us exerting pressure on the SNP to adopt a new approach – to reframe the whole constitutional issue – are accused of ‘causing division’. This is totally wrong and horribly unjust. The division already exists. As division will always exist so long as people are free to think for themselves and free to express their reasonably held views. We are not creating division any more than those who hold a different view are. The two views exist. Like any other difference of opinion these opposing views must compete in the arena of democratic politics. This is how we do it in democracies. But both combatants must be willing to engage; and engage under the same set of rules – democratic rules.
That is not what is happening in the dispute about how the fight to restore Scotland’s independence should best proceed. On what I shall refer to as ‘my side’ – the anti-Section 30 side – there is every willingness and total readiness to debate the matter in a reasonable and rational manner. But when we try we are told only that we must accept the ‘plan’ adopted by the SNP leadership for no other reason than that it is the ‘plan’ adopted by the party leadership. That is not a good enough reason! And I sincerely hope it never will be!
I shall say no more on this for the moment other than that I am perfectly willing to debate the respective merits of the different views on how best to approach the constitutional issue. But if the proponents of a waiting strategy and the Section 30 process refuse to engage then I see no reason why this should prevent me continuing to argue my case in whatever way I can. Ordering me to desist won’t work. Ever!
My final comments on Richard Walker’s article relate to three points he makes in the one paragraph. Two are dubious claims at best. The other is a statement of the obvious. I have highlighted the relevant text and will deal with them briefly and in reverse order.
Of course there are – and probably should be – disagreements about tactics, but most of these revolve around Westminster’s response to a whacking SNP majority in May next year. We’ve got to achieve that majority first. The pandemic is making an already difficult task even trickier, but none the less the First Minister has placed independence at the heart of the May election campaign and – crucially – at the heart of rebuilding of our country when the pandemic recedes. No-one will be in any doubt that a vote for the SNP is an explicit vote for indyref2 and will be understood in the UK and beyond as exactly that.
Contrary to what Richard claims, many will doubt the validity of an election posing as a referendum. Or at least they will pretend to do so. A pretence which will be easy to justify simply by reference to all the other things that the election is about. Mostly, the things the British parties chose to talk about in preference to cooperating with the SNP in making the vote entirely or even mainly about a new referendum. They will create doubt. And, as we know from the 2014 referendum, that is all they need to do.
And so what if a vote for the SNP – even a massive vote – is understood in the rest of the UK to be a vote for “indyref2”? Why would anybody suppose this would be any better respected by the British political elite than the countless previous expressions of Scotland’s democratic will that have been treated with casual contempt by the British state?
The extent to which the vote in next year’s Holyrood elections is effective in taking forward Scotland’s cause depends in large part on the nature of Westminster’s response. But not entirely. Other factors include, rather self-evidently, the size of the vote. But it also depends very much on exactly what that vote mandates. Richard claims Nicola Sturgeon has “placed independence at the heart of the May election campaign”. I can assure him that I am not alone in doubting that claim. It very much depends on whether we a re persuaded by what she said in her address to conference – which I have reviewed in a piece conveniently titled How can I be sure?; or whether we go by what she said in a radio interview given in the morning of that same day – dissected here by Stu Campbell.
Notwithstanding these doubts, Richard is unquestionably right about one thing – we must ensure a “whacking SNP majority in May next year. We’ve got to achieve that majority first”. Earlier I said I needed a reason to vote in a particular way. I will not vote on faith alone. Or at all. There’s more than one reason to inundate the ballot boxes with votes for the SNP next May. The party’s dubious record on the constitution battle notwithstanding, and despite doubts about the approach being taken to that issue by the leadership, there are still more than adequate reasons for voting en masse for the SNP.
In the first place, it is bound to serve Scotland’s cause in the longer term (longer being very short in this context) even if the SNP’s Plan A holds out no prospect whatever of serving that cause. Voting for the SNP is still the most effective way we have of voting for independence. Maybe not the only way. But definitely the way that cannot be easily ignored. The way that makes that support for independence most explicit. More importantly perhaps, voting SNP is the best way to ensure that the British parties remain as no more than squatters in our Parliament. That the remain powerless.
And the plain truth of the matter is that whatever your policy agenda; whatever your ideology; whatever your feeling about personalities and positions within the party, there simply is no other viable or even credible contender for forming a government. Regrettable as it may be, the SNP is the only party fit to govern at this time. This is not a situation of the party’s making. It’s not the SNP’s fault that other parties – and particularly the British ones – have rendered themselves incapable of providing an effective administration even if they could get enough people to vote for them.
I’ll keep on trying to ensure that the SNP goes into the 2021 Scottish Parliament on a Manifesto for Independence. But even should this effort fail, I’ll still have overwhelming reasons to vote SNP at every opportunity.
And that is a good positive note on which to finish.