If the people of Scotland are to vote for a new referendum the only way they can do that is by voting for a party that has a clear and credible commitment to a new referendum in its manifesto. We have seen in the past what happens when the electorate votes for a new referendum on the basis of a manifesto promise which is hedged with qualifiers, disclaimers, caveats and conditions. We have seen how adept Nicola Sturgeon is at seizing on any excuse to put off the confrontation with the British state, which despite everything that the British government has done over the past decade, she still seems to imagine can be avoided.
It can’t! To be credible a manifesto commitment to a new referendum must acknowledge this fact.
Of course, the SNP’s manifesto hasn’t been published. It may not even have been written yet. But there are abundant clues as to its probable content in various statements from Nicola Sturgeon, Mike Russell and others. We also now have the draft Referendum Bill, which provides conclusive evidence of the SNP leadership’s thinking on the constitutional issue.
Or should I say lack of thinking. Because all the evidence available strongly suggests that their ‘thinking’ hasn’t changed since 2012. The very powerful impression is that Sturgeon and her inner circle are proceeding on the basis that a new referendum can and need only replicate the referendum held in 2014. They seem to suppose that a new referendum can be consensual. They appear to imagine that they might get genuine cooperation from the British political elite. There is no indication that they have learned any lessons from the first referendum. There is nothing to suggest that they’ve taken due account of the massive changes which have occurred since 2014.
The two things which most clearly show this are the continuing obsession with the Section 30 process and the fact that the Referendum Bill proposes to use the same question as was used on the 2014 ballot paper – ‘should Scotland be an independent country?’.
Sturgeon’s followers might respond that it’s different this time because the SNP has promised a referendum even if a Section 30 order is refused. I concede that this does hint at a small concession to the increasing numbers of people who insist that the Section 30 process should be repudiated as an illegitimate constraint on Scotland’s right of self-determination. A very small and very unconvincing and totally inadequate concession.
Enough has been said previously about the compelling reasons for renouncing the Section 30 process. The fact that the SNP leadership is now tentatively acknowledging that a referendum might go ahead without the gracious permission and generous cooperation of the British Prime Minister represents some progress. But far from enough. To be convincing this must be accompanied by a credible plan for proceeding to a referendum absent the consent of the British state. There is no such plan.
There have been numerous occasions during Nicola Sturgeon’s tenure as leader of the SNP and First Minister when a promise as tenuous and lacking in detail as that which looks like making it into the party’s manifesto has been accepted. Even by an old cynic such as myself. Some still unquestioningly take her word for it when she says she will do what she has to date consistently avoided doing, and which she has previously expressly ruled out doing. Namely, hold a referendum despite Boris Johnson using the veto she legitimises by asking him nicely not to use it. This old cynic has never been one for doing anything unquestioningly. This old cynic may have cut Nicola Sturgeon an extraordinary amount of slack in the past. But this time around this old cynic isn’t about to accept anything other than a solemn, irrevocable undertaking to take specified action within a defined timescale.
If the SNP doesn’t adopt at least the main points of the Manifesto for Independence then I shall be obliged to assume that all the recent rhetoric about a new referendum is of no more worth than all the previous rhetoric, which proved to be absolutely worthless. I shall still vote SNP in May because of the imperative to prevent the British parties seizing power. But for the first time in my life I shall vote SNP with a heavy heart and with no expectation that a victory for the party will be a victory for Scotland’s cause.
I shall vote SNP in the near-certain knowledge that I shall spend the next five years wishing I’d had some alternative.
Painted on – Peter A Bell
I mentioned earlier that there are two very clear signs that the SNP has totally failed to do any planning for a new referendum taking account of lessons learned from the 2014 campaign and the drastically altered political landscape. We have dealt with the Section 30 process. I should briefly explain the second thing – the proposal to ask the same question as was asked in the 2014 referendum – ‘should Scotland be an independent country?’.
The intention to put the same question on the ballot paper, together with countless comments from Sturgeon, Russell and pretty much everyone else in the upper echelons of the party, tells me that the SNP anticipates a campaign that will closely follow the pattern established a decade ago. It tells me that there is no fresh thinking or new ideas. It tells me that there has been no meaningful internal review of the 2014 referendum campaign. Because it is impossible to make even the most cursory analysis of that campaign without being forcefully struck by the need for fresh thinking and new ideas.
I don’t propose to go into great detail here about what analysis of the first Yes campaign suggests should be different next time – should there be a next time. But it is important to recognise the extent to which the question asked defines the form and tenor of the campaign. The options presented on the ballot paper are – or should be – at the core of all campaign planning. Every aspect of the strategy and every tactic deployed has to be defined by the aim of gaining support for one of those options. Or discouraging support for the other option.
The question used in the 2014 referendum made independence the contentious issue. Much is made of the perfectly believable idea that David Cameron only ‘allowed’ the referendum to take place because he expected the anti-independence side to win handsomely. Less is made of the choices that Alex Salmond made on the basis of his expectation that the Yes side would lose. He had every reason to be so pessimistic. This pragmatic pessimism caused – or allowed – him to make choices he might not have made had support for independence not been languishing at around 27%. Accepting this question was quite possibly one of the concessions he made which he might not have allowed had he had any expectation that Yes might win. Or come as close as it did.
I could be wrong about this. I don’t pretend to have any reliable knowledge of the way Alex Salmond’s mind works. I know only what I have been able to deduce from observing the man in action over a number of years. I know him to be a capable orator as well as an adept political operator and strategist. It would be surprising, therefore, if he failed to see how that question advantaged his opponents. Or how it would inevitably shape the campaign.
By making independence the contentious issue the question gave Unionists an easy target to aim their campaign strategy at while freeing them of any need to ‘sell’ or defend their preferred option. The question did not require them to ‘make a case’ for the Union. All they had to do was generate and exaggerate doubts about independence, A straightforward enough task when you have the full power of the British state’s propaganda machine at your disposal.
The Yes campaign, by contrast, was constantly on the defensive and obliged to ‘make the case’ for independence even while that term was being burdened with all manner of negative connotations and associations. Neither could the Yes side mount a comprehensive, coordinated and cohesive campaign in favour of the Yes option because there was then as there is now no single definition of what independence means. The Yes side thus ended up conducting a proliferation of different campaigns each according to some ‘vision’ of a future Scotland embraced by this or that group.
Nobody on the Yes side was engaged in the fight that matters most to all on the Yes side. The fight to end the Union. Because the Union wasn’t the thing in the question. The question framed independence as the disputed option leaving the Union as the status quo option. The campaigns were framed accordingly.
There is a great deal more which could be said about how the Yes campaign strategy in the first referendum could have been better. Which is not to say it was a poor campaign. In many ways the mistakes are only visible with hindsight and only identified as such because we view them through the prism of our time. Which only serves to underline the point that our time is different – markedly different – from the circumstances in which the first referendum campaign took place. This should lead any thinking person to question whether the campaign strategy that was appropriate in that context might be appropriate in a dramatically altered context. And yet this question doesn’t appear to have occurred to anybody in the SNP leadership. Or if it has they’ve been too afraid to ask it.
What it all boils down to is the fact that the promises of a new referendum being offered by the SNP are just not credible. There is simply no reason to suppose that to whatever extent the party has a plan, it could possibly lead to a free and fair exercise by the Scottish people of our right of self-determination. Never has there been greater need for us to do so. Scotland’s predicament is perilous. The very identity of Scotland as a nation is under threat. The process of dismantling our democracy is already underway. Yet there is no sense of this urgency in the SNP’s approach to the constitutional issue. The SNP leadership’s attitude borders on complacency. Despite having had seven years in which to consider the matter, their preparation for a new referendum is lackadaisical to the point of being non-existent.
One of the big questions yet to be answered is that concerning how this could have come about. How did the SNP leadership get away with this half-arsed approach to the constitutional issue for so long? Why was this not challenged before? How is it possible that we can be going into arguably the most important election in Scotland’s history, the democratic event which will determine our nation’s future as much or more than did the 2014 referendum, with the ‘party of independence’ so ill-prepared for and seemingly ill-disposed towards, doing what is required?
It’s almost as if Scotland’s cause is an afterthought for Nicola Sturgeon. It’s as if her commitment to that cause is merely painted on. And the paint’s beginning to fade and peel.
19 thoughts on “Painted on”
Two things in response to your excellent article. I contacted my SNP candidate and asked him if he had signed up to the Manifesto for Independence and since his answer was that independence is his top priority, I gather he hasn’t!
Secondly, I read an article in the Guardian about this ‘Festival’ in 2022 and there in the last paragraph is Fiona Hyslop giving support. Apparently some group in Glasgow has already signed up. Their contribution seems to be the promotion of some sort of community allotments. I’ve nothing against such an idea but not in the context of an event which is designed to ‘bring us all together’.
Like you I shall vote SNP in the constituency vote but haven’t yet seen the list so am not sure where that vote will go. I remember in an election way back, Neal Ascherson was on the list for the Lib Dems and since he is one of my all time heroes I gave that vote to him (and would again if he were standing!)
LikeLiked by 3 people
Food for thought. Your analysis of the question on a ballot should be shouted loud.
Two things come to mind.
I do not believe that the current SNP is aware that conflict with Westminster will be inevitable on the road to independence. They may be simply politically naive and indifferent to power, presumably because of this obsession with identity politics. The alternative is that they have been intimidated by it, knobbled already and offered a deal by which any future Scottish state is intimately wound up with the existing systems of sinecure and patronage that have help the empire together for three centuries and the kept same bloodlines in the keeps for a millennium. The fact that the government is happy to fund rewilding projects in inner cities while sticking its tongue up the arse of the field sports lobby and allowing the perpetuation of medieval systems of land management, says quite enough.
Second. The SNP is not the independence movement. Once it was the vanguard party, but now it is the party of government. The independence movement is much greater, part of history, and it will not go away.
LikeLiked by 4 people
I am not a member of the SNP (nearly joined but then AS stepped down as FM and I decided to wait and see what happened…) but have always voted for them. I am seek about the May election but will take my lead from people like you who know better than me.
I really do question the intelligence and ability and in-house administration and structure of the SNP party though. Those of you who are members will surely know if there are things like Lessons Learned, Risk Management and Project Management. Processes that help you move forwards…if you want to that is.
LikeLiked by 5 people
Best not to ask about the internal structures and procedures of the SNP. Bit of a touchy subject.
LikeLiked by 2 people
There’s been a lot of speculation about why the SNP hierarchy would want to discredit Alex Salmond. Some say it was to prevent him returning to politics. An alternative view is that an unencumbered AS would have been highly critical of the SNP’s ‘strategy’ towards independence in much the same vein as this article. His voice would have commanded a great deal of attention and therefore dismay among the SNP top-brass.
LikeLiked by 4 people
LikeLiked by 1 person
Alex Salmond was initially intending holding a referendum in the second half of his second term in office; around 2016. That is about 9 years after coming to power promising a referendum. He wanted to do this to demonstrate to (not just lecture) the Scottish people we are capable of governing ourselves successfully. This is exactly the same strategy of the current SNP government and polls seem to show it has been working only 7 years in.
Salmond was bounced into having a referendum he didn’t want when he didn’t want it. This notion that Salmond would have done things differently to Sturgeon, and acquiesced to the demands of the bloggers that he hold a referendum when they demanded, it is not borne out by facts. The referendum Sturgeon will deliver will be delivered in a shorter time scale than Salmond intended, when she wants it …. and not bounced into it by Westminster as Salmond was.
The news today of AS Alba Party will be a blow to the SNP elites.
I’m not particularly delighted either. My thinking on the matter will probably be today’s article.
Peter you have summed up so eloquently what I’ve been trying to tell fellow members and friends for months. Like you I will hold my nose very firmly and vote SNP 1 and 2 but I have informed the party that if nothing meaningful comes from yet another mandate very quickly then I shall resign from the party and I might even have to consider leaving my homeland with a very heavy heart before it’s suffocated from within by a unionist cabal.
LikeLiked by 3 people
Inciteful, focused and well argued as usual, I’m also quite enjoying your dulcet tones in podcast form. It does not make for easy reading (or listening) but this requires a wider audience and I will do my bit to spread the word. I also attended the Now Scotland meeting on Sunday and was dismayed by the lack of clarity, direction and focus and look forward to your comments on this. I also feel time is running out.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you for your kind comments. And for sharing the articles. That is appreciated even more than cash donations.
I’ve put off writing at length about the Now Scotland Assembly. I came away from it as you did – dismayed. Very dismayed. That was probably our last hope of uniting the Yes movement. But it has gone the same way as so many other groups and organisations. If somebody isn’t keeping tight control then the organisation falls victim to factions seeking to use it as a vehicle for their own agendas.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I attended but came away thinking of it as just another talking shop. Parts of it felt like the sort of workshops we had before the first referendum telling us how to talk to people. I didn’t feel that it got us any further forward but I think on balance I would still attend if they had further meetings. It’s really that ‘any port in a storm’ moment!
It looks like the forthcoming election will simply be a means to effect a holding action:
Keep the British away from devolved power but no advance towards nation state status.
So much like the last 6.5 years.
LikeLiked by 3 people
“It looks like the forthcoming election will simply be a means to effect a holding action”
Yes, but they will be no such “holding action” by Westminster under the Tories. The SNP have deceived themselves into believing that they can rule Scotland and be “Partners” with England and Westminster: if only they manage an “accord” i.e let Westminster dictate minor issues such as Fiscal and Foreign Policy, then the SNP can administrate the little fiefdom forever and they can all quaff Pims together at the queens garden party where everything will be splendid.
Its a dangerous delusion which has lead to them conceding any independence of though and action and furthermore sees them attempt to act as policeman and supress any radicalism within their own ranks.
That’s what we have seen with the attack on bloggers and online supporters who have up till now kept this movement going against the massed corporate press allied the forces of union. The SNP now reckon these are past their sell by date; are mere undesirable troublemakers rocking the boat but of course are quite fortunately expendable now that they have paid the corporate shills a multimillion pound bung.
-Its a seriously dangerous move because they are in the process of alienating an entire tranche of their own support and it’s utterly counterproductive because it seriously underestimates the duplicity of the forces against them: they don’t understand the nature of the beast that is the corporate media nor its eternal partner the “Perfidious Albion” that is Westminster.
-There’s nothing wrong with being in a dwam and enjoying it a little but the truth in this case is they are asleep at the wheel and we are the passengers.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I’ll be unenthusiastically voting SNP in May, if only to try and make sure they have a majority in Holyrood and therefore to prevent britnat Westminster from using the lack of a SNP majority as an excuse to refuse Section30 again. The same excuse won’t be available to the SNP too.
LikeLiked by 1 person
”I shall vote SNP in the near-certain knowledge that I shall spend the next five years wishing I’d had some alternative.”
Why bother to vote for them Peter? Give yourself a rest. Don’t depress yourself for another five years or so, to the same extent as you have depressed many others who have visited your so-called pro-indy site. Loll back in your armchair, put your feet up, pour yourself a drink and just ruminate, with a real sense of satisfaction, about joining the people that you’ve absolutely put off of voting for the SNP over the last couple of years or so (as I’m sure that you do on a regular basis). In other words put off of voting for independence. And hey still putting others off with that last sentence alone. That’s not good for your state (less set) of mind. It doesn’t help the independence cause. Take it easy now, bail out and just go with the flow. Life is too short to get your knickers in as much of a twist as your convoluted mindset.
There was an referendum on independence quite recently. Stable government cannot be conducted in an atmosphere of perpetual clamouring for something that is not gong to happen.
This is all explained in this book: “The Justice Factory: Can the Rule of Law Survive in 21st Century Scotland?” (Ian Mitchell, 2020) The Foreword was written by Lord Hope of Craighead, ex-Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court and the Professor of Public Law who is author “Constitutional Law of Scotland” wrote the Introduction to Part II. It is not a party political argument, and has been endorsed by both Ian (“Stone of Destiny”) Hamilton QC and Adam Tomkins, the Tory MSP who is also Professor of Constitutional law in the University of Glasgow.
It is an as yet untold story, but a very, very important. You can support the cause of ridding Scotland of political haters by circulating the book as widely as you can. Details here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1981993401?ref_=pe_3052080_397514860
Plugging your own book?