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.