Protocol dictates that I congratulate Mike Russell on his appointment as political director of the SNP’s independence unit. Honesty makes me wonder how long it will be until he resigns in doubtless well-concealed frustration and despair. The embittered facetiousness born of my own frustration and despair prompts the observation that if history is to be our guide the job won’t be unduly demanding.
None of which should be taken as suggesting that I don’t have great respect for Mike Russell. I have long thought of him as something of a slumbering giant among the party leadership. I sense a restrained passion in the man which has been held in check by the limitations that come with being in government. I had lately gained the impression that he was not entirely happy with the approach to the constitutional issue insisted upon by Nicola Sturgeon. In those moments when I allow my imagination a long leash I envisaged him using his retirement to speak his own mind on the matter. A reverie which even him taking on the role of President of the SNP – which would tend to gag the incumbent in much the same way as is the case with cabinet responsibility.
To this day I remain unconvinced that Mike Russell was the author of the party’s route map to a referendum, which was published in January. The ludicrous ’11-point plan’ as it came to be called had all the hallmarks of one of those ‘initiatives’ hastily cobbled together as a sop to those in the party who have lost patience with Sturgeon’s dreadful dithering. If this is the SNP’s route map to a referendum then the party is seriously disoriented. Most of the map is blank. The one thing that looks a wee bit like direction doesn’t have enough detail to be of any use. Basically, it just says we will go to a referendum even if it is somewhat difficult. It doesn’t set out clearly the steps that will take us there. The absence of intellectual rigour in the predominantly pointless ’11-point plan’ never seemed to me like the product of Mike Russell’s mind.
Of course, I could be wrong. It is perfectly possible that I have misread the man. He may be just another Sturgeon loyalist unwilling to so much as question her approach to the constitutional issue. An approach which might be characterised as always looking as if you’re approaching while never actually getting any closer. If the route map is as opaque as the party’s financial management then it is easy to claim that you’re headed in the right direction and making great strides. It could well be that Mike Russell is in complete accord with this non-approach. I guess we’ll find out over the months, weeks or days that he remains in post as political director of the party’s independence unit.
Whatever hope I may have that Mike Russell might use his new position to inject some urgency into the fight to restore Scotland’s independence is very considerably diminished by the announcement of his appointment being juxtaposed with comment from an academic furiously peddling the ‘Pusillanimous Procrastinator’ line favoured by Sturgeon. Dr Alex Smith, a Senior Leverhulme Research Fellow and Assistant Professor in Sociology at Warwick University, was called upon to lend weight to the rote response from a spokesperson for the First Minister who said in part,
As the First Minister made clear to Boris Johnson in the wake of the election result, a referendum is now a matter of when not if, and it is our intention to hold it within the first half of this parliamentary term, when it is safe to do so.
Forgive me, but I’m too long in the tooth to be taken in by a supposedly clear statement of intent which has embedded within it the excuse for not following through on the stated intention. All too many people in the independence movement mindlessly accept the implied assertion that it is unsafe to hold a referendum sooner rather than at some undefined – and undefinable – point in the future. All to few question this assertion. Only a relatively tiny minority of Yes activists demand evidence that holding a referendum is unsafe when holding an election isn’t. What is the nature of this danger that it precludes the exercise of our right of self-determination? What kind of danger is it that is inherent to the holding of a referendum but not an overwhelming consideration in relation to other activities? Why is it that – with appropriate but perfectly feasible precautions – we can have a football tournament but not a plebiscite on the most important question facing Scotland at this time?
The only half-sensible response to this that I’ve managed to elicit is that getting a decisive Yes vote in the referendum depends crucially on lots of ‘unsafe’ face-to-face communication. This reflects the utter conviction within the SNP that the only worthwhile campaigning methods are canvassing and leafleting. If you’re not canvassing and leafleting on behalf of the party you are deemed to be doing nothing for Scotland’s cause. My own view is that the less face-to-face interaction with voters there is the better it will be for the outcome of this still hypothetical referendum. That’s because pretty much all of that communication will involve attempts to answer unanswerable questions while wearing a party-issue ‘positive’ smile.
The ‘Sturgeon Doctrine’ which insists on inviting the involvement of and interference from a foreign government in an interminably postponed exercise that rightly belongs exclusively to the people of Scotland, also proposes a Yes campaign strategy which as closely as possible replicates that of the 2014 referendum. No recognition of the extent to which the political environment has changed while the pusillanimous procrastination continued. No lessons learned from the previous campaign. The SNP’s strategy for a constitutional referendum campaign is to conduct it as if it were a an election campaign on behalf of the SNP. Hence the ease with which the whole campaign was diverted by British Nationalists into the realm of policy rather than focusing on the constitutional question.
But this is ground that has been covered comprehensively and repeatedly in earlier articles. I can no longer put off examining the statement from Dr Alex Bell. It makes for painful reading. See if you can guess which SNP MP came to mind as I read this.
The question some of the people who really argue for the referendum taking place sooner rather than later need to ask themselves is – what happens if the Yes camp loses a second time?
If they lose in this context, it really will be a once in a generation thing. There won’t be a third referendum in five years’ time or anything like that.
The question asked in the first paragraph could be asked at any time. It makes sense for any political campaign to plan for losing. But they must not plan on losing. The plan Dr Smith speaks of involves making any loss as devastating as possible. Making it not just a vote against ending the Union but a vote to forfeit our right of self-determination for some period of time that British Nationalists will happily define on our behalf. I cannot claim Dr Smith’s certified expertise in the realm of politics. But I know for certain that it is a very bad idea to give away more than you have lost. Even if the political and practical reality is that there cannot be another referendum “in five years’ time or anything like that” our right of self-determination is not affected and no Scottish politician should ever suggest that it could be. The only acceptable answer to any question about when it might be appropriate to hold another referendum is when the people decide. It doesn’t matter how many referendums are held ot how frequent they are, the right of self-determination doesn’t wear out.
Dr Smith refers to “this context”. But there’s always a context. Given the nature of the British state that context will always involve obstacles being put in the way of the process by which Scotland’s independence will be restored. If it’s not whatever “this context” is then it’ll be another equally hostile and problematic context. A serious political campaign looks to devise strategies for surmounting the obstacles and overcoming the hostility. A strategy which postpones action until a more amenable context arises is a plan to lose by default.
The ludicrousness of the ‘Sturgeon Doctrine’ as expounded by Dr Smith is made plain by his remark statement that “one of the problems the SNP will face is that when the pandemic is over there will be people who will be wary of the turmoil caused by Brexit and Covid in the past few years”.
I think there is a chance in that circumstance people will vote for a status quo result again.
His expert analysis appears to conclude that we can’t have a referendum sooner rather than later due to the prevailing context and we’ll lose a referendum held later rather than sooner because of what the context has been. The term ‘counsel of despair’ seems hardly adequate to describe this conclusion. It proves the point that once you get into the habit of concocting excuses for inaction then there is no limit to the number or size of the obstacles that can be conjured from the imagination.
Dr Smith continues,
Timing is crucial – and if they blundered ahead now, I think that would be very counter-productive to their overall efforts to win a referendum but also to look like a responsible government dealing with the after effects of a coronavirus pandemic, which has got to be their top priority – and Nicola Sturgeon has said as much.
There is a danger that the support for it ebbs away – so getting the timing right is going to be a very, very tricky calculation.
First off, I know of nobody who is suggesting the SNP/Scottish Government should “blunder ahead”. This is the good doctor promulgating the propaganda of ‘Pusillanimous Procrastinators’ which tries to portray those with an appropriate sense of urgency as rash and reckless. The reality is that we want the SNP/Scottish Government to proceed according to a plan that specifies actions and a time-frame while leaving enough flexibility to deal with a necessarily very fluid situation.
Once again Dr Smith unerringly hits that defeatist note. He agrees with Nicola Sturgeon that the referendum must be postponed until both the coronavirus pandemic and its after-effects are dealt with. Which is precisely the same as saying that it must be indefinitely postponed. Then he warns that any delay is likely to result in support for “it” ebbing away. It’s not entirely clear whether he means support for the referendum or support for independence. If either then he is effectively saying Scotland’s cause is all but certainly lost. We have no choice but to postpone the referendum indefinitely. And postponing the referendum is likely to make it more likely the referendum would be lost. We jist cannae win!
Incidentally, if Dr Smith was referring to support for independence ebbing away while Nicola Sturgeon awaits delivery of the ‘right time’ then he is contradicting one of the core tenets of the ‘Sturgeon Doctrine’; which maintains that the longer Scotland suffers under the heel of the Union the more support for independence will grow. Of course, there is absolutely no evidence for this. We are told that Boris Johnson’s regime has been trying very hard to drive support for independence over the six-going-on-seven years that Sturgeon has done vanishingly little on that front. Yet the polls have not moved in favour of independence by anything greater than the margin of error.
Three years ago, when I was still advocating a referendum in September 2018, I Tweeted,
That is just as relevant and true now. It will be true tomorrow. It will always be true. The right time has to be made from whatever is to hand. It does not come ready-assembled. No matter when the referendum is, campaigners will be required to deal with a “context” that is inevitably hostile. Given the British political elite’s determination to preserve the Union at any cost to Scotland, it is safe to assume that the longer the referendum is delayed the more hostile and problematic that context will get. The ‘Sturgeon Doctrine’ takes no account of the form and imminence of the British Nationalist threat. The British government has already started a process euphemistically called ‘rolling back devolution’; more accurately regarded as imposing direct rule from London. Does anybody really believe that this effort will be put on hold while Nicola Sturgeon dithers and delays? Is it not much more likely that this effort to dismantle our democracy will be stepped up over the time Sturgeon wants to allow?
A final word from Dr. Smith.
… what would people make of Nicola Sturgeon if she started banging on about independence just as the Delta variant comes in and causes a third or fourth wave of this virus? I think that would sound politically pretty hollow.
Perhaps they’d think she was no less determined and adept as all the other national leaders who have managed to multitask during the pandemic. Perhaps people are already wondering why Scotland is always the exception. Why is it that Scotland’s aspirations must be put aside in the light of this or that or any significant development lying outwith our control? The ‘Sturgeon Doctrine’ so effectively conveyed by Dr Smith maintains that now cannot be the time so long as others or blind fate are saying now is not the time. Nothing is ever done so long as there is someone to suggest that doing it might be “counter-productive”. And there is always somebody ready to make that argument. There is no resolve. No determination. No tenacity. To be at all assertive is to be impolitic. Be positive! Be patient! Make concessions! Make compromises. Speak softly and carry a white flag!
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