Robin McAlpine’s obsession is policy. Mine is independence. He is intent on making a raft of policy choices and decisions. I am intent on restoring to the Scottish Parliament the power to make those choices and decisions. He envisages a referendum campaign in which the voters are told what independent Scotland will look like and how it will function. I hope for a referendum campaign in which voters are inspired to cast off the Union which denies us the power to make of Scotland what we will.
Robin wants to give the people all the answers. I want the people to have absolute confidence in their capacity to formulate their own answers.
Not that there is anything wrong with preparation. Common Weal has been doing good work on that for years. As have others. All of them regard their product as answers to important questions. In reality they are merely ideas. Not solutions but explorations of possible solutions. I see serious difficulties ahead for a campaign which seeks to persuade people of the need to take back the power to decide while laying before them a prescriptive list of decisions taken on their behalf. If the aim is to reduce uncertainty then I cannot see this being achieved by telling people on the one hand that independence restores to them the ability to choose while on the other hand seeking to reassure them with a prospectus that preempts their choice in a wide range of matters.
Certainty cannot coexist with honesty. If there is to be honesty then everything that purports to be a solid answer has to be hedged around with a plethora of caveats, conditions, reservations, provisos and disclaimers which reflect the fundamental uncertainty of the future. An honest prospectus presented as a catalogue of solutions would be dishonest if it did not feature on every page an advisory stating that nothing in the prospectus limits the capacity of a future democratically elected Scottish Parliament to reject everything in the prospectus.
If the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have the power to overturn every word of the prospectus then what is the point of independence? How could this even be called independence? In what way does this restore power to the sovereign people of Scotland?
By all means do as much preparation as possible in the sense of producing well-developed ideas. But don’t imagine this product can offer any more certainty than Scotland’s Future did in the first referendum campaign. Do it in full awareness that the purpose of the exercise is not to provide conclusive answers, but to promote the confidence which over three hundred years under the Union has drained from Scotland’s people.
It would be a tragic error to seek to provide certainty. Not just because there can be no certainty, but because success would be worse even than failure. Robin portrays the 2013 white paper as a “fudge” cobbled together in haste following the 2011 election. He sees it as being a fudge out of necessity. He doesn’t seem to have considered that it was necessary for it to be a fudge. Only a document that was suitably vague and ambiguous on key points might hope to gain general support across the entire independence movement. I suspect Alex Salmond was an astute enough politician to realise that any proposal which was formulated to satisfy a particular constituency would be sure to attract the ire of another constituency. The solution was to produce a document that was the Tennent’s lager of prospectuses. Not something anyone could love. But something few could actually hate. He reckoned without the ability of righteous radicals and the reactionary right to find something to hate wherever they look.
What Salmond was looking for – hoping for – was that the various and diverse component parts of the Yes movement would eschew quibbles and complaints in order to prioritise the restoration of Scotland’s independence. The aim was to produce a document that most if not all of those factions could support however reluctantly without seriously compromising their principles or moving too far from their positions. As we know, that effort failed. It failed only in part – I would argue a very small part – because of deficiencies and defects in the white paper. It failed to unite the Yes movement mainly because so many in the Yes movement prioritised their own narrow agendas over the restoration of independence. While others simply succumbed to the power of the British propaganda machine.
The British Nationalists could not have won in 2014 without the assistance they got from those in the Yes movement whose support for independence was conditional on being assured that their ‘vision’ would be realised, and those who sought to make the Yes movement a vehicle for their own ideologies and agendas. It would be gratifying to think the guilty parties know who they are. But the determination to make the same mistakes again suggests that no lessons have been learned.
If the restoration of Scotland’s independence has to wait until Robin McAlpine and his ilk contrive a prospectus which both offers certainty and gains the enthusiastic approval of more than half Scotland’s voters then Scotland’s independence is never being restored. Our independence will be restored when we succeed in conveying to voters the sense that they are righting an ancient wrong. They will reject the Union when asked to choose because they have come to realise that it is a gross injustice imposed on Scotland. The imperative of justice is something all can understand and be motivated by.
People will vote Yes when they see the Union for what it is – an anachronism; a gross constitutional anomaly; an imposed and self-perpetuating asymmetry of power which functions to Scotland’s great detriment. And when they have the confidence to do something about it.
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