Perhaps Nicola Sturgeon will listen when John Curtice tells the SNP they need to fire up the independence campaign. She has turned an arrogantly and obdurately deaf ear to the pleas and demands of the Yes movement. When a highly respected polling expert such as Professor Curtice tells her she’s letting support slip away for the want of action on the constitutional issue maybe his voice will be heard when all others have been shut out. Dare we hope?
There are certainly some worrying indications in the Sunday Times poll which prompted John Curtice to issue this caution and advice. Worrying, but not surprising to those who declined to get carried away with the notion that Nicola knows best. Some of us have been warning for a year or more that the poll boost occasioned by the First Minister’s highly competent handling of the public health crisis should not be mistaken for firm support for independence. Some of us foresaw that poll improvement evaporating as the pandemic became old news. We warned that this fresh boost would go stale if not properly exploited – just as opportunities to progress Scotland’s cause have been squandered on so many previous occasions. Where is the momentum the Yes movement had in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 referendum? Where is the further impulse provided by the 2015 election? Where is the ‘Brexit boost’? Where is the ‘Boris boost’. For more than six years we’ve watched and wept as all that energy was allowed to dissipate. Resigned disappointment turned to uncomprehending frustration and then righteous anger as we saw Sturgeon fold one winning hand after another. The entire SNP seems oblivious to the growing anger. Maybe John Curtice can get through to them. Dare we hope?
His message is certainly explicit enough. It’s almost as if the reality of the situation has just been brought home to him by his reading of the poll results. At least he doesn’t seek to blame the setback on those who have long sought to inject the sense of urgency that he now commends to the SNP. We can be sure that the party loyalists will do just that. When the polls show increased support for restoring independence all credit goes to Sturgeon. When there’s a dip it’s all the fault of nefarious bloggers, ineffectual rivals and assorted malcontents. As a scientist, Professor Curtice takes a more dispassionate and therefore more realistic view. He has a very good understanding of the political dynamics that polls seek to identify, measure and track. Those party loyalists who have shouted down all dissenting voices would do well to heed the good professor’s words. Dare we hope?
Let’s suppose our hopes are realised. Let’s suppose Professor Curtice has provided the jolt needed to kick Sturgeon into action. Let’s suppose his words actually get through to her and her colleagues in the party and the government. Let’s suppose that at least some of those party loyalists are awakened to the need for urgency and the poverty of the ‘Sturgeon Doctrine’. Am I content? Should I be? Should we then regard the problem of the SNP’s failed approach to the constitutional issue as solved? I’m afraid not.
For the past while I have been troubled by the thought that it is not enough to persuade Sturgeon out of what has all the appearance of complacent lethargy. It’s not just a matter of getting her to actually do something. In fact, we might come to regret convincing her to make an effort on behalf of Scotland’s cause if that effort is as seriously misguided as is suggested by the ‘Sturgeon Doctrine’. It is entirely possible that the something she does is worse than the nothing she’s been doing. It’s not enough that we have a referendum. It must be the right referendum. It’s not enough that the SNP launch a fresh independence campaign. It must be the right campaign. As things stand, we can expect neither from a Sturgeon-led party or government.
It doesn’t matter too much that John Curtice thinks “the party needs to embark on a campaign to persuade more Scots of the merits of independence”. It matters a great deal if Nicola Sturgeon imagines this is all that’s required. What we glean from statements by Nicola Sturgeon, Mike Russell and others is that were the SNP to launch a fresh campaign now it would be an attempt to replicate as precisely as may be possible the campaign of ten years ago. There is no sign of any fresh thinking. In fact, the SNP leadership has exhibited a strong aversion to fresh thinking of any kind. In a manner all too familiar to non-partisan observers, the SNP leadership has meekly accepted the British state’s framing of the issue as independence being something Scotland must qualify for – with the British political elite both setting and marking the tests.
As with the campaign, so with the referendum itself. Just as the SNP leadership has without any evident reflection embraced the framing of the constitutional issue which presents the Union as ‘normal’ and independence as a risky enterprise that must be justified, so they have assumed the submissive position that the referendum must comply with British rules. Worst of all, they have conceded without resistance or reluctance that the British state is entitled to an influential role in Scotland’s exercise of our right of self-determination. Action taken on this basis is bound to have regrettable effects and unfortunate consequences.
To date, the main purpose of those who reject the ‘Sturgeon Doctrine’ has been getting the Scottish Government to act. For some of those dissenting voices – and to some extent for all of them – the aim has been to overcome the hyper-cautious inertia and self-satisfied lassitude that has left us no closer to restoring Scotland’s independence today than in 2011. We must now stress that this alone is not enough. We must be mindful of the urgent need to reframe not only the independence campaign but the entire constitutional issue. We must be aware that this is not going to happen if Sturgeon et al are left to their own devices. They must be required to rethink the approach to the constitutional issue which has so self-evidently and so woefully failed by all but the self-serving standards of professional politicians intent on preserving their status and power.
Above all, we must not allow Sturgeon to compromise the sovereignty of the people of Scotland as will inevitably be the case if she is permitted to not only tolerate but invite British interference in a matter that is rightfully for the people of Scotland alone. The referendum must be entirely made and managed in Scotland. Sturgeon must be made to acknowledge this. She must repudiate the Section 30 process as an illegitimate constraint on Scotland’s right of self-determination.
The SNP must launch a fresh independence campaign. But it must be fresh. It must take due account of a reality which has changed dramatically since the first referendum. It must be a campaign which takes the lessons of that earlier effort and combines them with new thinking to create a campaign for today rather than simply reusing the strategy and tactics that were deemed appropriate a decade ago.
A rethought campaign implies a reimagined referendum and vice versa. Together, they constitute a major reframing of the whole constitutional issue and an explicit rejection of the framing promulgated by the apparatus of British propaganda. This task should have been undertaken several years ago. That it wasn’t is a failure for which Nicola Sturgeon and her associates should be held to account at some point. But not today! Today, it is enough that they act. So long as they do it right.
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