Three weeks ago I published an article under the title Not just any referendum! Not just any campaign! in which I warned – not for the first time – of the lack of fresh thinking on the constitutional issue among the SNP leadership and the need to ensure not only that we get a referendum, but that it is the right referendum with the right campaign. I wrote that article because all indications were that to whatever extent the SNP leadership were considering the constitutional issue at all, their thinking had got no further than an attempt to repeat the 2014 referendum and repeat the same Yes campaign. I wrote,
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 nether from a Sturgeon-led party or government.
Today, all my worst fears are confirmed with the release by the Independence Unit of the ‘independence party’ (No! I don’t get it either!) of a ‘new’ eight-page glossy leaflet which reveals the extent of the work done so far by Michael Russell. Whatever small hope I had that Mr Russell might redeem himself after the ghastly ’11-point plan’ fiasco, that hope has been extinguished. This is the same B-movie script with slightly better production values.
The whole tone of the thing is wrong. Wheedling rather than forceful. Cajoling rather than compelling. Coaxing rather than demanding. Where I wanted to hear anger and assertiveness I hear only a rote delivery of an over-rehearsed spiel. Aside from the now standard references to Brexit and the pandemic, this leaflet could be a reprint of material from seven or eight years ago. There is nothing to seize the reader’s mind. Nothing to inspire. Nothing to lift the flagging spirits of the Yes movement outside the shrinking circle of SNP loyalists who can be relied upon to declare this leaflet some kind of game-changer. It changes nothing.
Mike Russell’s wee brochure reveals one of the principle flaws in the SNP’s approach to the constitutional issue and the referendum and the campaign. They treat the whole thing as if it was an election. The leaflet reads more like an election leaflet than a treatise proclaiming a glorious aspiration. This may not be so surprising when one considers that the SNP has demonstrate a remarkable ability to win elections. It is perhaps to be expected that the party leadership’s first instinct is to do what they know best. But as I explained in a previous article, thinking of the constitutional issue in this way is a mistake.
Due to its very nature, the constitutional issue cannot be dealt with other than in isolation from all other issues. It has to be abstracted from ‘ordinary’ politics because radical constitutional reform is not part of ‘ordinary’ politics. Restoring Scotland’s independence drastically and fundamentally alters what ‘ordinary’ politics is – what we understand by that term. It cannot be dealt with in the context of the ‘ordinary’ politics that it seeks to change. That’s like trying to repair a puncture whilst still riding the bicycle!
What makes this inappropriate mindset all the more frustrating is the fact that Michael Russell seems to get that it is a constitutional issue and not a policy matter. Reading his introduction to the leaflet one might almost expect what follows to be something light the radical reframing of the constitutional issue that is required. Almost! In the first part of his introduction Russell refers to the constitutional issue as “an issue of basic democracy”. He recognises the British Nationalist threat when he writes “he [Boris Johnson] is changing the whole foundation of the UK”.He comes close to expressing the true spirit of Scotland’s cause with the following.
[T]he Prime Minister has revealed that he, and his Tory government, don’t believe the UK to be a partnership between its various nations – but as a way of asserting Westminster control over Scotland.
It’s just unfortunate that he associates this imperative to assert Westminster control over Scotland with the Tory government. How I would have rejoiced had he attributed this imperialistic imperative to the entire British political elite and its clients. The promise of the latter part of the paragraph is regrettably overshadowed by this glimpse of the party political mindset that the SNP bring to the constitutional issue.
I was perplexed and as someone who in a former life has designed a few such leaflets, more than a little irked by the fact that Mike Russell’s introduction is split; with the final paragraphs relegated to page three. To my eye this is just about the ugliest imaginable solution to the perennial problem of too many words for the space available. Given the importance of the words and the fact that editing them down is not an option, my preference would be to increase the space rather to split the piece. But it occurs to me that this may not be clumsy design at all but an editorial choice. Because the tone changes towards the end as the ‘Sturgeon Doctrine’ reasserts itself. The phrase “once the current crisis has passed” gives the game away.
I have always been troubled by the glaring contradiction inherent in presenting the restoration of Scotland’s independence as a democratic imperative whilst simultaneously making action conditional on external factors entirely or mainly outwith the control of the SNP/Scottish Government. How can things like Brexit be both a driver of that imperative and an excuse for delaying action? How can the restoration of Scotland’s independence be both crucial to management of recovery from the pandemic and be postponed indefinitely because of the pandemic? How can the pandemic both an example of what makes the restoration of our independence an urgent necessity and the rationalisation for further delay?
In the first part of his introduction Mike Russell recognises what the British government is intent on doing to Scotland (and the other annexed territories of England-as-Britain). He must be aware that the process of subsuming Scotland in an indivisible and indissoluble ‘Great Britain” is already well-advanced. He must recognise the desperate urgency of our nation’s predicament. And yet he sees fit to put off implementation of the only way of rescuing Scotland from the juggernaut of ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism until a date unknown and unknowable. It’s truly baffling.
But I think I think we see in this leaflet a clue to the ‘reasoning’ behind the awkward contradictions. We will all have seen the view widely expressed on social media that Sturgeon and the SNP leadership don’t really want independence. That they’ve grown comfortable with managing Scotland as a region of the British state and with the rewards of doing so. I don’t buy that. Far less do I accept the other oft-repeated assertion that it’s all about money. When I refer to the “rewards” of acceding to British domination I’m talking about power and status. But I don’t accept the contention that Sturgeon et al are content with the power and status of a devolved administration. The desire for power and status which is an essential part of any effective or successful politician’s makeup, does not stop short of the ultimate prize. If they really were ‘in it for themselves’ then this would tend to make them more eager to restore Scotland’s rather than less. Being the political leader(s) of an independent nation trumps being a devolved administration every time.
The explanation for what my addiction to alliteration bid me brand pusillanimous prevarication on the part of the SNP is far more complicated than mere avarice and ambition. Here, however, we are concerned only with that part of an explanation which relates to the framing of the supposed ‘new’ independence campaign. and that comes back to the matter of the essential difference between a parliamentary election and a constitutional referendum and the SNP’s inability to move away from the former and grasp the latter. They see the pandemic as a valid reason to postpone the formal launch of a new campaign for the same reason they are incapable of devising a genuinely new campaign. They have been unable to set aside the mindset of a political party seeking election so as to make space for the mindset of the vanguard of a cause. Scotland’s cause.
They regard the pandemic as making a new campaign impossible because they think of that campaign the same way they think of the election campaigns they’ve grown accustomed to winning. The see it as being all about doorstepping and canvassing and leafleting and packed town-hall meetings and much glad-handing and baby-kissing and all the things that come to mind when we think of a traditional election campaign. The SNP leadership is stuck in the rut of this electioneering mindset. So much so that they flatly reject even the possibility that this may be inappropriate and work frantically to silence dissenting voices.
There is another of those grotesque contradictions here, however. The SNP say a campaign proper cannot be launched because to their way of thinking that campaign would be no different from an election campaign and involve activities which necessarily breach every precaution against the spread of viral disease. And yet it didn’t stop them holding an actual election. What the hell is going on!? How can the pandemic preclude a campaign identical to that required by an election but not preclude an actual election campaign? I would suggest that the party leadership reconcile the two aspects of this evident contradiction thus; the actual election in May was going to be an easy win and so they could get by with a bare minimum of ‘traditional’ campaigning. A referendum on the other hand is much more problematic and uncertain and so they aren’t prepared to attempt it without being able to rely on traditional methods.
Had the SNP leadership been more amenable to open discussion of campaign strategy then perhaps they could have been persuaded that a new referendum demands a new strategy. A strategy entirely different from that with which they are so fatally familiar – not to say fixated on. Perhaps they could have been made to realise that far from creating conditions which make a new referendum impossible, the pandemic has produced conditions which are almost ideal for the kind of campaign that is needed.
I don’t want to get into a detailed discussion of the appropriate campaign strategy here. Suffice it to say that where a traditional election campaign of the sort envisaged by the SNP involves a ‘scattered’ strategy principally targeting individual voters and particular constituencies and demographics with tailored messages, the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence is, by definition, national. It targets primarily the entire nation The whole electorate. The people of Scotland. Ironically, lockdown created conditions with are if not ideal then certainly very favourable for the kind of campaign that’s required with an online ‘captive audience’ numbering hundreds of thousands. The campaign strategy must be highly focused on the constitutional issue. The core message must be that the Union is wrong for Scotland (and all the nations in theses islands – including England). The default rule must be that nothing is appended to this core message. Any attempt to complicate and dilute this message with matter of policy should be vigorously resisted with insistence that the appendage be justified in terms of the politics of power without referencing the politics of policy.
Does Michael Russell’s leaflet suggest the SNP leadership is minded to adopt this focused mindset? Or does it tell us that they have learned nothing from the first referendum campaign and take no account of the drastically changed political environment? I have reached my own conclusion. Is Mr Russell proposing a campaign to #DissolveTheUnion? Or does what he sets out look more like a campaign to elect the SNP? Judge for yourselves. And by all means let him know what you think.
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