In what looks very much like a characteristically belated, panicked and inadequate response to increasing criticism of lack of action on the constitutional issue, the SNP has released the above video with a level of fanfare that certainly isn’t warranted by the content – or lack thereof. The Tweet promoting the video opens with a statement of the obvious – “The power to build a better, independent Scotland is in your hands” – before promising instructions on “how you can help @theSNP and @YesScot get the message out there”. My reaction is mixed.
My first thought was that if I didn’t know better, this could be mistaken for the launch of an actual campaign such as might precede an actual referendum. It isn’t, of course. There is no campaign. There is no referendum. We are assured, however, that the party has started thinking about such things. If I didn’t know better, this might be reassuring despite being several years late. (Arguably several decades late.) It isn’t, of course. Because all indications are that content of this “thinking” is as shallow and flimsy as the content of the video. The latter being no more than an SNP recruitment drive. The former being limited to an attempt to replicate the first independence referendum.
The SNP’s approach to the constitutional issue – what I have termed the ‘Sturgeon doctrine’ – is centred on the Section 30 process and the conviction that a rehash of the Yes campaign for the first referendum is the best way to win. It is an approach totally uninformed by the lessons of the 2014 campaign and the dramatic changes to the political environment that have taken place over the past decade. The Sturgeon doctrine is horribly – perhaps catastrophically – misguided in a way that reflects the dearth of strategic thinking in the ranks of the current SNP leadership. However, that’s not the subject of this article. Not directly, anyway.
My considered response to the video (see above) was deepening concern about the way in which it exposes the SNP’s capture of the Yes movement. There is an attempt to present them as separate entities. But this is, for myself at least, entirely unconvincing. What comes across is Yes being a wholly owned subsidiary and brand of the SNP. Which in fact it is. We already knew this. What the video reveals is the extent to which the SNP regards the Yes movement as serving the party. With little or no sense that either is intent on serving Scotland’s cause.
In a way this linking of the party of independence and the independence movement is no more than what I had hoped would happen. One of the unfortunate errors of the first referendum campaign was the amount of effort many Yes activists put into flaunting their non-SNP credentials. This is just one of the ways in which the Yes movement allowed itself to be manipulated by the British propaganda machine. Better Together, the British parties and the British government constantly made out that the Yes movement was no more than a front for the SNP. This was done – partly, at least – in the hope that the Yes movement would react by seeking to distance itself from the party allowing the British media to proclaim divisions in the Yes camp and, more importantly, playing into the portrayal of the SNP as unworthy and untouchable.
The SNP itself also provided the No campaign with just what it wanted by largely shunning the non-SNP parts of the independence movement. Where there should have been unity of purpose, there was a disconnect which undoubtedly weakened the campaign. Although it must be said that this was compensated for to a considerable extent by the Yes movement’s phenomenal work-rate and sheer weight of numbers. This tended to conceal the underlying failure to create a functioning link between two essential parts of the Yes campaign machine. The SNP and the Yes movement did not work in harmony to anything like the extent they should.
That’s me harking back to the first referendum campaign again. But only in order to stress the point that the situation has changed since 2013/14. The Yes movement has changed. The SNP has changed. Neither has changed in ways that benefit the fight to restore Scotland’s independence. The party has become insular, autocratic and dogmatic. The movement has succumbed to the cancer of factionalism. It is not now possible to create the kind of Yes campaign we had back then. A campaign which, flawed as it was, nonetheless achieved great success. The conditions which made that possible no longer exist. And yet the SNP appears to be pinning all hope on getting the band back together. When the SNP talks of revitalising or reawakening the Yes movement they are referring to a replication of the Yes movement as it was at its peak during the latter stages of the referendum campaign and its immediate aftermath. The time to do this was six years ago. That opportunity was squandered. A now familiar story.
It is not only the fact that the SNP leadership seems to suppose they can just pull a 2013/14-style Yes army out of cold storage and put it to work on a largely unchanged campaign. It is the way they’re going about it that troubles me greatly. The way the party is seeking to absorb the Yes brand into the SNP identity is certain to alienate many potential Yes activists. It is a recipe for even more division in the Yes camp. And that is something we can well do without.
My hope was that the Yes movement would unite to form an organisation capable of devising its own campaign while reclaiming the SNP as a tool of Scotland’s cause. It is easy to understand why the party might want to resist this. It exhibits all the symptoms of an organisation which has come to serve itself rather than the purpose for which it was created. A fate that awaits all large organisations and which can only be forestalled by astute and effective management. Capture of the Yes movement in the manner evident from the video is just what we would expect of an organisation which regarded as inimical to its interests the activities and even the very existence of a campaigning organisation outwith its control. If such inconveniences cannot be crushed, the next best solution is to absorb them. To subsume and smother them.
From the perspective of Scotland’s cause, this is a seriously bad development. Unfortunately, the Sturgeon doctrine seems set in stone. The time to challenge it was prior the May election. There was a very real possibility of making it the ‘independence election’. The Yes movement squandered that chance just as surely as the SNP has squandered a catalogue of opportunities since 2014. What this means is that even if we get a referendum and get it in time to rescue Scotland from the British Nationalist ‘One Nation’ project, it will not be the free and fair referendum we require and the campaign strategy will be wrong in practically every way that matters. My hope was that the Yes movement would come together to create an organisation capable of running the campaign that the SNP won’t run. The SNP’s capture of the Yes brand must be seen as a move to prevent this.
The melding of the SNP and Yes brands implies a single campaign under the party’s direction and therefore informed by that Sturgeon doctrine. It makes it very difficult – perhaps impossible – to have a distinct Yes campaign which might compensate for the anticipated deficiencies and defects of a campaign designed and managed entirely by Nicola Sturgeon and her closest allies. Any attempt to create a discrete Yes campaign will necessarily mean that there are two – only one of which will be ‘official’. It is even conceivable that the SNP might resort to the courts in order to prevent any other organisation using the Yes brand. This is not as unthinkable as it should be.
Should this deter us? As you might expect from the individual who coined the phrase ” Less compliance! More defiance! “, I say no! We should not be deterred by the SNPs attempt to usurp the Yes movement. The battle-cry of “Less compliance! More defiance!” was intended to urge the SNP/Scottish Government to be less respectful of the authority asserted by Westminster and more ready to assert the authority of the Parliament actually elected by the people of Scotland. It is a measure of how much the situation has changed that we must now contemplate demanding less respect for the SNP leadership and greater readiness to defy its edicts.
I do not doubt that there are many thousands of Yes activists out there who are eager to be less compliant and more defiant. I know there is a significant part of the Yes movement which rejects the Sturgeon doctrine and demands greater urgency, guarantees of a free and fair referendum and a campaign strategy formulated with the lessons of the 2014 referendum firmly in mind. The problem, as ever, is unifying all the factions and re-engaging all the disaffected individuals. If anybody has ideas on that score, I’d love to hear them.
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