The closing paragraphs of James Kelly’s analysis of the latest full-scale Scottish poll from Redfield & Wilton Strategies fully explain why we need to be at Holyrood when the Scottish Parliament resumes on the afternoon of Tuesday 31 August to tell the Scottish government that “now is the time”. They show no sign of deciding this for themselves. Or more precisely, Nicola Sturgeon shows no sign of accepting the urgency of Scotland’s predicament and deciding to act.
As the SNP MP Angus MacNeil wryly noted on Twitter the other day, it was around 2-5 years ago that he first saw a poll showing that people wanted a referendum 2-5 years later.
Some middle-of-the-road voters will always say “yes, but not right now”, not least because it will always be possible to think of a dozen bread-and-butter policy areas – health, education, the drugs crisis, climate change, the economic after-effects of the pandemic – that should be “sorted out first”.
If the Scottish Government are [sic] a slave to that sentiment, a referendum will quite simply never be held.
Eventually, ministers will have to lead public opinion rather than follow it, and say “now is the time”.
It may have been Charles de Gaulle who first opined that “politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians”. The phrase has been used many times since. Perhaps to the extent that it has become so commonplace that it is used without much thought about what it means. Or what the person using the phrase means by it. Personally, I would rather say that politics is too serious a matter to be left entirely to the politicians. Which is what tends to happen in representative democracies. Once every four or five years about half (guesstimate) of those entitled to do so go out and vote for the people who are supposed to represent all of us in the legislature. For most of those who take the trouble to vote, that is the extent of their engagement with the democratic process. They will then leave politics to the politicians, even while nodding in agreement with Charles de Gaulle’s bon mot.
A woefully small number of people take politics seriously enough to engage with the democratic process to a greater extent than using their vote. A relatively tiny portion of the population join a political party or perhaps one or more single-issue campaign groups or attend demonstrations, marches and rallies or find some way to be politically active. Even if they were able to combine in order to speak with one voice, the entirety of the politically active part of the population amounts to a pitifully small force when ranged against the power of the professional political class. Power that is only partially awarded to them by the people. Much – perhaps most – of the power that professional politicians have is power they’ve picked up where it was abandoned by the indolent, the apathetic and the purposefully or incidentally alienated.
Occasionally – far too rarely – this changes. Sometimes an issue impacts the disengaged sufficiently to induce some form of engagement. Mostly, this engagement is limited to angry denunciations of the professional politicians within families or social groups. It may be surprising to some – although not to those endowed with healthy scepticism – that those denouncing the politicians or the government or an undefined ‘they’ fail to make the connection between the mess they see politicians making of some matter and the fact that they themselve have been content to leave politics to the politicians. They fail to perceive or refuse to acknowledge their own responsibility. Or irresponsibility. Tell them they must bear a share of blame for the mess and they will protest indignantly that it’s nothing to do with them. It’s the politicians ‘wot done it!’.
We might well then ask why, if the matter is nothing to do with them, they are making such a fuss about it. At which point they might say they’re making a fuss because the matter in question affects them in a way that justifies making a fuss. So you ask why, if the matter is so serious, they left it to the politicians they now insist cannot be trusted. It always comes back to the individual and their responsibility to use the facility afforded them by democracy to combine with others in order to make their will known. And to make their strength felt.
As an individual you may choose to have nothing to do with politics. But it is impossible to disconnect from politics. It will impact your life whether or not you opt to engage on your own behalf. You can disengage from politics. But you can’t distance yourself from it. It will be in your life and affecting you regardless. If you don’t use the democratic power that you have that power doesn’t cease to exist. It goes by default to whoever takes possession of it. If you don’t speak for yourself, someone else will speak for you. They will in effect steal your voice and your democratic power.
Those seeking an excuse for dereliction of their civic duty will be dismissive of their own power. They will insist that they can’t do anything. They have no power to do anything. That is not true, of course. Doing something or not; acting or not acting, are choices. There is always something the individual can do, even if it is only to combine with others. That too is a choice. It is arguably the most significant choice facing the individual in a democracy. To combine with others in order create something strong enough to have power over the politicians? Or to remain powerless? To disengage entirely or largely from the democratic process? Or to act within the democratic process? To use democratic power for a purpose of your choosing? Or to leave it for someone else to use for a purpose of their choosing?
On the constitutional issue, Nicola Sturgeon is neither leading public opinion nor following it. It is clear that public opinion favours a new referendum in the current parliamentary term (5 years). Apart from anything else, the SNP was elected on the basis of a not-quite-a-promise to hold a referendum earlier rather than later in the parliamentary term. There is at least a significant minority of public opinion that favours a new referendum within a year – presumably from the date the question was put to them. Regardless of the precise numbers, there is a large part of public opinion that considers resolution of the constitutional issue a matter of some urgency. Nicola Sturgeon sure as hell isn’t following that public opinion. She exhibits no sense of urgency whatever.
However the SNP and its supporters spin it, the new referendum has been put off indefinitely by Nicola Sturgeon. If there is no definite date nor even a defined time-frame then the thing is put off indefinitely by definition. Other than the sops of the occasional ‘initiative’ – such as appointing Mike Russell to head up an ‘independence unit’ – there is no acknowledgement of the growing(?) feeling of urgency within the independence movement.
Nor can Nicola Sturgeon claim to be leading… in any sense. As far as the constitutional issue is concerned she has abandoned the leadership role other than when she feels the need to placate Yes activists or mobilise them on behalf of the SNP’s election campaigns. She was keen enough to be the leader of the Yes movement when she was ordering us to stop campaigning for independence. But when it come to progressing Scotland’s cause, she’s nowhere to be seen. In order to lead public opinion Sturgeon must act. Or at the very least inspire confidence that she will act and in a way that is effective. She does neither.
This does not imply that Sturgeon has abandoned the “beautiful dream” of restoring Scotland’s independence; far less that she is some kind of British sleeper agent planted in the heart of Scotland’s independence movement for the purpose of sabotaging it. Ignore those inane conspiracy theories unless you can crush them. Sturgeon’s problem – actually, our problem – is not that she is unwilling to act or afraid to act but that she is unwilling and afraid to act as the realisation of the beautiful dream requires. The situation demands a kind of confrontational politics that she simply isn’t good at. She is dithering and delaying because she supposes – probably correctly – that essaying the necessary confrontation would expose her own weakness as that kind of politician. This is why she clings to the notion that Scotland’s independence can be restored by a process that is crucially dependent on the honest goodwill and willing cooperation of those who are sworn to preserve the Union at any cost to Scotland and democracy.
Now she is reluctant to act even by way of the Section 30 process to which she has wedded herself because the realisation is finally dawning that the required goodwill is totally lacking and willing cooperation is no more than wishful thinking. She knows, even if she has yet to admit it even to herself, that the process to which she has so inexplicably committed cannot possibly deliver a free and fair referendum. If she pursues that process she will fail. She will be seen to have failed. Thus, Sturgeon is paralysed by the fear of failure. If she acts in the bold, decisive, assertive and confrontational way that the situation demands then she will be embarking on a project for which she is woefully ill-suited. If she adheres to the politics of consensus, compromise and cooperation to which she is well suited then she is embarking on a project that must ultimately fail – not least because she will have ceded so much power to British Nationalists.
The independence movement is stuck with a nominal leader who cannot lead. But stuck with her we are. Precisely because the situation is so urgent any course of action that doesn’t involve the present Scottish Government and First Minister is pointless even to consider. If we want a referendum within this parliamentary term as public opinion polls indicate then the necessary action must be initiated by Nicola Sturgeon and her government. The only way to get that referendum – or any effective action on the constitutional issue – is to encourage/oblige Nicola Sturgeon and/or her inner circle to take the bold, decisive, assertive, confrontational and imaginative action that will inspire public opinion to follow her lead.
The Yes movement must combine to help Nicola Sturgeon overcome her trepidation. We must march and demonstrate and be vociferous and persistent in demanding that she act forthwith and just as importantly, we must do all we can to assure her of our support when she does act as required. If Sturgeon is to lead then she must be given the confidence that can only come from our support. Not, I hasten to add, the complacent, compliant, uncomplaining, unquestioning support demanded by the #WheeshtForIndy mob. Not support for Nicola Sturgeon as an article of faith. Not support for who she is, but for what she does.
Nothing is going to happen unless we make it happen. Nothing will change unless we force that change. And we won’t do that by sitting quietly in a corner. Or by the ‘strategy’ of gentle persuasion whilst making no waves. We need to make our presence felt. We need to make our voice heard. There is a march in Glasgow on Saturday. Be there! There is a demonstration at Holyrood on 31 August (see above). Be there! Wherever people are combining to fight Scotland’s cause, be there!
Leave Nicola Sturgeon in no doubt that now is the time!
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