Kevin McKenna has just been promoted to the SNP/Sturgeon loyalists’ hate list. If he wasn’t high on that list before he most certainly is after his excoriating summation of the state of the party and the Yes movement in The National today (Why Nicola Sturgeon must step up and lead a divided Yes movement). None of it is new to the realist wing of the independence movement or the regretfully pragmatic section of the SNP’s membership. But it would make very uncomfortable reading for the Panglossian fantasists who hold Alyn Smith’s ‘never closer to independence’ drivel as an article of faith and stubbornly insist in the face of an avalanche of contrary evidence that everything is well in the best of all possible parties. Most will take the precaution of not troubling to read McKenna’s column lest it lead to tears if not apoplexy. The headline will be enough to warn them off. “Here be truths!”, it declares. “Venture not, lest thy mind be sullied!”.
It must be becoming hard work maintaining the delusion that Nicola Sturgeon is already leading a Yes movement which would be united but for the awkward squad who persist in peddling their discomfiting truths. McKenna’s article has them aplenty. He writes of “deep, and seemingly unbridgeable, divisions”; “the party [Sturgeon] leads is a deeply unpleasant place to belong”; “the perceived iniquities of the Sturgeon regime”. Every word of it accurately describing the reality that is shunned by those who bask in the 24-hour sun shining from Sturgeon’s arse.
The following paragraph struck a particular chord.
In any other party at any other time, the deep, and seemingly unbridgeable, divisions would have proved fatal in electoral terms. But while the independence question remains unresolved, Nicola Sturgeon has thus far been able to maintain her authority over the fear and loathing.
I am no conspiracy theorist. Not because I lack the imagination, but because I lack the capacity to stop thinking things through once I’ve found an explanation that confirms whatever I may have imagined. When looking for explanations one should not at the outset exclude any possibility. From the quite extraordinary to the totally mundane, everything should be considered. Even the possibility of some kind of conspiracy. Most of what pops into one’s head in this process can safely be discarded immediately. Anything involving shape-shifting lizard people can be easily discounted. Unless what one is seeking to explain is Michael Gove. As can the more simplistic conclusions of the ‘they’re only in it for the money’ variety. No doubt the motives of some political actors are that basic at least some of the time. But mostly, like other human beings (and perhaps Michael Gove?) motives are mixed. People do things or behave in particular ways for a mixture of reasons. People are complex. Even politicians.
One thing I’ve long struggled to explain is Nicola Sturgeon’s decision early in the pandemic crisis to suspend all campaigning relating to the constitutional issue. It always seemed to be to be a massively foolish move. Partly because it was unnecessary. She didn’t have to say or do anything. She closed off a set of options for no evident reason. Why?
Previously, I’ve speculated that Sturgeon’s cease and desist letter to the independence movement was mere posturing for the benefit of a particular audience. Not the party membership or wider Yes movement but the ‘international community’ and the ‘global media’. She was trying to look statesmanlike. Solemn. Responsible. A safe pair of hands. I still think this the most likely explanation. Or at least the largest part of an explanation which doubtless includes other motives. Including the possibility that she simply thought it the right thing to do.
My difficulty in comprehending the choice to halt the independence campaign was compounded by two factors. That there wasn’t much in the way of campaigning anyway and nothing at all in the case of the SNP. Any campaigning relating to Scotland’s cause that was happening was being conducted by people Sturgeon had no authority to command. And that it seemed to me that stopping campaigning because of the pandemic was just plain stupid given the fact that lockdown created near-ideal conditions for online campaigning, leaving tens of thousands of people stuck at home with only their devices for company. Lockdown gave the Yes movement something akin to a captive audience and a chance to develop online campaigning skills that can only become increasingly valuable. Sturgeon threw this opportunity away. She seemed oblivious to the potential in the situation. But was she?
That was the question that popped into my head as I read the passage from Kevin McKenna’s column quoted above. Proving that I don’t lack the imagination required to think conspiratorially, I entertained the notion that Sturgeon actually knew damn fine what she was throwing away. She fully recognised the possibilities lockdown offered a Yes movement which was well networked and already firmly established on social platforms and new media. Being a politician, and being the kind of politician she is, her first thought would be how she might control this new form of campaigning so as to ensure it served her purposes. Her second thought would be to wonder whether she could control it at all. That doubt would probably be enough. It would have to be stopped.
If Kevin McKenna is right, and there’s good reason to suppose that he is to at least some degree, then Sturgeon and the SNP have been using the lure of a new referendum to keep the Yes movement onside for the SNP’s election campaigns. So long as campaigning for independence was bound up with campaign for the SNP in elections the party had a ready source of foot-soldiers and, more importantly, the SNP had control. If the Yes movement developed its own campaigning organisation based on using the web to reach voters where would the SNP get the bodies to deliver leaflets and fill envelopes and all the labour-intensive traditional campaign activities? How could Nicola Sturgeon command such an organisation? How could she control it? And if she couldn’t control it, how could she kill it?
OK! I get that this is straying into the conspiracy theorists’ territory. But like I said, it pays to consider even the somewhat far-fetched explanations looking for bits that might fit with a more realistic analysis. A desire to prevent the development of an independence campaign separate from that controlled by the SNP would certainly account for the cease and desist order. It would also fit with Kevin McKenna’s suggestion of the party exploiting the Yes movement for more partisan purposes. And with the form of the Yes campaign has taken under the SNP’s considerable influence. If you wanted to be able to switch Yes activists smoothly between campaigning for Scotland’s independence and campaigning for the SNP’s electoral success then it would make perfect sense for the independence campaign to be as similar to the SNP’s electioneering as possible. And so it has been.
For all that, I’m not convinced that Nicola Sturgeon is guilty of such deviousness. Not that she isn’t capable of it. Just that the conspiratorial aspects of the theory make it a bit too contrived for the real world. Sturgeon is many things. But she is no comic-book villain. There are no evil-masterminds seeking world domination from lairs deep inside hopefully extinct volcanoes. (For a start, they’d never get planning permission!) The fact that Edinburgh sits atop an extinct volcano might be enough to convince the true conspiracy theorist. I tend to need something a bit more substantial than that.
What may be telling is that such thoughts even occur to someone who was a dedicated member/supporter of the SNP for over sixty years; and an unabashed admirer of Ms Sturgeon for a spell towards the end of those six decades. Even as recently as a couple of years ago I couldn’t have written an article such as this. Now, the kind of concerns and suspicions that once seemed outlandish have become mainstream. That is what Nicola Sturgeon has done to the party I was once pleased to call mine and a movement that was once a marvellous democratic phenomenon.
Yet still I have to hope that Nicola Sturgeon will step up and lead a
divided united Yes movement. There are those who accuse me of indulging in fantasy politics. I confess to moments when I think they may be right. But for the fact that realistically there is no alternative and no time to create one. And we can’t blame Sturgeon for that.
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