Other than her commitment to the Section 30 process nothing, I would contend, better evidences the woeful lack of strategic thinking within the SNP than the statement issued by Nicola Sturgeon on 17 March 2020 in which she effectively sent a cease and desist letter to the entire Yes movement. Aye! Not just members of the one party that she leads, but every Yes activist there is. We were all told to stop. But she went further still. As well as including the logos of both the SNP and the Yes movement, Sturgeon wrote and signed the letter in her role as First Minister. Citing the Covid-19 pandemic, Ms Sturgeon wrote,
Obviously for our movement, that means suspending all campaigning
The campaign was in fact moribund in any case, and had been pretty much since Sturgeon took charge. With those nine words Sturgeon made the cessation of campaigning ‘official’ and relieved herself of any responsibility for allowing it to stall. It was all the fault of that pesky virus! Bless it!
Whatever else it was, the pandemic was a blessing for Nicola Sturgeon. Not, I hasten to add, something that she would have wished for. But something that as a politician with well-honed survival instincts she was more than happy to exploit. I don’t condemn her for this. It’s just politics. I do however condemn her for driving the independence cause up a blind alley then abandoning it.
Almost my first thought when it became clear that the coronavirus plague was worse than I had first supposed was that there was potential for the Yes movement to exploit the situation as well. Long periods of lockdown meant more people were going to spend more time online. There was something akin to a captive audience out there. If we could get the attention of even part of that audience for even a short period of time we might well reach a previously unreachable portion of the electorate. Here was a chance to engage people who would otherwise shun political messaging. Present that message in the right way(s) and it might be possible to get more than a few people stopping and thinking.
Evidently, this thought didn’t occur to Nicola Sturgeon or any of the leadership or any of their small army of special advisers and spin doctors. Or more likely somebody did think of it. I imagine the conversation as some young intern brought an outline for a ‘virtual’ campaign to Nicola Sturgeon
Young intern: I’ve put together some ideas for online campaigning during the lockdown, First Minister. Can I trouble you to take a look?
Nicola Sturgeon: Of course, Farquhar! Let me see! Hmmm!
YI: I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have, ma’am. And the name’s Farhad, by the way. But Farquhar is good too!
NS: Just the one question, Farquhar. Once we set the ball rolling on this ‘virtual’ campaign, how do we control it?
YI: We don’t, First Minister! That’s the beauty of it! I’m growing fond of Farquhar, by the way.
NS: Interesting use of the word ‘beauty’, Farquhar. Have you mentioned this to anyone else?
YI: No, ma’am! I came straight to you.
NS: Good! There’s a stack of NDAs in that cabinet. Sign one then [REDACTED] off! There’s a good lad, Farhad!
YI: It’s Farquhar, ma’am.
Never underestimate how important control is to those in the more stratospheric reaches of the SNP. All political leaderships crave control, of course. But the SNP has elevated control-freakery to a science. And they’re more obsessive about control than others because they’ve grown accustomed to having it. Hence the intellectual property registration of a horribly redesigned YES logo. It’s all about control. Hence also the visceral detestation of any part of the Yes movement they can’t control – such as the upstart Alba Party and bloggers like Stu Campbell. If these ‘others’ can’t be absorbed into some ‘initiative’ – Voices for Scotland or whatever – then every effort is made to other them to death. See most of Pete Wishart’s blog content for examples.
Control is important. I get that. I don’t condemn Nicola Sturgeon for wanting all the control she can get any more than I condemn her for exploiting the pandemic. Although it may be slightly troubling that she seems to want such total control over everything. What I do condemn most wholeheartedly is that she evidently considers control more important than Scotland’s cause. It is possible, of course, that a virtual campaign taking advantage of lockdown genuinely didn’t occur to Sturgeon or any of her entourage. That would certainly fit with the impression of a general lack of strategic thinking. But I find it a bit difficult to credit that absolutely nobody mentioned the possibility. And the only reason I can think of for not doing it is the risk that it would create a powerful campaign organisation separate from and independent of the SNP and its various tentacles stretching through the Yes movement.
Please wear face-covering
and try to maintain social distancing.
Why do I bring this up now when there’s a sense – rightly or wrongly – that the worst of the pandemic and associated lockdowns is behind us? Partly, it’s because there are all too many people who need to be reminded that the leaders and managers of the SNP are not the campaigning geniuses that they are commonly taken for. The party has an enviable record for winning elections, it’s true. But that is more a function of the relatively huge numbers of foot-soldiers the SNP can put on the streets. The membership is massive. The proportion of active members is, I think, greater than is usual for political parties in Scotland. And those numbers are swelled by the thousands of Yes activists who know that whatever they think of the SNP it has to be kept in power if not for the sake of Scotland’s cause then because the alternative is likely to be a return to British party rule. And nobody wants that! Not even Unionist voters!
Even a totally crap election leaflet – such as one that doesn’t mention independence anywhere in the body text or bullet points – might be reasonably effective if you can blanket a whole constituency with it in a single weekend. A street stall with a colourful logo-emblazoned gazebo with squadrons of T-shirted activists working shifts spells success in a way that two folk with a wobbly card table never can. And success attracts people. Significant numbers of voters still vote for the party or candidate they think is going to win. So parties and candidates must always strive to look like winners.
What I’m saying is that people, party members or not, should never take it on trust that the boss knows best. In my experience the boss rarely knows what’s best – even if the boss is me! Nobody should be exempt from scrutiny. Even if they’re very, very good, they’re not infallible. Being immune from scrutiny neither encourages good practice nor discourages bad. Given that there tend to be many more ways of being bad than being good, you can readily see which way things invariably go absent proper oversight.
The ‘Nicola knows best’ attitude can hardly be said to have turned out well for the independence campaign. If the SNP leadership had been even half as good as some folk suppose then Yes would be polling at least ten points higher than it is. If the SNP leadership was clever at all we would already be independent having won a referendum in September 2018.
Judging Sturgeon and the rest by the standards of the British parties in Scotland will always make them look good. Judged by any objective standard of what Scotland’s cause requires in terms of leadership, they are found seriously wanting.
The other reason for broaching the subject of online campaigning is that it’s not too late to get this going. The failure to take due advantage of lockdown has to join the lengthening list of missed opportunities that punctuate Sturgeon’s period of office to date. But there is still tremendous scope for a sharp, slick, imaginative online campaign to help drive Scotland’s cause. I certainly don’t imagine I am the first or only one to think of this. There is probably a group working on the idea right now. But the idea needs to be working right now. I’m told there isn’t an audience for such a campaign. There wasn’t much of an audience for Netflix when the streaming service started. Look at it now! That success is largely because Netflix didn’t wait until the audience was ready. When the audience was ready Netflix was already there waiting for them.
Yet another reason for having a well-organised online campaign is that it can allow people to be active who might find streetwork difficult. People unable to deliver leaflets or stand at street stalls or attend marches might nonetheless be able to support aspects of the campaign using the tools provided by the web. Let’s say there’s an event such as the demonstration at Holyrood tomorrow. Many folk have said that they would like to be there but for one reason or another they can’t. What if every one of those people were to fire off a supportive email to at least their own MSP as the demonstration was happening? I can see great value in that.
One thing I am certain of is that there is no shortage of ideas in the Yes movement. Our problem tends to be not a lack of imagination, but too much of it. The result of this is that we get lots of separate projects all going at the same time none of them big enough to be effective and all of them too varied and diffuse to have any aggregate impact. Which brings us back to the old problem of recreating in the Yes movement the sense of common purpose which helped make it such a potent force in the 2014 referendum campaign. A campaign needs unity, focus and discipline.
Personal experience would suggest that it can’t. It certainly looks as if the factionalism and fragmentation has gone too far to be reversed. For the tribal squabbling to stop those engaged in it have to want to stop. I get the distinct impression that most of them are enjoying it too much to have much interest in stopping it. Some of the petty, vacuous, mean-spirited comments I’ve received concerning the Holyrood demonstration would make me despair if it were not for them being very much in the minority. It is very disheartening, however, to have even a small number of self-styled independence supporters behaving as if they don’t want others campaigning.
I’m not quite ready to give up. Though I must admit there are moments when I could just walk away from it all. But not yet. Not while there are things that are at least worth trying. I am entirely persuaded that if we – the Yes movement – do nothing, or nothing effective – then nothing will happen. If we don’t steer the fight to restore Scotland’s independence; if we leave strategy and tactics to the bosses, Scotland is doomed to fall to the British Nationalist ‘One Nation’ project. We simply can’t depend on the SNP/Scottish Government doing what is required. There is too much at stake to leave ourselves entirely in the hands of Scotland’s own political elite.
That’s why I’ll be outside Holyrood at 13:00 tomorrow. That’s why I hope others will join me. That’s why I’d like those who can’t attend to use email and/or other means of contact to tell MSPs that they support the demonstration and the demands of White Rose Rising.
Let’s see if we can recapture some of the old fighting spirit of the Yes movement.
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