My intention this morning was to write an article prompted by the headline over Richard Walker’s column in The National – Yes movement has to come together and recapture the spirit of 2014. It’s one of those very sensible-sounding things that people tend to agree with having given the matter little or no thought. It just seems obviously true that the Yes movement needs to unite and become again what it was ten years ago. I have expressed similar sentiments myself on many occasions. With the difference that I recognise that being desirable doesn’t make it feasible. Of which more later.
First I had to read Richard’s column. Responding to the headline alone is never a good idea. It’s purpose is to seize your attention and draw you in. In seeking to tantalise the reader headlines can sometimes give a very distorted impression of the content of an article or report. Although in this case the headline is accurate in that it reflects Richard’s conclusion, it tells us nothing about the bulk of the piece. Reading it I almost wished I’d stuck to just the headline. Apologists for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP+SGP/Scottish Government are something I’ve had my fill of.
There are two kinds of apologist. There are the apologists who have given the matter careful consideration and are supporting something with which they genuinely agree. Then there are the apologists whose support is automatic and unthinking. I most certainly don’t suppose Richard Walker belongs in the latter category. I have to suppose he has given a great deal of thought to the way Nicola Sturgeon is handling the constitutional issue and is convinced that hers is the best approach. I am at a loss to understand what has convinced him. But I have to accept that he is genuinely convinced putting the constitutional issue on the back burner for seven years was a good idea.
Clearly, Richard Walker considers the restoration of Scotland’s independence to be a very important matter. Just not as important as anything Nicola Sturgeon deems more important. He opens by acknowledging that the independence movement is “champing at the big to begin campaigning in earnest”. But only after “after other matters have rightly had to take precedence”. Note how this de-prioritisation of the constitutional issue is declared to be right. No argument. It’s just right. Which prompts me to wonder whether Richard ever asked why it right. I don’t have to wonder long. He’s a journalist. Surely his first instinct would be to examine a claim to ascertain whether it is justified. I’d very much like to know what persuades Richard Walker and others that independence can and should be shunted down the agenda with quite the alacrity as has been the case.
Brexit took precedence over independence both before and since Scotland was ripped from its place in Europe contrary to the will of the people. The pandemic put a stop to the independence campaign and pretty much everything else. Except for all the things that it didn’t COP26 was considered so crucial that it had to go ahead despite both Brexit and COVID-19. We couldn’t deal with Brexit and the constitutional issue at the same time. We couldn’t deal with the pandemic and independence at the same time. We couldn’t deal with COP26 and independence at the same time. But we can deal with Brexit, Covid-19 and COP26 simultaneously – so long as we don’t have to deal with the constitutional issue at the same time.
Anything more than the most casual observation would surely tend to make the observer suspect these “other matters” were being used as an excuse to push independence to the back of the stove – if not behind it. Nobody has yet given me a satisfactory explanation of what it is about, for example, the pandemic which makes progressing Scotland’s cause totally impossible while having no major impact on international football tournaments and global conferences. When I looked at the situation during the first lockdown I saw an ideal opportunity to launch a massive, coordinated online campaign. Instead, Nicola Sturgeon issued a cease and desist order to all activists and cancelled all activities relating to the Yes campaign. Richard Walker seems to think this was sensible. Apparently, neither he nor she saw what I saw. Which would be unremarkable but for the fact that lots of people did see the opportunities offered by lockdown.
What makes the attitude of Sturgeon/SNP loyalist particularly hard to comprehend is when they acknowledge the failure of Sturgeon’s ‘strategy’ even as they opine that it is the right approach. Here’s Richard Walker following a scathing account of the British political system.
Given all the above, it’s more than frustrating that the most recent opinion poll showed support for independence rising by just 1% and the No option still leading by 2%.
It’s certainly frustrating. I’ve been very frustrated by it for a very long time. That frustration is only aggravated when having thus noted the failure to increase support for independence, he again asserts that this evidently failing approach is the right one. The emphasis here is mine.
The campaign for independence has been on the back burner for some time now and it is right that this has been the case. During a pandemic is not the time to argue for a decision that will change our future for ever.
Again, there is no attempt to present the arguments for abandoning the campaign for independence. It is simply declared to be the right thing to do. It remains the right thing to do even though by Richard’s own admission it part of a strategy which has totally failed. And despite the fact that Richard himself presents a powerful argument for not shoving independence to the bottom of the pile when he describes the abhorrent awfulness of the British state. There’s a jarring disconnect here. There may be several.
As for that second sentence above, it’s hard to know how to respond without appearing disrespectful. I could spend an enjoyable hour tearing apart the phrase “a decision that will change our future for ever”. That’s the sort of fatuous, vacuous, asinine rhetoric I expect from second-rate politicians with third-rate speech-writers. Reading this kind of ‘inspirational’ drivel always reminds me of a scene in the Clint Eastwood movie The Outlaw Josey Wales. Time for a wee interlude!
Inane as it is, that phrase may serve a purpose inasmuch as it tends to make what follows look a little less silly by comparison.
So if we’re going to have a referendum before the end of 2023 – and I fervently believe we are – now is the time we need to start devising and enacting the campaign which will target and win over those who need to hear arguments which speak to their hopes and ambitions before making up their minds to say Yes.
It is at this point that my frustration turns to angry despair. Or is it despairing anger? Depends when I’m asked. Ask, and you might be lucky enough to catch me in one of those fleeting moments when I entertain hope. I never entertain faith. I can’t imagine myself “fervently believing” anything. If the truth of a thing derives from objective evidence and rational argument then there is no need for fervour. What requires fervour is faith – belief against evidence. There is no sound reason to suppose there will be a referendum before the end of 2023. Especially given the ease with which the constitutional issue can be deprioritised. Even if there were to be a referendum, as things stand it wouldn’t be anything to get gleefully excited about. All we know of Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘plan’ is that she is determined to replicate the 2014 referendum as closely as possible. Which, due to the massively changed circumstances, means it won’t be a free and fair referendum. It will not be the referendum we need.
Neither will it be the Yes campaign we require. Every indication is that Sturgeon intends a campaign identical in all significant regards to that launched a decade ago. Richard Walker is very much in line with the sturgeon doctrine in the above quote when he refers to what is generally called ‘making the positive case for independence’. That would be the ‘case for independence’ that we’ve been making for ten years. During which time there has been no sustained increase in support for independence as indicated by polls. Does Richard not see the connection here?
At least he is saying “now is the time”. Although we’ve heard much the same from SNP/Sturgeon loyalists on a fairly regular basis over the last few years of paralysed inaction. Despite this, it’s something for the faithful to latch onto. As they doubtless shall. But I notice that he doesn’t say now is the time to act. He says “now is the time we need to start devising and enacting the campaign”. Wrong! The time to start devising the campaign was seven years ago. The planning should have started immediately after the 2014 referendum with a rigorous analysis of both the Yes and No campaigns along with every other aspect of the referendum – such as media coverage. That planning should have been continuous since early 2015 at the latest. A team should have been assigned the task of constantly updating plans in the light of developments so that the campaign was ready to roll out at short notice. That none of this happened is a damning indictment of Sturgeon’s ‘leadership’.
And so to that call for unity promised by the headline. It makes its appearance in Richard Walker’s final paragraph.
When I look back on the best times of the 2014 referendum campaign – and there were many – they were when people from different backgrounds teamed up in unexpected ways. If we can capture that same spirit in the year ahead the momentum will be with us.
In passing, I’ll just mention that the use of the word “momentum” struck me as heavily ironic given that Richard seems quite unperturbed by the squandering of the momentum Scotland’s cause had in 2015. But it is his hope for unity and a return to the ‘spirit of 2014’ that I’m obliged to mark as horribly naïve. Richard has obviously noticed the divisions fragmenting the Yes movement. But he doesn’t seem to appreciate the extent of this disunity. Or its nature. If he grasped how bitter is the tribalism he would surely know better than to hope for a coming together of the factions to recreate the Yes movement of old. As in so many aspects of the independence cause since Sturgeon took the helm, it is too late. The factionalism that has blighted the Yes movement has done precisely the damage some of us foresaw because it has been allowed to proceed unhindered. An effective leadership would have intervened to squash this factionalism as soon as it appeared – or earlier.
The unity has gone because the common purpose has been lost in a welter of egos and agendas and divisions on matters that have little or no direct bearing on the constitutional issue but which have been tacked onto the campaign by a proliferation of self-righteous factions. There is no retrieving that unity. Tragically, it has gone for good.
Likewise the spirit which once characterised the Yes movement. A joyous, aspirational uplifting spirit. That too is lost forever. The bitterness of the tribalism is like a concentrated acid that doesn’t merely erode that spirit, it dissolves it completely, to be washed away by the raging flood of intemperate discourse.
Is that the end of it, then? Is Scotland’s cause doomed? Well, it certainly is if we continue to look backwards and try to recreate and relive the past. But not if we accept that the changes in the context since 2014 as well as the lessons to be learned from the first referendum militate for a new, reframed approach to the constitutional issue; a total rethink of the Yes campaign; and the purposeful generation of a new spirit of pragmatic cooperation based on commonality of a single purpose and inspired by the urgency of Scotland’s predicament.
Let’s hope we haven’t left it too late.
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