When reading an article to which I intend to respond I will often go through it two or three times highlighting points that I might address. I use red to mark the bits that prompt a broadly negative response, and green to indicate the bits that deserve a positive response. Generally, I will try to select just three points. If my overall reaction to the article is negative then I will choose two red bits and one green bit. If my reaction is positive then this too will be reflected by favouring green over red. I like to be methodical. Especially where the article in question raises a number of issues.
Ben Wray’s ‘Special Report’ in The National today raises a lot of issues. I ended up with more than a dozen highlighted excerpts – with pretty much an even split between red and green bits. There’s also a yellow bit, indicating that it could go either way. I’ll come back to that. For the moment, I have to decide which three red and green bits to focus on and which should be preponderant. The alternative is to go through them all. Stu Campbell (Wings Over Scotland) was/is very good at that. His forensic style often had him going through a text almost line by line. I liked the result when Stu did this. I like it rather less when I take the same approach. I guess I must be doing something wrong.
What the hell! Let’s give it a go! It’s either this or tidy my overflowing gadgetry cupboard. Boxes and boxes of assorted cables and obsolete tech that I can’t bring myself to chuck out because it might come in handy sometime. It’s not difficult to talk myself out of going through all that again. One of the great mysteries of life is the fact that you can tidy such a cupboard and throw away lots of stuff but you then find that what’s left doesn’t fit back in the cupboard. You have maybe 10% less stuff, but it takes up 110% of the space it previously occupied. There’s a wee poser for Professor Brian Cox.
But I digress. Let’s get back to Ben Wray and his explanation of How Covid changed Scotland: The politics of Scots independence. The first highlight is red.
The initial reaction to the crisis was a surge in support for independence,
This is an odd one. Because having written this Ben then goes on to explain that what we saw was not in fact a surge in support for independence but a surge in Nicola Sturgeon’s personal approval ratings. It wasn’t support for independence. It was support for a First Minister who seemed to be handling the pandemic situation very well – at least by comparison with her counterpart in England. Now, being better than Boris Johnson at anything other than making a total arse of yourself isn’t the kind of thing you want to feature prominently in your CV. If you are better at making an arse of yourself than Boris then you probably shouldn’t bother with a CV at all. Unless, of course, your ambition is to be the leader of the British Conservative & Unionist Party and British Prime Minister. In which case you should look into suing your careers adviser.
I happen to think the surge in approval for Nicola Sturgeon was deserved. But it is a serious error to mistake this for a surge in support for independence. Apart from anything else, if it was that latter then it would not have disappeared. The percentage of Yes support indicated by polling may not have risen over the period of Sturgeon’s incumbency, but neither has it fallen. Support for independence is the same now as it was in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 referendum. This speaks to an abysmal failure on the part of Sturgeon and the SNP. But it also strongly suggests that once people are won over to the idea of restoring Scotland’s independence, they tend to stick with that. Few if any go from Yes to No. So, if support for independence had genuinely increased in that early period of the pandemic we would have expected that increase to be far less transient than it proved to be. We can only conclude that it was not support for independence at all.
Next up is a green bit. But please don’t imagine this implies an alternating pattern.
Jamie Maxwell told The National the perception of two governments handling the peak of the pandemic crisis very differently will have lasting effects on the politics of independence.
Will it, though? Will it have lasting effects? Or will the public ‘forget’ as easily as they ‘forget’ each successive catastrophic failure of the capitalist system? They’re all one-off freak incidents that could never be repeated. No matter how many times they’re repeated. And if the public does remember, what exactly will they remember? If they recall the Scottish Government behaving in some ways like the government of an independent nation might they not also recall how the behaviour led nowhere? Might they not remember with more than a tinge of bitterness how the Scottish Government reverted to subservience instead of capitalising on the positive impression it had made? Sometimes it’s better if the public does forget.
Jonathon Shafi, an independence activist and commentator, says that a failure to rebuild the case for independence post-2014 is a key reason for Yes polls receding.“
This gets a red highlight. I know and respect Jonathon Shafi. But this is depressingly typical of the ‘wisish’ comments we are constantly fed about the need for some perfected “case for independence”. I say ‘wisish’ because it’s the sort of thing that might easily be taken for wisdom if it’s said by the right person in the right way. I’d hate to think Jonathon was saying such things just to sound wise. I’m not sure why he would feel the need to fake it. But a few moments of serious reflection reveals just how far this notion is from being wise.
There is no ‘vision’ for an independent Scotland that will have universal appeal. Such a thing is genuinely impossible simply because people vary so much. Any ‘case’ that is presented is as likely to deter voters as to appeal to them. This is particularly true if the ‘case’ in question is constructed around a raft of ‘progressive’ policies that the Scottish electorate have never and all but certainly would never vote for. We don’t elect left-wing governments. Neither do we elect distinctly right-wing government. But I say again, Scotland simply does not vote for a socialist government. So why on earth would anybody imagine a ‘vision’ of a socialist Scotland would sell the idea of restoring independence?
I write this as someone who is certainly on the left of Scottish politics. That raft of progressive policies probably wouldn’t disturb me. But I’m a realist more than anything else.
I would also dispute that the polls are “receding”. As I’ve already said, the problem is that the polls aren’t moving at all in either direction. This suggests to me that the whole strategy of making a ‘case’ for independence and/or flogging a ‘vision’ of a post-independence Scotland is just not working anymore. Not working at all. It has done all it can do. A new strategy is required in order to secure the 5-10 percentage points we need. More of the same won’t do it. We must reframe the constitutional issue and rethink the independence campaign. We should have done this in 2015. That we didn’t is largely – but by no means entirely – down to the SNP.
Boris Johnson has been the single biggest recruiting sergeant for the pro-independence cause during Covid-19 but the dial on independence hasn’t really shifted,” he says. “That’s because confidence hasn’t grown in the pro-independence arguments; the SNP have been dining out on how terrible 10 Downing Street is.”
Green for this bit! Although there’s some dubious stuff in here, on balance I react positively. It would be more accurate to say that Boris Johnson should have been “the single biggest recruiting sergeant for the pro-independence cause”. That he hasn’t been is yet further evidence of the inexplicable failure to capitalise. Again, the culpability here is largely to be laid on the SNP. But the rest of the Yes movement has hardly down better. To put it simply for the sake of brevity, the Yes movement allowed itself to become an anti-Boris/anti-Tory campaign rather than an anti-Union campaign. It’s not a failure to inspire confidence that’s the problem. It’s a failure to exploit and direct anger. Obsessed with being ‘positive’, the Yes campaign has left half its weapons in the armoury.
That said, Jonothan Shafi could hardly be more accurate than when he says that the SNP has been “dining out” on the awfulness of the British government. But most of the Yes movement is sitting at the same table. We’ve fallen into the trap of strategising as if Scotland’s cause was a party political issue. We’ve been campaigning – to the extent that there has been campaigning – as if fighting an election. Perhaps because that is what the SNP does. It’s pretty much all the SNP does. They’re always fighting the next election. Which is OK. Except if what you’re supposed to be doing is fighting to restore Scotland’s independence.
Policy may be one problem facing the independence movement, but another is whether Scots are actually eager for political disruption in wake of the pandemic.
The first part of this is what got the yellow highlight. It may be true. But not in the way intended. Policy is a major problem facing the Yes movement because there is way too much talk of policy and precious little talk of the principles that underpin the fight to restore Scotland’s independence. It is not a policy matter. It is a constitutional matter. Too many in the Yes movement have lost sight of this fact. Or they simply don’t grasp the distinction.
Policy is also a problem for a reason touched on earlier. There can be no general consensus on any policy agenda. The Yes movement has fragmented not least because of strong disagreements about policy. Which I find odd to the point of insanity given that the referendum will address absolutely no matters of policy and even a Yes vote will not in itself set any policy. Policy will be a matter for the Scottish Governments elected post-independence. The constitutional issue is not about policy. It’s about power.
The second part of the above comment illustrates another common failing of the Yes movement. For some reason, Yes activists appear to feel the need to present matters from the Unionists’ perspective. The idea of a referendum and accompanying campaign being divisive and disruptive is a trope of British propaganda. Why Yes supporters join in the Unionist chorus beats me.
Ben Wray also draws heavily on the writings of Lesley Riddoch in his analysis. This, for example – which I immediately painted green.
“And if you don’t see the leader of the party that has got independence on the tin pushing the boat out, you kind of think, ‘We’re not there yet, I don’t need to make my mind up, I don’t need to grapple with another complicated thing, because she’s not there yet’.”
Inertia kills momentum. Folk keep saying Yes needs to be polling higher. Nothing better guarantees that than bold, decisive action by the Scottish Government. I’m guessing most of you will be having difficulty even imagining this from the current government.
Next we have two greens sandwiched between two reds. I was going to skip them in an act of mercy. But if you’ve stuck with me this long then you probably have the staying power to put up with a few brief comments on these before I get to my closing remarks. Here we have a red for a Lesley Riddoch quote followed by green for Jamie Maxwell.
“Sturgeon has been clear that “Covid permitting” 2022 will be the year she “will initiate the process necessary to enable a referendum before the end of 2023”
Behave yersel’, Lesley! Sturgeon has been “clear” about absolutely nothing. If she had been then maybe there wouldn’t be quite so many folks convinced there will be no referendum because Sturgeon never had any intention of calling one.
“No-one credibly expects it to take place, and as far as I can tell Sturgeon is simply paying lip service to the nationalist base when she says there’s going to be a referendum at the end of 2023,. We have been through this multiple times in the course of the last eight years. Independence activists have been marched up to the top of the hill and back down again repeatedly.”
Not much to add to that. Other than that I am now less concerned that there will be no referendum than that we will be offered something that is an astronomical distance from the kind of referendum we need. I’m happy to elaborate on this if anybody isn’t sure what I mean.
Probably the most insightful comment comes from Jonathon Shafi.
. “Influence campaigns on the SNP leadership have failed,” he says. “No matter what the party conference votes for, the organisation is so centralised that those kind of influence campaigns, generally speaking, don’t deliver in the end.”
Here he touches on the very thing that has been desperately needed but which has proved impossible due to the Yes movement’s loss of unity and focus. Given that only the Scottish Parliament can restore Scotland’s independence and only the Scottish Government can initiate the process and only the SNP is going to be the party of government for as long as it matters, influencing the SNP should have been not just at the top of the Yes movement’s agenda, it should have been the only thing on that agenda. We had an opportunity in the 2021 Holyrood election to ‘influence’ the SNP into adopting a Manifesto for Independence. Most of the Yes movement just couldn’t be bothered with the effort. They were all off pursuing a proliferation of different projects none of which has served Scotland’s cause in any positive way at all.
Having flirted with the key point here Jonathon goes on to fly off yet again on that ‘case and vision’ magical mystery tour.
Shafi believes a turn to “class issues” is necessary, highlighting the importance of a social movement to tackle the cost of living crisis. “That will have to involve engaging with large parts of Scottish society who perhaps do not want to mobilise on independence but do want to mobilise around the rising cost of rent, food, energy,” he says. “Through that sort of movement, grassroots independence politics can maybe be reanimated on a new basis, because right now it’s in a state of paralysis.”
Excuse me, Jonathon! I thought we were supposed to be discussing the constitutional issue. How anybody can imagine Scotland’s cause might be aided by diverting and diffusing the energies of the Yes movement in the way suggested is beyond me. I fail to see how you hope they get the independence campaign moving again by burying it under a bing of policy issues.
It is at this point that I start to despair of these ‘expert’ commentators. but it gets worse. The following signals a plunge into idiocy.
For many, the paralysis they are focused on is at 10 Downing Street. Does Boris Johnson’s crisis, and potential downfall, open up opportunities to extract an indyref out of the UK Government?
Yes, folks! Ben Wray ends with a discussion of the chances of getting a Section 30 order. I have nothing to say about this folly which isn’t expressed almost entirely in expletives. So I’ll stop here.
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