What strikes me most about the comments from Linda Fabiani and Alex Neil is the extent to which their thinking about the constitutional issue appears unchanged by the passage of a decade in which everything else has changed dramatically. Their obsession with setting a date and publishing a ‘prospectus’ directly echoes the obsessions of the period immediately after the 2011 Holyrood election when it became inevitable that there would be a referendum. There has been no reframing of the constitutional issue and no reorganising of priorities and no reconceptualisation of the campaign. There has been no rethinking whatever either in the light of the experience of the first referendum or in view of the social and political upheavals of the subsequent ten years.
Regrettably, what is true of Linda Fabiani and Alex Neil is also true of Nicola Sturgeon and her inner circle. The poverty of imagination and dearth of boldness is matched by a lack of strategic aptitude which is barely explicable in a party that has enjoyed such a prolonged period of electoral success. There is no political genius behind that success. There is only the weight of the SNP’s electioneering army and the woeful inadequacy of the electoral alternatives. It’s not so much that the SNP wins as that they don’t lose.
But the SNP’s leadership seems not to appreciate the difference between winning and just not losing. The leadership supposes – with some justification – that it has an almost invincible election machine. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that they see all challenges through the eyes of a general command with such a weapon at its disposal. If it’s good enough to win elections, it’ll serve just as well for the challenge of restoring Scotland’s independence. Worse! If it was good enough for those purposes ten years ago then why bother even considering any change?
So it was that when the pandemic struck not a single moment’s thought was given to whether and how the difficulties it presented for campaigning could be overcome, far less whether and how the circumstances of lockdown could be turned to the advantage of the independence campaign. The pandemic pretty much precluded campaigning as this is conceived by the SNP leadership. That is to say, ‘traditional’ election campaigning involving a great deal of in-person interactions both among campaigners and between campaigners and voters. It is safe to assume nobody in or close to the SNP leadership considered the possibility of a different kind of campaign. The sole consideration was what would play best in the context of adversarial party politics. Nicola Sturgeon issued her infamous cease and desist order to the SNP membership and the whole Yes movement.
Here we are! Approaching eight years on from that first referendum with absolutely no progress having been made and Scotland’s entire political class – with depressingly few exceptions – still wedded to the mindset that informed that first referendum campaign. As Linda Fabiani and Alex Neil demonstrate with their talk of setting a date and producing a manifesto/prospectus. Nobody, it seems, is making the connection between such outmoded thinking and eight years without any progress. Eight years in which Nicola Sturgeon has worked assiduously to prevent her approach to the constitutional issue from being ‘contaminated’ by any novel ideas or fresh thinking.
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