If you are considering the matter of how the Yes campaign in a new independence referendum should be managed, I wouldn’t bother reading the article in today’s Sunday National which purports to address that very question. If, however, you’re wondering what a desert of imagination looks like then the responses to the question from “senior campaigners” will provide a useful illustration. I don’t profess to know what qualifies a person to be a “senior campaigner”, but if this article is anything to go by the first requirement is a distinct aversion to fresh thinking and a predilection for the trite wisishness of dusty stock phrases.
Let’s get rid of one bit of nonsense right away. The idea of a campaign organisation “not be led by political parties but from the “bottom up”” is not an idea at all but a gobbet of the finest oxymoronic idiocy. Movements can be “bottom up” because movements can be unstructured and organic and non-hierarchical. Campaigns require organisation and organisation demands all the things a movement can readily do without. The Yes movement that arose in 2012/2013 was a superb example of an unstructured, organic, non-hierarchical entity. But movements don’t get things done. Movements provide the motivation and the manpower and the money to get things done. They do not themselves get anything done.
Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon of the Yes movement was its capacity for emergent leadership. When things needed to be done, the necessary leadership and organisational structure would emerge from the amorphous mass of the movement. It was organisations such as All Under One Banner that dealt with the practicalities of campaign activity. Left to its own devices, the Yes movement was powerless.
Which brings us to the second idea that needs to be dispelled. The notion of ‘people power’. The people don’t have power. The people have strength. This is mirrored in the distinction between movements and organisations. Movements provide the strength. Organisations translate that strength into power ─ the capacity to effect change in a directed manner.
Does a new independence referendum campaign require a formal Yes campaign organisation? Obviously, it does. As Mike Russell points out, legislation exists which makes a legal requirement out of a self-evident practical necessity. Asking if we need a new Yes Scotland doesn’t really make much sense. The question is not whether we need a new official Yes campaign organisation, but what form that organisation should take. Which is also a rather pointless question. The form taken by the new Yes Scotland will be determined by the SNP. Many will object strongly to this statement. Tough shit! I deal with things as they are not as we might wish them to be. We can hope to make things as we would wish them to be only by first dealing with things the way they are. The SNP is in a position to make all the big decisions about the official Yes campaign. That is just a fact. There is no way that fact can be changed in the short term. The short term is all we have. So, bleating about the reality of the SNP’s dominant position in the independence movement is a waste of time and trying to change that situation is a waste of energy.
The question now becomes one of whether this SNP-ordered official Yes campaign is likely to be effective. That really is all that matters. If you are truly committed to Scotland’s cause then it should be a matter of no concern to you whatever who manages the Yes campaign. It should only matter that the management is effective. That it does the job. This very much depends on how you define the job. I define the job of the Yes campaign as bringing about the dissolution of the Union and effecting the restoration of Scotland’s status as an independent nation. I have to be very dubious about the SNP, or whatever formal Yes campaign organisation it spawns, being effective in doing the job thus defined because I have never heard the SNP talk of the job in these terms.
When the SNP talks about independence ─ which contrary to the complaint all too often heard, they do ─ they refer to it as something that must be sold to the people of Scotland. That was OK ten years ago when the first order of business was to normalise the idea of independence. It ceased to be valid as the way to think about the constitutional issue as soon as the first referendum was over. From that point, the campaign to ‘win’ Scotland’s independence should have become the fight to restore Scotland’s independence. The first referendum transformed Scotland’s politics. The thinking that informed that first Yes campaign ceased to be relevant the moment the votes were counted. To be honest, it probably ceased to be relevant some time before the votes were even cast. But there was no way to reframe the issue at that point. This reframing should have been the immediate consequence of that No vote. It didn’t happen. Essentially, nothing happened.
To be more accurate, lots of things happened. But none of these things were brought about by the SNP or what remained of the Yes campaign organisation. It was all stuff that was done to Scotland rather than stuff that was done by Scotland. There was squandering of opportunities on an epic scale.
The purpose here is not a recriminatory rant about the past. Easy and gratifying as it would be to go down that road, looking backwards is only justified if there may be lessons there that serve us in good stead for the future. All those lessons tell us that the Yes campaign next time has to be totally different from the Yes campaign last time. Yet the only remarkable thing about the responses from “senior campaigners” to the question “Do we need a new Yes Scotland?” is the fact that they are all talking as if the first referendum never happened. Or at least as if it changed nothing. It changed everything! Everything, that is, except these “senior campaigners”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, former Yes Scotland CEO, Blair Jenkins, comes closest to spelling out what is now required. He just doesn’t go far enough. He is not explicit enough. For example, he grabbed my attention when he was quoted as saying,
There is a growing sense in Scotland we need to get off the path we are on – that is everyday conversation with people.Do we need new Yes Scotland? Senior campaigners weigh in on big question
I found myself urging Blair to go on. There is a point here well worth expanding on. If, as he seems to be suggesting, we need to move on from the idea of ‘selling’ independence in one-to-one face-to-face exchanges with voters, what does he reckon is the best alternative? What should we be doing? He doesn’t say! Instead, we get some boilerplate about unity and participation and activism. I desperately wanted him to continue with his first thought on the matter. I was left disappointed.
If I was disappointed by the response from Blair Jenkins then this turned to disgust when we heard from the SNP’s Toni Giugliano. Even if anything else he said made good sense it was all overshadowed by his obnoxious comment about Alba. In one breath this bollard talks of “mass-mobilisation”. In the next he’s alienating a sizable chunk of the mass he hopes to mobilise by talk of “intolerant fringe groups like Alba”. And why the f*** is he even mentioning the incident in Perth involving James Cook? Why bring that up? It soon becomes clear why as Toni Giugliano offers us some of that old SNP control-freakery.
Step up Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp, founder and chief executive of Believe in Scotland and a man who claims his is a “totally independent, non-political” organisation. Independent of whom? The SNP? Presumably that’s what he means. He constantly protests his “independence” from the SNP. Some might think he protests a bit too much. It may be true that Believe in Scotland is not formally affiliated with the SNP. It may be that there are no evident connections or obvious control. But why would there need to be when his organisation is so closely aligned with the SNP as to have all the characteristics of one of the party’s front organisations? Let’s face it! If there is to be some kind of revolt against Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional issue it is not going to be led by Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp.
When we speak of a united Yes movement, we must surely have in mind something that is inclusive beyond those groups, organisations and individuals that are indistinguishable from the SNP. We must surely be speaking of an inclusiveness that extends to Alba. But Toni Giugliano makes it all too clear that this is not what the SNP has in mind. Having tasted his intolerance, I don’t suppose for one moment that Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp’s idea of a new Yes Scotland is any less an exclusive club than that envisaged by Mr Giugliano.
At least Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp recognises that unity under an SNP-led Yes Scotland organisation is so unlikely as to be not worth considering. But I suspect he imagines his own organisation or something very like it might serve as the core of a new umbrella group for the Yes campaign. Which I have to say would be barely one remove from the SNP itself and so no more acceptable to the mass of the Yes movement than an SNP club with Toni Giugliano as membership secretary.
Then Tommy Sheppard MP weighs in.
I think a Yes Scotland campaign along the lines of what it was last time is essential.
I think that’s all we need to hear from Tommy. I am increasingly persuaded ─ largely thanks to the efforts of on Pete Wishart MP ─ that being in Westminster has distorted the perspective on SNP MPs. Not all of them to the same extent, to be sure. But when Tommy Sheppard comes out with a remark like this you have to wonder what it is he sees when he turns his gaze northwards. Of course, it may be that he is just toeing the party line. Which involves going along with what we might call the ‘Sturgeon orthodoxy’. He just doesn’t want to contradict his ‘boss’.
Mike Russell turns out to be another adherent to the ‘Sturgeon orthodoxy’. The most striking thing about his response to the question about a new Yes Scotland is the planet-weight irony of the SNP President referring to “Westminster control-freak politicians and parties”. That’s not thunder you hear. It’s the sound of a million jaws dropping.
Other than that, what we find is that like other “senior campaigners” Mike Russell’s thinking on a new official Yes campaign organisation doesn’t embrace anything not withing arms-reach of the SNP. It’s the same cosy wee league of the like-minded envisaged by all the other “senior campaigners”. No dissenting voices. No fresh thinking. No new ideas. Just strict adherence to the Sturgeon orthodoxy.
It’s time to move on ─ both in relation to the Yes campaign and with this article. Not only because next up is Ross Greer and there is no way I can possibly think of him as “senior”, but because it’s time to say something about what this very senior campaigner thinks about a new Yes Scotland. I was not asked, of course. Not that I personally expected to be. But it is obvious that nobody was asked who might have rocked the boat even very gently. No dissenting voices. Isn’t it always the way?
When considering such matters as the Yes campaign in a new referendum my preferred approach is to think first of what would be ideal and then, assuming this ideal to be unachievable, what might come closest to it or serve as an acceptable substitute. The ideal as I identified it would have been a Yes campaign led by the party of independence and backed by the entire Yes movement. I could explain why this is ideal, but given that it is clearly not going to happen, what would be the point? As stated earlier, the official Yes Scotland campaign organisation will be whatever the SNP wants it to be. That’s a given. What is left to be decided is how we can make the best of what for maybe as much as half of the Yes activist base is a situation which is at best hard to accept and at worst totally unacceptable. We might think of this as the dissenting half of the Yes activist base. It may not be as much as half and not all will dissent to the same extent. But a simplification is helpful at this juncture and shouldn’t mislead anyone who doesn’t want to misunderstand.
The dissenters can, in turn, be divided into two groups ─ those who find the SNP-led Yes Scotland impossible to work with. And those who might be able to work with the SNP-led campaign with a bit of teeth-grinding and nose-holding. The latter has a choice to make. The former has no choice. Both need a choice. Assuming, as a we must, that all of the dissenters are committed to Scotland’s cause and that Scotland’s cause needs all the activists that can be mustered, there has to be a Yes Scotland campaign organisation to which they can turn. This seems no more than the inevitable and unavoidable logic of the situation. Not the ideal, perhaps. Maybe not even the perfect substitute for the ideal. But there seems no other viable option if the Yes campaign as a whole is not to be deprived of a large body of activists.
We need not one but two Yes Scotland’s. The one that we’re getting whether we like it or not. And the one that dissenters can turn to in order to do their bit for the fight to restore Scotland’s independence. The one that dissenters must create for ourselves. A separate but not competing campaign to the on being managed by the official Yes Scotland organisation. A campaign that augments the official one. Says the thing the official Yes Scotland campaign can’t or won’t say. A campaign that reaches the people the official Yes Scotland campaign doesn’t.
We need to build this organisation and we are already late. We have to find a way of bringing together all the groups and organisations that aren’t included in the Yes Scotland envisaged by those “senior campaigners”. And we need to do this as a matter of urgency. In a subsequent piece I will set out my own thoughts on how we go about creating ‘Yes Scotland Unofficial’ in the hope of kick-starting a discussion.
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