Funny how things come together sometimes. I was planning on writing a piece inspired by a January 2018 Guardian interview with then SNP Westminster Group Deputy Leader, Kirsty Blackman, that was brought to my attention the other day. It seems unlikely that the interview escaped my attention back then, but I have no recollection. It should be the sort of thing that would stick in my mind, given that at the time I was vigorously urging a September 2018 referendum. But I have no recollection. As ever, I was trying to think of a good opening. Then I realised that I hadn’t done my customary ‘most viewed article of the month’ post for October. That article was Where is the anger? ─ a commentary on Mhairi Hunter’s ‘clarification’ Tweet the day after Nicola Sturgeon announced her big plan for getting Scotland’s cause moving again after eight years in the doldrums. The connection between Mhairi Hunter’s Tweet and the Kirsty Blackman interview nearly five years earlier looked like being a great way to start this article.
As it transpires, the article has actually opened with the above explanation of how I came to think of the opening that I intended. Funny how things fall apart sometimes.
The connection between the two items relates to mindset. More specifically, the mindset that prevails in the leadership of the self-styled ‘party of independence’. Mhairi Hunter’s Tweet reveals this mindset. The Kirsty Blackman interview tells us it’s nothing new. The SNP has been moving away from deserving a strapline suggesting independence as its main focus for quite some time. Probably ever since Nicola Sturgeon took over as SNP leader, First Minister and de facto head of the independence movement.
It’s probably best if I remind everybody of the content of the now notorious ‘clarification’ statement offered by Nicola Sturgeon’s close confidante and former election agent as well as the part of the Kirsty Blackman interview to which it connects. Excuse me while I post two substantial chunks of quoted text. First, here’s what Mhairi Hunter said.
If Supreme Court finds Scotland Act prevents Scotparl legislating for an indyref, and if there is no movement from UK Gov & allies (including Labour), pro indy parties will campaign in next GE for a mandate to start indy negotiations with UK Gov. It will be a de facto referendum.
A successful outcome will not lead to a declaration of independence. There is no route to independence that does not involve the agreement of UK Gov. But it would be politically impossible to continue to deny a mandate for a second referendum in the face of a Yes win.Mhairi Hunter 🇺🇦 (@MhairiHunter) June 29, 2022
And here is the relevant extract from Heather Stewart’s Kirsty Blackman interview more than four years earlier.
She is markedly less keen to talk about Scottish independence, the SNP’s founding principle. The slide in the party’s fortunes in June follows its leader Nicola Sturgeon’s political gamble of demanding a second independence referendum before the final Brexit deal is done.
The Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, ran a pro-union campaign in the election, accusing the first minister of opportunism and urging her to “get back to the day job” of governing Scotland.
Blackman says she is not in Westminster to pressure the government for a referendum. “I don’t think most folk in their daily lives give two hoots about whether Scotland is a member of the union. The constitutional issues are not the biggest concern for an awful lot of people and, in fact, I very rarely talk about Scottish independence in the chamber, because I talk about things that matter to the people of Aberdeen.”Kirsty Blackman: ‘Excuse me, I’d rather shake hands’
It is necessary to explain the importance of Mhairi Blackman’s statement because, despite it’s obvious import, many people remain convinced that the Scottish Government is proposing a real independence referendum in 2023. That is to say, a referendum that would initiate the process of dissolving the Union and restoring Scotland’s independence in the event of a Yes vote. Hunter’s ‘clarification’ tells us, with striking forthrightness, that this is not the case. That referendum, should it go ahead, can achieve nothing for Scotland’s cause. It is, to use Anthony Salamone’s term, an “empty” democratic exercise. (For more on this, see The pretendy referendum.)
The Blackman interview tells us that this borderline disdain for the constitutional issue is not a recent development. The signs and signals that the SNP was pushing independence further and further down the agenda were there in January 2018. They were there long before that, in fact. With the advantage of hindsight, we can see evidence of this deprioritisation of the constitutional issue as far back as 2015. What links the two messages is not just the fact that each in its way says the SNP doesn’t consider the restoration of Scotland’s independence a matter of any urgency whatever. The thought that comes to my mind on reading both these messages is that Scotland’s cause could and should have been in a much better place than it was when the statements were made.
Many people dismiss the idea of a September 2018 referendum saying it could not possibly have been won. That’s because they are too shallow-minded to realise that, had there been the intention to hold #Referendum2018, then the situation would have been markedly different. They stupidly imagine a referendum suddenly happening at a moment when the polls were not promising for Yes. They lack the wits to realise that the decision to hold that referendum would have to be have been made years earlier. Perhaps as early as 2015. They lack the imagination to see how this would have drastically altered the circumstances.
Had the decision been taken in 2015 or early 2016 that there would be another referendum on the fourth anniversary of the first one, this would have captured the tremendous momentum that the Yes movement had in the wake of the 2014 result. From that point on, nothing would have been as it actually was. There would have been a live campaign to keep the Yes movement focused and united. Rather than embarking on an idiotic quest to reverse the Brexit vote, the SNP and the wider Yes campaign could have used the contempt shown by the British for Scotland’s people’s democratic choice to remain in the EU to maintain the momentum. We would have arrived at September 2018 well placed to achieve a decisive Yes vote.
Similarly, when we look at Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘big plan’ to hold a referendum that is no more than a glorified opinion poll with a ‘Plan B’ to somehow make the next UK general election a plebiscite, we see that it too is barely a pale shadow of what might have been if restoring independence was a top priority for the SNP leadership. If Nicola Sturgeon hadn’t committed all of us to the Section 30 process, as she did. If she hadn’t decided to shut down the entire independence campaign in March 2020 but had instead seized the golden opportunity to develop online campaigning. If she had gone into the 2021 Scottish Parliament election with a #MandateForIndependence. How different things would be now!
All of those bad choices had the effect of painting Nicola Sturgeon into a corner. She had to deliver a referendum. But she couldn’t go back on her commitment to the Section 30 process and remains determined to avoid the confrontation that is inevitable if independence is pursued with any vigour. So it couldn’t be a real independence referendum. It could only be an advisory referendum that would have no effect. So, we get the proposed 2023 referendum in which, to quote Mhairi Hunter, “A successful outcome will not lead to a declaration of independence.”.
Blackman’s words, meanwhile, indicate just how unimportant the constitutional issue was to the SNP in early 2018. Bear in mind that, at the time, Blackman was Deputy Leader of the SNP group at Westminster ─ one of the party’s most senior spokespersons. She would not have been so disdainful of the independence issue had she not been confident that her attitude was not going to offend Nicola Sturgeon. Her statement also exhibits that lack of self-awareness which we have come to expect from anyone speak to us from the confines of Westminster. As she told Heather Stewart that her constituents had absolutely no interest in independence it evidently didn’t occur to her that as a representative of the ‘party of independence’, a big part of her job is to keep her constituents interested. With here statement, she is almost boasting about her failure in this regard.
To explain what I mean about mindset, I’m going to quote from an article published here in March 2021.
The sovereignty of the people of Scotland and the right of self-determination that is ours by virtue of the fact that Scotland is a nation. My point is that someone who fully comprehends these concepts; when they are an established part of their worldview; when they are an ineradicable facet of their mindset constantly standing on alert in their subconscious, that person would tend not to use a phrase such as ‘once in a generation/lifetime’ in the context of the exercise by the sovereign people of Scotland of our inalienable right of self-determination.
They would tend not to say such a thing because they would be intuitively aware that in its implications and connotation the phrase clashes jarringly with those essential concepts. Indelibly imprinted on their minds would be the principle that no power or authority may rightfully constrain the absolute right of the people of Scotland to choose by means of a democratic process the form of government which we consider best serves our needs, priorities and aspirations.
It simply would not occur to a person equipped with such a mindset that a phrase such as ‘once in a generation’ might sensibly be used in the context of a constitutional referendum. If it did occur to them then they would be pulled up short of actually uttering the phrase by an instinctive awareness of how inappropriate it would be.Mindset and language
We must stop thinking of independence as something that would be nice if only we could persuade Westminster to allow it. We must start thinking of independence as something which is ours by absolute right but which is being illegitimately withheld by a British ruling elite afflicted with the imperialist attitudes of a bygone age. We should not be deferring to Westminster at all far less in the manner and to the extent that Nicola Sturgeon does.
The problem is that the SNP has succumbed under Sturgeon to the mindset of a party operating within the British political system. It is the mindset of a party and a leader focused entirely on the pursuit of power and not at all on the aims of the movement which spawned it. It is not true to say that the SNP has abandoned the pursuit of independence, as some maintain. It is, however, very obviously true to say that the SNP now gives precedence to matters other than the constitutional issue. Independence has been relegated from overarching aim to just one among other electoral issues. Given the urgency of Scotland’s predicament, this deprioritisation has an effect barely distinguishable from having forsaken Scotland’s cause altogether.
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