I like to tell the story of the vague epiphany I underwent some years ago when, during the open discussion section of a meeting at which I was guest speaker, someone used the phrase “dissolve the Union”. One of the things I most enjoyed about those speaking engagements was that I almost always came away with some fresh idea or insight gleaned from exchanges with individuals in the audience. My thinking on various matters was changed ─ dramatically or minutely ─ by listening to what others had to say. It might be just the way they phrased a question causing me to adopt a fresh perspective. Or, as in the instance I’m referring to, it could be just a word or phrase that seemed particularly apt.
I can’t recall exactly where or when this epiphany occurred. Neither, regrettably, can I remember the name of the gentleman who used the phrase “dissolve the Union”. But I distinctly remember how it fit my then thinking on the independence campaign like an essential piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Even back then I was firmly persuaded that we needed a massive rethink of the way we approached the constitutional issue. I had long recognised that we required a comprehensive reframing exercise informed by experience of the 2014 referendum campaign. The main idea was to shift the focus from ‘winning independence’ to ‘ending the Union’. To my mind, the phrase #DissolveTheUnion neatly encapsulated the ‘new thinking’ in a hashtag.
It also happens from time to time that one of these mini-epiphanies will be triggered by my own writing. Sometimes I write what I think. Sometimes I write in order to find out what I think. On the odd occasion, something is reflected back to me from the page almost as if it was put there by someone else. What is written to express one idea conveys a different idea when read. So it was when I wrote the following. (Emphasis added)
In this concept of devolved and sovereign powers we find a corrective for much of the ‘old thinking’ within Scotland’s independence movement. For example, the idea of ‘gradualism’ looks rather different when one realises that according to what appears to be a ‘iron law’ of constitutional tinkering, no amount of devolved power can ever translate into independence.Sovereign powers and devolved powers
Reading that passage back to myself, it occurred to me that a useful way of analysis the divisions in the independence movement might be in terms of old thinking versus new thinking. Which is not to imply a simple dichotomy. But there is a definite distinction to be drawn between the thinking on the constitutional issue of ten years ago and thinking on the matter now. Be warned! May contain generalisations!
The old thinking was that we would get a Section 30 order; hold a constitutional referendum; persuade people to vote Yes by selling independence like a time-share in Marbella; and independence would follow. That thinking was wrong in every regard and in every sense of the word. I have said enough in the past about the folly of requesting a Section 30 order and how it necessarily compromised the sovereignty of Scotland’s people. I won’t go through all of those arguments again her. But the Section 30 process was (and remains) a very bad idea because it does not allow a proper constitutional referendum as many (most?) of us supposed we were getting in 2014. Mainly, this is due to the ‘iron law’ of constitutional politics which states that sovereign powers cannot derive from devolved powers.
The new thinking is that even if the Yes side had won the 2014 ─ even if by a substantial margin ─ we still would not have seen Scotland’s independence restored. The British would have reneged on the undertaking to respect the result. Or rather, they would have insisted that respecting the result didn’t necessarily involve acting on it. The new thinking is that the British will never cooperate with any process which puts the Union in jeopardy. This is because the battle between the Union and constitutional normality for Scotland is existential for both sides.
We were wrong in a different way about the Yes campaign. Many, I know, will reject the idea that the first referendum campaign was all about trying to persuade people to vote Yes by selling independence like a time-share in Marbella.. It is, perhaps, an overstatement to put it in such terms. But the gist of it is accurate enough. The Yes campaign for the 2014 referendum was relentlessly positive ─ mainly at the urging of the SNP. Any hint of negativity was severely frowned upon. This made for a very joyful campaign, no doubt. And, up to a point, a very successful campaign. But only up to a point. After which, nothing! The Yes vote in the 2014 referendum was 44.70%. The average of the first 12 polls after Nicola Sturgeon took over from Alex Salmond was 44.25%. The average for the 12 polls up to 27 November 2022 is 44.33%. There has been no change.
There also has been no campaign. Not in any real sense. The campaigns for referendums announced at various points over the last eight years never actually happened because the referendums never happened. But there has been constant background campaigning. Various parts of the Yes movement have kept the campaign engine running in various ways. Whether it is producing mountains of statistics and charts and graphs, like Business for Scotland, or organising marches or draping flags from bridges, there has always been some kind of campaigning going on even while Nicola Sturgeon adopted a strategy of pusillanimous prevarication. Overwhelmingly, this campaigning has followed the old thinking of relentless positivity. Making the positive case for independence was the name of the game, and for many that was the only game there was.
The new thinking is that this relentlessly positive campaigning has achieved all it can achieve. All the convertibles who were susceptible to one or other of the ‘visions’ on offer have been converted. The new thinking is that the additional Yes votes needed by Scotland’s cause can now only come from among those who identify as Unionists. And/or the unengaged who, by definition, don’t take a side at all. The new thinking is that within the section of the electorate identifying as Unionist there will always be a certain proportion who are having doubts. Among the unengaged, there will always be a few who might be reengaged with the right kind of provocation. The new thinking is that these potential sources of additional support for Yes will be reached by the negative campaigning which was almost entirely missing from the first referendum campaign. The new thinking is that we reframe the constitutional issue as a fight against the Union rather than solely as a fight for independence.
This reframing of the constitutional issue is arguably the most important aspect of the new thinking. It is closely linked, however, to a rethinking of the role of the British state in the process of restoring Scotland’s independence. The old thinking is that independence is something that has to be won from and/or negotiated with the British state. The new thinking is that there is no role for the British state in the process of restoring Scotland’s independence. The new thinking regards the British state as an external power. The new thinking maintains that the process of restoring Scotland’s independence must happen entirely within Scotland through Scotland’s established democratic institutions and with the consent of the Scottish electorate.
Readers will doubtless come up with more examples illustrating the contrasts between the thinking of a decade ago and the thinking in a present dramatically changed in almost every way imaginable. That the old thinking still pervades the Yes movement is a problem for Scotland’s cause. That the First Minister and the Scottish Government are so firmly lodged in the old thinking is a potential tragedy for the nation. Scotland’s entire political class is failing us at this crucial time. A wake-up call is urgently required.
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