Wasted years

Yes Scotland, the official campaign organisation for the Yes side in the first Scottish independence referendum, was launched on 25 May 2012. Almost eight years ago. By that time we had known for fully a year that there definitely would be a referendum on account of the SNP landslide victory in the Scottish Parliament elections. Assuming the SNP had not done any preparation for the referendum in the previous 77 years of its existence, that means the party has had almost nine years to develop a campaign strategy. Nine years plus the experience of an actual independence referendum campaign. And here we have Angus “Rip Van” Robertson proudly telling us how busy he’s going to be in 2020 working out the best way to convince No voters to back independence.

Am I the only one who sees something wrong with this picture?

I don’t claim to have all the answers. But what I can say is that before September 2014 was out I had started to seriously think about the next referendum. I had tentatively worked out a date and put significant effort into consideration of what lessons learned from the campaign just past might inform a new campaign. By early 2015 I was ready to engage in meaningful discussion about a plan for the new independence referendum; from the arguments for having a fresh vote through the framing of the referendum itself to the basics of the Yes campaign strategy.

Of course, there were developments over the intervening years that had to be taken into consideration and much to be derived from discussion and debate with other independence campaigners. But I had things worked out well enough that when the EU referendum came along in 2016 I was already pretty clear about how it would impact plans for a new independence referendum in September 2018.

I say all this, not to brag – I may well have made fatal errors in my analysis and my plans could have been quite useless. The point I’m making is that it was perfectly possible to start planning for a new referendum immediately the result of the first one was known. Even if some wound-licking time was required there has been at least five years in which the not inconsiderable resources of the SNP could and should have been devoted to developing at least the bones of a campaign strategy. But here we are in 2020, with supposedly only months to go before the launch of a new referendum campaign, and the party is just now working on “understanding how and why people are changing their minds about Scottish independence”.

It would be gratifying to think that this was just a matter of putting the final touches to an already well developed plan. Or maybe adjusting details in the light of events. But nothing of what I’ve heard and read from the SNP in recent times gives me any confidence that the party has any ideas beyond simply re-running the old campaign – with added gentleness. And whatever confidence I might have had instantly evaporated on finding Angus Robertson looking to former Labour politician Douglas Alexander. That’s right! The same Douglas Alexander who made a total arse of running the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections. The man who was part of Gordon Brown’s inner circle at the time of the election that never was. The man who played a significant role on the anti-independence side of the 2014 referendum campaign.

Actually, that last might be the only thing that could possibly qualify Alexander as someone you would look to for advice about campaigning. He was on the winning side, after all.

What Angus Robertson has done with his column in The National today is remind us that it is not only in the matter of getting a new referendum that there are serious concerns about the SNP’s approach to the constitutional issue. There are also questions to be asked about the party’s preparedness for a campaign which we are assured will start in as little as six months time. Questions which, if recent experience is any guide, will remain unanswered.

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Out of time

I fear the Yes movement has rather left Angus Robertson behind. All this stuff about “focus groups” and “research” and “the pro-independence message” just seems so 2012. The political landscape has changed dramatically since the first Scottish independence referendum. Many of us realised even in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 referendum that there would have to be another – and that it would be very different. This realisation doesn’t appear to have reached the higher echelons of the SNP. Which, considering the vital role the party has in the independence movement, is more than a little disturbing.

We are months away from a new referendum. I know the First Minister is talking about the “latter half” of 2020, but that has to be no more than political gamesmanship. Brexit is happening on 31 October 2019. There is no realistic possibility of the EU granting a further extension, even less chance of Article 50 being revoked and only slightly better odds on a UK general election being called. Even if any of these things wasn’t such a long shot, we simply cannot afford to proceed on the assumption that they will happen. The policy of hoping for the best while preparing for the worst is well past its sell-by date.

The timetable has shifted by a year. So all the arguments that were relevant to having the referendum in September 2018 now apply to September 2019. The constitutional implications of Brexit for Scotland – which have been quietly festering in the background while everybody has been distracted by pointless ‘economic arguments’ – will now kick in towards the end of this year. And they will kick in hard. Because, by the end of the summer, the Tories will have chosen a new leader and a new British Prime Minister. They look set to choose a hard-right ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist.

First day on the job, this new Tory PM will be looking for a way to make his mark. (Let’s assume, for convenience, that the male pronoun is appropriate.) He will want to impress the massive chunk of the Tory vote which absconded to Farage’s ‘Brexit Party’ in the European Parliament elections. It will also suit him to divert attention from the whole Brexit shambles, This will be easier than trying to pretend he is in control of the situation. He could declare war on Iran. Or he could declare war on Scotland’s independence movement. Which do you think is more likely?

Taking all of this into account, Thursday 19 September 2019 looks like a good day for that new referendum. Which means the ‘hot’ campaign would start around the beginning of August.

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But, of course, campaigning will be going on all through the eight weeks before that. We have to think very hard about the nature of that campaign. Some of us have been thinking about it since the day after the 2014 vote. Angus Robertson has a bit of catching up to do. In fact, he has a huge amount of catching up to do if the SNP is to provide the leadership that the independence movement will need over the next few months. To be talking about research and focus groups at this stage seems oddly detached from the situation on the ground.

Unless Nicola Sturgeon has a team beavering away in a secret lair inside a volcano somewhere, it looks as if no preparation at all has been done for the coming referendum campaign. The impression is that groups like Progress Scotland have been hastily cobbled together to give the appearance of being on top of the situation. But it’s all too late.

Seven or eight years too late, by my reckoning. Because when I read what Angus Robertson says about “research” and “focus groups” and formulating the “pro-independence message”, I’m reading about preparations for the 2014 referendum. I’m reading about preparations for the wrong campaign. I’m reading about preparations which are, not only tragically belated, but woefully misguided.

All of which puts a burden of responsibility on the increasing number of people in the Yes movement who realise the need for a new referendum this year and recognise that the campaign must take the form of an all-out assault on the Union. If the SNP leadership isn’t listening, then we have to shout louder.

We will have an opportunity to try again to get Nicola Sturgeon’s attention at #AUOBGalashiels on Saturday 1 June. A date which, coincidentally, should mark the start of the campaign to #DissolveTheUnion. We must ask ourselves, if the SNP won’t take the lead in this campaign, who will?

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Preparing for a pillow fight

There are two fallacies in this article about Progress Scotland which, because they are so enthusiastically embraced by so many in the Yes movement, drive me to despair.

Firstly, there is the fallacy of ‘clarity’ about Brexit. The one thing that can never come out of the Brexit mess is clarity. The UK’s relationship with the EU and the rest of the world will be in a state of turbulent flux for many years. Probably many decades. Nothing useful can be known about it. As evidenced by the list provided.

But by the end of April the Brexit fog should have lifted to some extent anyway. Voters should know if the UK has left the EU, and if it has crashed out without a deal or left with May’s deal, perhaps with a tweak to the political declaration (the non legally binding part of the agreement she struck with the EU).

What part of that makes the slightest difference to the fact that Scotland voted against Brexit? What difference does any of it make to the fact that our democratic choice was treated with utter contempt by the British state? What difference does it make to the fact that this contempt is not only facilitated by the Union, but rendered inevitable by it?

The worrying thing about the whole Progress Scotland thing is that the entire project appears to be founded on the assumption that the Scottish Government will not use the mandate that it has. It assumes that the Scottish Government will do nothing to prevent Scotland being dragged out of the EU against the will of the people. It assumes that the Scottish Government will fail in its solemn duty to defend Scotland’s interests. And fail catastrophically.

A corollary of all this is that the Scottish Government is content that Scotland should continue to be treated with contempt ‘for the time being’. Certainly, there is no indication that the Scottish Government intends to do anything to change this situation.

The second fallacy is the notion that there is some mystical form of words by which the ‘positive case for independence’ will be made irresistible to those as yet unpersuaded. How can there possibly be a “fresh case for Yes”? Even ignoring all the campaigning that went before, since at least 2012 countless groups and organisations have been presenting their own ‘vision’ of independence. Over a period of around seven years, every possible formulation of the independence ‘message’ has been presented.

Indeed, this was a large part of the reason the Yes campaign was less effective than it should have been. There was no single, clear, concise campaign message. There were countless different messages. The campaign was diffuse, vague and confusing – if not actually confused. The campaign had thrust, but no sharp point. As I have said before, we took a pillow to a sword fight.

Independence is not a complex concept. So why are people trying to make it so? Who benefits from this unnecessary complexity? Our political leaders and others in a position to influence the Yes campaign strategy are falling once again into the trap of taking on an obligation to answer any and all questions posed by those resolved to preserve the Union at any cost. They are, at least tacitly, accepting the proposition that it is only when all these questions have been answered satisfactorily that Scotland will qualify for dependence.

The idiocy of this should be obvious. In the first place, there is no limit to the questions that can be posed. Once you accept that you have to explain yourself, the demand for further explanation is potentially infinite. And the explanations can never be satisfactory when the ones asserting the role of ultimate arbiters are the ones who are resolve to preserve the Union at any cost.

Advocates of the ‘pillow’ strategy will protest that it is not those resolved to preserve the Union at any cost who are being addressed. They will insist that it is ‘soft Nos’, or some such elusively defined group. But this is British politics. What matters is not reality, but perception. And who controls the overwhelmingly powerful machinery for manipulating perceptions? Why! It’s those resolved to… you know the rest. If no other lesson is drawn from the 2014 referendum campaign could it please at least be the fact that it doesn’t matter how often or how thoroughly or how comprehensively or even how convincingly questions are answered and/or explanations provided, the British state’s propaganda apparatus will endure the general perception that no satisfactory answers or explanations have been forthcoming. And if at any time it seems that the answers and explanations provided might gain some traction on the terrain of public opinion, the British state’s propaganda apparatus will move, not just the goalposts, but the entire bloody pitch!

There are, in fact, a multitude of lessons to be learned from the 2014 referendum campaign. I despair, not least, because it looks like all of those lessons are being ignored in favour of airy-fairy notions of a ‘fresh case for Yes’ or promised ‘clarity’ or an ‘optimal time’ out there somewhere that will come to us if we just wait long enough.

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