Analysis: The independence movement’s diverging strategies

Ben Wray

The British state’s profound crisis, centred on Brexit, is forcing new debates inside the SNP and wider independence movement

POLITICAL crises have a way of forcing division and clarity in the strategies of political movements.

The Scottish independence movement has faced many sharp turns and new situations since the 2014 referendum.

It now faces a huge test, and diverging approaches are emerging on what the Brexit and wider crisis of the British state means for Scottish independence.

Scotland’s opportunity – the independence now tendency

In an interview with the Sunday National (20 January) former SNP leader Alex Salmond made the argument that the crisis of the British state provided an opportunity for an independence movement ready to exploit it.

He said: “Nicola should be concentrating all her energies on the independence agenda when we will never have better circumstances. As far as I am concerned Westminster’s Brexit difficulty should be Scotland’s opportunity.”

“One of our features in the national movement has been our inability to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of our political opponents. We have tended to concentrate on what shape we are in.

“However, right now the Westminster political establishment is at its weakest point in my lifetime while the national movement is in good heart. There is not likely to be a better time to force the issue.”

Salmond was himself the key architect of the SNP’s modern gradualist approach to independence, effectively quashing the fundamentalist wing after the success of the campaign for the Scottish Parliament in 1997, which Salmond presented as a stepping stone towards the final goal of independence.

The new divisions opening within the party are in a sense related to the fundamentalist/gradualist split (which which was itself always messy and impacted by a wider array of political factors). But if anything they are a magnification of those debates, through the prism of an unprecedented crisis which has drawn all corners of the Islands into its orbit.

Salmond is backed in his outlook by current and former elected SNP politicians, and by a considerable swathe of the broader Scottish independence movement, who see Britain’s crisis as the perfect context from which to launch a full throttle independence drive.

Steady as she goes – the caution and consensus tendency

Another faction is, at the least, more cautious in its approach. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is naturally the political embodiment of this tendency. She has maintained an array of stances – voicing support for soft Brexit, a second EU referendum, a General Election and most recently, as the Brexit date draws near, the extension of Article 50 and the prolongation of the crisis.

In some ways, as the crisis worsens, Sturgeon has kept up a now familiar balancing act. For media pronouncements she largely presents the SNP as defenders of a ‘small s’ status quo – speaking out not just for Scotland’s but the UK’s place within the EU. To her base she preaches another message, the need for Scottish independence to close the democratic deficit so exposed on the 23 June 2016 when a majority of Scots voters backed Remain and a majority of UK voters to Leave.

With Sturgeon, realtivley silent on her approach for reasons of realpolitik, it has fallen to others to represent the case.

An article by Joyce McMillan in the Scotsman (Friday 18 January) argues it fluently. The crisis, rather than provide an opening means that the UK Government will shut down any calls for another referendum.

The alternative to an agreed vote, a Catalan style referendum, “could set the cause of independence back by a decade” as most Scots only want constitutional matters settled “legally and calmly”.

This argument, that was shared online by several leading party figures and thinkers including Pete Wishart MP, Growth Commission chair Andrew Wilson and several leading party councillors, calls for independence supporters to respect Sturgeon “proceeding with great caution” as the natural route to “a peaceful confederation of countries” in the British isles.

We cannot know if McMillan’s belief, that this acute crisis of the British state is not an opportunity but an obstacle to Scottish independence, is shared by Sturgeon. But if it is, then the strategic views of two significant sections of the party are opposed on quite a fundamental point of analysis. 

The complication of a ‘People’s Vote’

Owing partly to what the People’s Vote campaign is – a well funded and organised lobbying and public relations operation – it arrived upon the SNP on cat’s paw. In the days leading up to the party’s 2018 conference it was announced that the party would support moves to a UK wide second vote on EU membership, though neither they nor the wider People’s Vote front knew what the options in that referendum would be.

Having suddenly appeared on the SNP’s radar, a second referendum was ratified at SNP conference and then seemed rapidly to eclipse other strategic options – among them a General Election and an independence referendum, though both of these remained nominally on the table.

Now that approach is under strain. Whie no specific polling has been conducted, it’s likely that far more MPs, including the full regiment of SNP MPs, support a General Election, whereas a second EU referendum is opposed by some SNP MPs, including Pete Wishart, a significant section of Labour MPs, the DUP and most Conservative MPs. According to a Sky News poll, the second referendum also lags in the polls – 44 per cent in favour to 56 per cent opposed.

Perhaps more importantly, it is also under strain within the broader independence movement. Large parts of the movement have always been wary (at best) about a People’s Vote, led as it is by figures of the same political character as those who led the Better Together campaign in 2014.

Wishart, the SNP’s longest standing MP, and someone who has warned against moving towards a Scottish independence push soon, spoke out strongly against a second EU referendum on the basis that this would be used against any future independence vote.

Meanwhile Angus McNeil MP, very much an ally of Salmond and a proponent of an aggressive independence policy, concurs on the basis that the independence movement should not be trying to rescue the British state from crisis.

Joanna Cherry MP, an emerging leadership figure in the party, is both a Salmond loyalist and a People’s Vote supporter.

So the SNP and the wider independence movement is a complicated picture. Under pressure from the crisis of the British state, independence strategies appear to be fragmenting and diverging.

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