Robin McAlpine: For independence supporters, the next 12 months will not be a walk in the park

“We will get there – but if you think the next six months are some kind of cakewalk, or that the six months after that are going to be a doddle, you need to think again.”

I HAD A FRIEND I always watched the football with when I was younger, in part because we shared an unshakeable belief in the Scottish Jinx. At two-nil up with five minutes to go, the only thing that could induce the opposition to fire in two long-range screamers was either one of us saying “that’s it in the bag now”. (Einstein mocked “spooky action at a distance” – and Einstein was wrong.)

You can therefore imagine my deep unease at the indy movement chatter about being ‘closer than ever’ (all temporal events are closer than they were yesterday), having ‘won the arguments’ (the equivalent of having ‘played the better football in a three-nil defeat), or pro-independence sentiment being ‘the settled will’ (wills that settle in a few months aren’t settled at all).

Excuse my misery, but I feel like I need to put a bit of a dampener on all of this. Let me give you a few reasons to worry – and a few possible solutions.

How much will you gamble on a ‘referendum on Sturgeon’?

At the moment, the only possible election strategy for the current SNP given the direction they’ve taken is to turn the 2021 Holyrood election into a referendum on Nicola Sturgeon as a leader. ‘Look at the approval ratings’, they say.

But how much are you ready to gamble on this? Of course Sturgeon has high ratings at the moment, given how much of the government’s resources have gone into promotion, with her at the forefront and Boris Johnson the comparator. She’s been here before; approval ratings of 60 per cent (2015) followed by very rapid contraction of that rating.

So what happens if this is yet another presidential-style election focused on her (which I think is a safe bet)? In the current context, it opens up the one avenue of attack that could prove really productive for her opponents – her probity.

There is no chance of the Tories making progress in this election on policy, personality or performance. There is no chance of Labour making progress based on leadership (which will also undermine policy). But they can both take chunks out of Sturgeon on probity.

The mainstream media isn’t playing ball with the matter of missing money from SNP accounts, in potential violation of fundraising and money laundering laws – yet. (The Father Ted defence doesn’t work here – there is no legal way for the money to ‘rest in another account’.)

So dodgy money will in all likelihood be a factor. So will misleading parliament, for which there is already enough evidence to make campaigning tricky. Likewise, the Ministerial Code.

What could also sink the whole ship is if it is possible to pin on her accusations of using the powers of government to create procedures designed to target an individual and potentially put them in jail. It is really difficult to stress enough how high up the list of ‘really bad abuses of democratic power’ that is.

Sturgeon herself is placing her whole defence on two shoogly pegs – failing to disclose incriminating evidence and her faith that she can talk her way out of it all.

So ask yourself this – what does a three-month election campaign look like when the only subject any of the opposition parties raise is her probity? What do you think that does? “It was a busy day?” Really?

There are two solutions, provided events don’t intervene. Sturgeon could instead make the campaign about ‘a team’ – but she likely won’t. Or she could make this about a programme for government, but she can’t because…

Defending the government’s track record is difficult

I shall take some care here and suggest gently that it would be a difficult election campaign if the opposition take the first minister at her word and judge her on her record in education. Her entire programme was ill-conceived and fell apart (and she was widely warned about this outcome in advance).

So what domestic policy track record might Sturgeon actually want to spend time talking about during this campaign? If you’ve got an answer to that, then you’re doing better than me (and please don’t say baby boxes).

I laugh my socks off that her only serious achievement is the Scottish National Investment Bank, a Common Weal idea they wouldn’t consider for three years until we forced them to listen via a grassroots campaign.

How could you fix this? You could pitch a ‘big, bold programme of change’ to move the focus forward, something like Resilient Scotland. But when you’ve spent six years calling every piece of government mediocrity big, bold and world leading, how do you cut through? Or put another way: after five years of exaggeration and hyperbole, how do you shift up a gear?

Covid is not a get out of jail free card

The answer from Sturgeon loyalists is ‘yes, but look how well she’s handled Covid – that wipes the rest of it off the board’. But she hasn’t. Other than in rhetoric, she’s up there with the worst of them in terms of performance.

I’ve just given up on the Covid debate in Scotland. There is conclusive evidence of failure, the repeated and utterly cynical misstating of facts, lack of transparency, lack of planning, an appalling death rate, the repeated fiddling with evidence to claim exoneration – but still all the chattering class go on about is approval ratings, like life and death come second to popularity.

In July and August, Sturgeon was taking a victory lap and ignored the signs that a second wave of infection had already started. That’s why we’re where we are.

When you are broadcast live and uninterrupted every day of the week, months on end, you get to spray homilies around and project an image of caring. That’s not how election campaigns are fought – the opposition have full license to go after you and you can’t just well up and refuse to answer.

So a whole election campaign which is all about care home deaths anyone? Or the reopening of universities? How many times do you think we’ll hear ‘but your government said testing was a distraction’?

There is inevitably going to be a pretty damaging reevaluation of the real Covid performance of the Scottish Government at some point. What happens if that takes place during the election?

The solution would be to go easy on over-claiming Covid performance and instead focus on recovery (keep moving forward). But as above, Covid is the primary foundation of the election strategy and they simply don’t have a credible recovery plan.

We are perched atop a flaky coalition

The whole Nicola Sturgeon/Andrew Wilson strategy is an absolute mirror image of the Joe Biden strategy (this link is really worth reading). They are willing to sacrifice voters they don’t want (working class for Sturgeon/Wilson, poor, young and non-whites for Biden) for ones they do want (affluent professionals in both cases).

But to understand why this is very dangerous for independence you need to understand why the Democrats did so badly. This coalition was flakey in its very essence; the swing voters they targeted voted for Biden against Trump, but they didn’t vote Democrat ‘down ballot’. That is why Biden looks like he will be trapped as a lame duck president without control of the House.

This is the problem with swing voters – they swing. Studies have repeatedly shown that they are volatile and often don’t settle where they swing (sort of by definition you can’t create a ‘settled will’ out of the voters most likely to change their minds).

Sturgeon pitches herself as the acceptable face of independence to a group that don’t really support independence. The chances of holding that vote steady through a referendum campaign are at best variable – and to get them, we have driven away working-class voters. Yet that is the voting bloc we relied on in 2014 and they won’t swing, they just won’t turn out.

This works well for those who mainly want to drag the SNP even further to the right, but it is bad for independence where we need turnout and a diverse base of committed voters.

The solution to this would be to build a stable coalition, but that would involve engaging the working classes, the small business community, public sector workers, climate change movement, people under 35 and so on. That is not what is happening and we are going to live to regret it.

The polls aren’t solid enough

‘But the polls – we must be doing something right’ say the loyalists. Well Wales is doing the same thing apparently. So is Keir Starmer and he’s clearly rubbish. In reality, it has already been conclusively shown that the rise in support for independence has little to do with Sturgeon and everything to do with loathing of Boris Johnson.

What happens when Johnson gets the heave ho (which is most certainly coming)? Remember in 2016, when the loyalists told you that after 2015 (massive election win, sky-high approval ratings for Sturgeon) there would never be another setback for the SNP?

Do you remember the setback in 2016 when they lost the parliamentary majority? Or in 2017 when they greatly underperformed in the local elections? Or again in 2017, when the snap Westminster election went badly wrong? Remember, 2019 was arguably the outlier, not the pattern.

What to do? Stop basing everything on polls.

We’re not ready

Sorry, Ian Blackford – it’s not just that you can’t deliver a Section 30 Order next year; you couldn’t get the arrangements for a referendum in place in time anyway. And if you could, it would be a disaster.

If we continue to pretend we can win a referendum based on the Growth Commission (a whole campaign about austerity and IMF bailouts) then by the time we find out that the overwhelming number of critics who have torn it apart (including its own members) were right, it’s too late.

And for now, there is no democratic way to change the SNP position because Sturgeon and Murrell have basically suspended party democracy. Add to that the fact that every campaign Peter Murrell has touched has been of incredibly low quality; letting him run a referendum campaign is inconceivable.

But all other options for actually running a campaign have been blocked. We have nothing in place apart from a deeply dysfunctional SNP HQ.

Those who think we can replace this with a mass online membership organisation should be more realistic. I’m a big supporter of All Under One Banner, but giving it the lead campaigning role? Governing it through digital democracy?

We’ve been here before. That’s what the National Yes Registry and the IndyApp were going to be. I gently argued that this was a misunderstanding of how the world works and I was right. I’m gently telling you that again. I’ll be joining and supporting YesAlba (or whatever it is to be called), but I’ll recognise the limitations of building such an organisation from scratch given where we are.

But it does highlight another real problem; a movement driven by loyalty for five years has very badly lost confidence in those to whom it was loyal. Never, ever underestimate what happens when a demoralised army is forced into battle.

We’re not ready to fight. We can be quickly, but not in twelve months.


This may all sound like misery, but that doesn’t reflect how I feel. I’m not really miserable about where we are because it’s a really strong and promising position. Were I to pick a foundation from which to win independence, this one would be more than fine.

But we’re not fighting independence; independence is just a sideshow in Sturgeon internal psychodrama. The longer that is the case, the more harm will be done.

Nor am I suggesting the SNP won’t do well in the Holyrood election, purely because so much of the pro-indy vote is solid and the opposition are so dreadfully bad. But I wouldn’t bank on an overall majority.

For five years we’ve been told to ignore every warning sign and pretend. I was called so many names for saying there wasn’t going to be a referendum before 2018, and again about 2018, and 2019, and 2020. I tried to warn that the IndyApp wasn’t the solution. I’ve been outlining the deep problems with the domestic agenda, with the state of preparedness, with the Growth Commission.

I didn’t do these things for any reason other than trying to contribute to getting us to a better place and that’s all I’m doing now. We will get there – but if you think the next six months are some kind of cakewalk, or that the six months after that are going to be a doddle, you need to think again.

There is one rule to winning – if you’re two-nil up with five minutes to go, make it three.