Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine argues that there is two wrong approaches to independence, both of which must be avoided – the passive approach and the politically immature approach
PHEW, thank goodness John Major won the 1992 General Election, because otherwise the devolution movement’s patient 20-year plan would have been scuppered.
That seems to be part of the conclusion to be drawn from the much-discussed Joyce McMillan column – and it’s completely wrong.
But before I move into some criticism I should also say that there is plenty in her column I agree with. So while on the one hand she promotes a strange, passive version of history in which people didn’t act, events just happened, still she does warn against a ‘smash it all up’ version of the future – and she’s right.
I just want to argue that the route forward for Scottish independence must be somewhere between these extremes of stoicism and fury.
First the stoicism. I find it quite remarkable that McMillan refers to the devolution movement as having ‘waited patiently’ throughout the 1980s and 1990s. My mother (Isobel Lindsay) was one of the leading campaigners throughout this period. My memory contains no trace of ‘waiting patiently’.
This was the era of the miners’ strike, the fight against the closure of Scotland’s steel industry, the rise of CND and the anti-nuclear struggle, against Thatcher and poverty in so many forms it’s hard to recount, against the Poll Tax, against increasing surveillance, against privatisation – the list is enormous.
Far from waiting patiently, this was an era of disruption and struggle, and it was the struggle which delivered the consensus McMillan talks of, not some fictional ‘tea and scones’ conversion of ‘middle Scotland’ by a moderate political class.
The fights and manoeuvring and cajoling and relentless work that was put in by the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament was constant. You think the universities, the churches, the trade unions, the business community, the finance sector and many others were always on board? You think there was no bitter opposition, no dirty tricks, no struggle?
But history is written by those who get the jobs once the fight is over. By 1997 there was a strong, hard-fought consensus in Scotland. So when there was an overwhelming win in the devolution referendum, a lot of latecomers to the cause started telling themselves that this was ‘non-political’, a settled-will kind of thing.
It’s just rubbish – wills don’t settle themselves. All history is a struggle, which the ruling class retrospectively turns into a safe inevitability. You know, like the post-war Atlee government setting up the welfare state not being a radical revolution but rather a comfy ‘national treasure’ thing, because looking at it 60 years later it’s embedded in society.
But it was a radical revolution. It was fought for by people who faced enormous opposition. Power never willingly accepts that much of history was a story of people fighting it.
The idea that this whitewashed version of our history (in which ‘respectable centrists’ just wait around until the conditions make change inevitable) is dangerous because it makes people believe that this could be a path into the future.
So let me be clear, independence movement, if we act like waiting patiently until the perfect moment is a serious strategy, we’ll be crushed.
Of course, that’s mainly what people looking in from the outside suggest we should do. The bigger problem inside the movement is frustration and impatience. Nothing wrong with that – unless it leads to us making decisions that lack political maturity.
It is therefore worth making a point which is insufficiently made – there isn’t really a desirable version of Scottish independence which is not agreed between Scotland and a remainder UK. We really want it to be agreed by both parties.
This is fundamental; if the UK refused to recognise an independent Scotland after some manoeuvre which led to any kind of declaration of independence not mutually agreed, we’d have some problems which would be hard to surmount.
Firstly, it would be very unlikely that any other major power would then recognise Scotland, leaving us in a kind of Kosovo-style limbo. We wouldn’t be able to join the UN, would be unlikely to be in a position to start the process of joining the EU, the WTO and so on. Certainly for those who want to join NATO, that would be highly unlikely.
In fact, we’d probably be left floating around in a constitutional twilight zone for a number of years until we were forced back to negotiate with the UK – and not from a position of strength.
I share your frustration and impatience, but I think people should use it to reform the centralised decision-making processes that led to your frustration and be very wary of letting it bubble over into taking rash steps that weaken our position.
To be clear – calling a referendum she knows she can’t hold may be a calculation Nicola Sturgeon thinks can buy her more breathing space with a party and movement which is not happy with how it has been led. It might bolster her position inside the party for a 2021 Scottish Election.
But the price would be paid by the cause. Independence would be weakened. We’d look like we were out of touch with reality. It would do nothing to win people towards the case for independence.
Yes, I know that I’m like a broken record on this, but that’s because it was true and it is still true – we need to do the work before we call a referendum, not use the calling of a referendum to create ‘permission’ to begin the work.
There is a parliamentary mandate to ask for a referendum; that means little. There is no soft political mandate (i.e. a decent majority of people in Scotland saying they want another referendum) which would lead Westminster to think it has to say yes. So Westminster won’t say yes – and it probably won’t even face much of a backlash.
And those crying ‘but we’ve got the mandate now and might not after 2021’ sound awfully like they’re saying ‘quick, we’re losing, better just chuck everything we have at the problem right now in one giant Hail Mary’.
So we need to approach this with maturity. We need to get our head round the fact that independence is not and never was purely about calling a referendum. It is not even purely about winning a referendum. It is about Scotland becoming an independent nation, taking its place among the world’s other nations.
Which means we need to plan for afterwards as well as before. Which means we need to work within reality. No Deal independence contains far too many problems to be the desired option.
But we can’t approach this with the mindset of the ruling class who believe that history was just ‘circumstances’ and so the future is just the result of ‘politeness and patience’, with some establishment-approved messiah waiting to take the stage at the appropriate moment, place the crown on their head and await the cries of adulation from a (passive) citizenry.
After all, that is precisely the strategy we’ve been following for a number of years now and it has been a disaster.
We must fight now, or lose. That fight must be to win over ten per cent of No voters to gain a strong majority for independence in the polls. From there we can be in a position to ask for a referendum that will be much harder to refuse – and where the refusal would provoke a real backlash.
To win over that ten per cent of No voters we need to listen to what they’re asking for. They’re not asking for a sharp turn to the right from the independence movement. They’re not asking us to be a facsimile of Westminster’s bankers’ politics. They’re just asking us for some more detail on the plans, and to persuade them that it’s worth it. Right now, that has nothing to do with referendums.
But there is one other thing that McMillan seems to have forgotten when writing this particular column; devolution was a moral fight in the face of the democratic and social injustice of Thatcherism. It was vital and urgent because the injustice was real and the victims really bled.
I worry that we sometimes forget that independence too is a moral fight; a moral fight against the fact that Thatcherism and its brutality still dominates British politics 40 years later. We fight for a better nation because the victims of Britain’s brutal economy still bleed to this day.
When we wait, when we say ‘there’s plenty time’, we betray the very people who supported us in 2014. That wasn’t the establishment dinner party set in Edinburgh; it was the vast swathes of Scotland who know they get a raw deal out of the UK.
If we want to learn from the devolution era, we should learn that you can’t ever give up the fight, that the fight must be clever and not just furious – but that the fight must always be a moral fight, a fight to make lives better.
That has always been our path to independence. It still is.
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