Robin McAlpine: Indy movement – stop looking up, start looking out

Ben Wray

Common Weal director Robin McAlpine argues that yet to be released public attitude research on Scottish independence has convinced him that the messages coming out from the top of the Yes movement are way out of kilter with what needs to be done and said to win converts to independence

THE interminable game of armchair indy strategy continues apace – all you need is an anecdote or two, a half-remembered statistic and a couple of untested assumptions and you too can talk confidently about how to win Scottish independence.

The thing that is weird about it is that, like Theresa May telling an audience of northern English factory workers what’s good for them, we seem to have a preference for listening to what the powerful have to say over listening to what voters have to say.

This is very much in my mind just now as a string of statements I’ve heard in recent weeks seems to clash with the very early results of a second round of public attitude research work being carried out by the Scottish Independence Convention.

We’ve just completed a larger (and more detailed) than average opinion poll. I should stress that we’ve not even nearly finished trawling through the findings.

READ MORE: Scottish Brexit minister says 2nd EU vote “now essential” following revelations Vote Leave broke electoral law

It’s worth also being clear that this isn’t a ‘support/don’t support’ kind of poll for media release but an analytical poll. It’s aim is to put forward lots of positive and negative messages about independence and to find out how different demographic and socioeconomic groups react.

In combination with the first phase of qualitative research work it really raises some questions about some of the things I’ve heard people say.

For example, if you talk to members of the public about how much they want to go through more referendums you will struggle to find enthusiasm. This does not mean that they won’t support referendums (our polling hints that we may have passed a tipping point on this one), but only as the least bad option.

So the idea that the best way to get Scotland ready and willing to embrace a Scottish independence referendum is to first make everyone go through the joy of a second Brexit referendum (which could easily be a whole new kind of ugly) is hard to stack up.

READ MORE: SNP MEP warns EU ref re-run could put ‘rocket boosters’ under English far-right

The lowest support for any kind of future referendum in Scotland came straight after the Brexit referendum. It was not an experience people enjoyed. How does inflicting it on them again help?

I know it makes sense from ‘on high’. For the professional political classes Brexit is the system misfiring and undoing it again will put everything right. Then we can get back on with professional politicians running things – and thereby delivering independence.

It just isn’t what the people who vote want.

Or take the statement that ‘at least the Growth Commission has opened up a debate with No voters’. I despair; I’ve been saying for more than two years now that many undecided and unsure voters are ready to start (gently) talking about independence again in a post-Brexit landscape.

It was us who refused to talk to them. Again, this made sense from on high where the first priority was party politics, winning elections and looking good at First Minister’s Questions.

READ MORE: ‘Naïve’ Growth Commission policies won’t improve Scottish growth or productivity, pro-indy economists argue

But we lost a lot of time by not moving forward with our case. And now we’ve taken the best opportunity we had (the first big intervention) and we’ve used it to make the case for post-independence austerity and an insanely risky currency fudge.

(Austerity is routinely defined as limiting spending or raising taxes to reduce a deficit during an economic downturn and need not mean real term cuts. Either the Growth Commission is austerity – or George Osborne’s policies weren’t because they’d have had exactly the same effect. Make your mind up Growth Commission advocates.)

Brexit scared and shocked a lot of people in the ‘wavering middle’. They gained a sense that the UK may be running out of control. They wanted to hear if there was an alternative. But all we said was ‘referendum, referendum, referendum’. We should have listened.

Or a final point; the endless bold statement that the future in Scotland is about winning Tories to independence. To say this is electorally illiterate is an understatement. Even the very early results from our research show that the No and Yes ends of the spectrum have hardened their view since 2014.

In fact a poll this week showed that the mythical indy-swing Tory in Scotland is becoming less reachable, not more. For Growth Commission advocates, please note that 18 per cent of Scots now say they would vote for a far-right anti Muslim party. How does more austerity and increased immigration fit into that story if its Tory votes you’re after?

READ MORE: Europhile & Eurosceptic independence supporters respond to SNP ‘open ear’ on second EU referendum

Again, without giving away too much until it’s been properly analysed, there appears now to be a majority of undecided voters (who are enough to win a referendum for us) who want another referendum on Scottish independence before the 2021 Scottish Elections.

And do you know the big secret about them, the people who didn’t vote Yes but are now undecided? They are exactly like most of the people who DID vote Yes; they were just less sure, less confident. The idea that they’ve all got ‘I Love The British Economy’ t-shirts is laughable.

Again, from above it looks different. Once you reach a certain level in your career you discover that everyone around you is wealthy and you meet fewer and fewer people outside the top five per cent of income earners. (I remember when this first happened to me, a 28-year-old standing with five older men at a drinks reception, them cracking jokes in Latin, me pretending to laugh.)

You come to think this is normality. You start to absorb this social strata as representative. But in Scotland the median salary for a full time employee is about £28k. If you’re part time it is £10k a year. If you’re a pensioner or on benefits you’re below or much closer to the £10k sum.

READ MORE: Exclusive – New demographics of independence report identifies most Yes votes to be found among the working class

There are very many more people who live on less than £25k a year than there are who live on more than £25k a year. In reality, half of all households (never mind individuals) don’t make £25k a year.

But sometimes it feels like, post-Growth Commission, all some people want to talk about is the top five or ten per cent. Looking upwards, not outwards.

This is the opposite of what we need to do if we want to develop a winning independence strategy. Always look outwards, stop looking upwards. Because if you keep looking upwards you start to believe that the primary crisis facing the UK right now is a shortage of au pairs.

It isn’t. I’ve been holding off saying this but the primary crisis in the UK is one of security – in income, housing, employment rights, pensions, town centres, food, banking, politics, running a small business and in so many more areas, the UK has become a predatory paradise for big money and the result is that even the comparatively well-off middle classes feel insecure and worried about the future.

READ MORE: Leading health expert warns austerity could be halting 100 years of rising life expectancy

I’ve believed for a long time that the next independence referendum is won on the basis of insecurity versus security. The UK is an insecure country for most people and is getting worse; we can build a Scotland which promotes a sense of security, of stability for you and your family.

But if you want to make that case you need to argue for a different approach to housing, banking, taxation, employment law, public services and economic development. Austerity and security wouldn’t recognise each other if they met in a lift. More of the same won’t work; a change would be popular.

I’ve deliberately been holding back my view on this because I wanted to wait and see more evidence. I didn’t want to ‘just guess’ a strategy, I want it to be informed. Because we’re not going to get two more shots at this. But time is running out and we’re at risk of going down the wrong path if we don’t discuss this.

So please, stop looking upwards to hear how Scotland can be independent. It’s the voters that count – so why aren’t we listening to them?

Picture courtesy of CommonSpace