Robin McAlpine: Magic thinking is the indy movement’s biggest threat

Ben Wray

Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine argues Boris Johnson is not a silver bullet for Scottish independence – only a positive, well evidenced campaign will get Yes over 50+ per cent

HURRAY! We don’t have to put any real work into campaigning for independence any more because Boris Johnston is going to be the Prime Minister. Our job is done for us.

This is particularly great because many of the polls in the spring of 2016 suggested that if Britain voted for Brexit then independence would secure an immediate majority and that would be that. So not only are we going to win hands-down because of Boris, we have already won hands-down because of Brexit. Stop marching folks – it’s already over, inevitable, just a matter of time.

And thus dies many a campaign. Magical thinking, short cuts and the unwillingness to see the currents flowing the other way are probably the single biggest mistakes campaigners make.

So what do I mean by magical thinking here? It’s very simple. Rational or empirical or scientific thinking very loosely goes A therefore B therefore C. Magical thinking goes A therefore C.

You know there is a problem with a strategy if, at some point as its proponent talks you through it, there is an odd jump, a bit that sticks out as not resulting from what preceded.

Of late the most common version of this has been about Section 30 Orders. For a long time I’ve been saying ‘we can’t get a referendum out of Westminster if we’re behind in the polls’ to which some people reply ‘but that could all change if there’s a General Election’.

Really? What version of a General Election result would mean Westminster won’t have an overwhelming unionist majority?

READ MORE: Analysis: The Tory leadership campaign in Scotland exposes ‘One Nation’ pretensions

‘But Jeremy Corbyn will need to relent so he gets SNP votes to prop up a minority administration’. So the whole of the indy movement’s hopes are pinned on Labour getting precisely enough MPs to be the biggest party but without a majority and that every promise not to negotiate with the SNP turns out to be untrue and the SNP manages to persuade them they can be trusted partners?

I suppose it could happen. I suppose there is a path from A to C, but I have some pretty big problems envisaging exactly what B looks like.

And now we’re getting the strong impression from the SNP that the new strategy is Boris Therefore Independence (having retired their Brexit Therefore Independence strategy a while ago). A therefore C.

Let me just state this clearly for the umpteenth time. Unless we get solid and consistent support for independence at rates clearly above 50 per cent in the polls, there will be no referendum and no independence.

And if we do not take head-on both the weaknesses in our case and the need to tell a much clearer and better story about why independence is good for the lives of the people whom we want to vote for us, we will not get consistent support of 55 per cent.

We’re blatantly exposed by the argument ‘look at the mess of Brexit – independence would be impossible to negotiate’. I know it is working because I have formerly indy-supporting friends who are now expressing doubts.

READ MORE: Linda Bates: Why we need to be Positively Yes for Scotland

We’re all over the place on currency. The SNP leadership really does think the membership endorsed the Growth Commission (which a psychiatrist would diagnose as denial syndrome, but there you go). And they also really seem to believe that the Growth Commission doesn’t include a big dose of austerity. A Therefore C.

Then again, I’ve not seen any of them debate the Growth Commission on a stage. I’ve had to do it and every argument I warned would be thrown at us was, well, thrown at us. More than anything I want to hear what the leadership line is when it can’t just resort to whipping and loyalty (and still they lost).

Because Growth Commission Therefore Positive Case For Independence is only marginally less magical in nature than Growth Commission Therefore No More Questions To Answer.

In the meantime we’ll no doubt all have had fun ripping the pish out of Gordon ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ Brown and his ‘warnings’ about nationalism. I mean this is the guy who started Armed Forces Day to dog-whistle a return to British patriotism post-Iraq War. The man is a grade-A nationalist.

But let’s say we did an epic take-down on Brown. So what? Broon’s Doon Therefore Independence? In what way does it matter if we kick more lumps out of more unionists?

And I know I’ve been writing this over and over since September 19th 2014, but I’ll give up on coherent rational thinking when coherent rational thinking becomes a bad thing. Until then I’ll bore you to death with my endless talk about ‘B’, the bit in between here and there.

READ MORE: Analysis: Jeremy Hunt’s 3 tests on indyref2 have nothing to do with democracy

‘B’ is a story, something we lack. Have a quick read of this. It’s what I’ve been going on about but from someone who isn’t me. Stories win arguments, holes in your case lose them.

Common Weal has done nothing but try to develop a story about what Scotland could be and how it would be better for the lives of the people who live here. And we have gone over every hole in the indy case with rigour and have tried to provide cogent, serious answers.

(I’m delighted people are saying that we need to build the case for independence but I do get a little frustrated that this doesn’t start by reading at least some of the mountain of work we’ve already done – or at least dedicating a whole seven minutes to watching this.)

But positive stories are soooo 2014. Nowadays it’s all don’t scare the bankers/call the BBC names/talk about Brexit a lot. And it’s pretty obviously not working.

It’s infuriating. Nicola Sturgeon seems to me to be barely even pretending there’s any independence referendum coming. Her Citizens’ Assemblies seem to be about Devo Max and won’t be finished until late Spring anyway.

How are we supposed to get a Section 30 Order and referendum held within six months of that? Because then we’re into 2021 and there’s no prospect of anything until after a Scottish Election.

Keith Brown is doing his very best to drag some kind of campaigning on independence to life but it really isn’t seriously supported by the party machine which I can only assume is focussed (as all party machines are) on ever-immanent elections.

It’s time to accept that there is no referendum likely this side of a Scottish Election so there is both time but also an urgency to get this bloody case in proper, working order.

And the need to get the case in order (always strong) is getting stronger. I am increasingly preparing for D. I think just now that even if we get a solid, consistent 55 per cent in favour of independence, Westminster may still stonewall when C (ask for and hold a referendum) comes round.

Which means we are probably going to be plunged into either some form of resignation and in-it-for-the-long-term-ness or we need a concerted, well-organised campaign of mass protest and civil disobedience.

And if we’re forced down that route, it is more important than ever that we’ve worked systematically through the steps needed to legitimise that process.

READ MORE: As Referendums Bill is published, Sturgeon warns of ‘democratic outrage’ if indyref2 is blocked

Of course I see little sign that any of this is actually going to happen. I can barely suppress my frustration at the cack-handed way Sturgeon has led the case for independence. She’s lunged from knee-jerk reaction to knee-jerk reaction and gives every impression of someone playing a game of chess using only a tennis racket. 

If you kind of squint at it from a distance what has been happening might look a bit like a strategy, but look closely and you’ll find a complete absence of ‘B’, the hard bit in the middle.

Prepare a proper, road-tested case, build it into a really good story, take it to the people of Scotland with energy, creativity and passion, get majority support, demand a referendum and then prepare for a vibrant referendum campaign if we get one or a sharp, hard fight if it is rejected.

That was, is, will always be the path to us winning. Everything else was, is and will always be an illusion.

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