Robin McAlpine: Problems, problems everywhere – but none that can’t be fixed


CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine takes a look at some of the immediate challenges facing the independence movement

A FEW weeks ago I was worried that too many in the independence movement could only see the future in terms of success and were in denial about a number of problems. Now people have started to see the future only in terms of a series of problems.

So here are a few of the problems and what I think are fairly straightforward solutions.

Westminster will now never give us a referendum

Nope, it won’t – but Westminster was never going to give us another referendum. The idea that rationality or technical arguments about Brexit would unlock some technocratic route to a Section 30 order were simply examples of bad thinking. We always had to take it from them.

And there was always only one way to take it – make it politically impossible not to. And that always required a high level of support for independence. A few months of 60 per cent support for independence and Westminster will be in trouble. Fail to get there and we’ll be in trouble.

It’s simple – we need to win people over to independence before a referendum, not during.

The SNP has lost its mojo

Yes it has – but that happened a while ago. The idea that the SNP was an effective campaign outfit during the independence referendum is really difficult to sustain. It’s messaging was weak, it’s materials were mediocre (please SNP, no more bloody babies pictures with banal stock phrases that seem to have come from a fortune cookie), the strategy hard to discern.

It has got steadily worse since; for me the 2017 General Election campaign was perhaps a nadir. I can’t remember any major political party devising such a weak and unfocused campaign in my lifetime. And if you include organisational management, it still managed to be better than the local election campaign.

However, these are all professional and technical failings; good staff could fix all this, and good staff can be recruited fast. Just as long as the SNP can break its habit of seeing a job vacancy as an opportunity to reward some loyal-but-limited party figure.

The SNP could be a fighting fit campaign and administrative organisation by next year, if it wanted to be.

The Scottish Government has been uninspiring

Yes, that’s true – but mostly through inaction rather than outright failure (though I rather expect the education reforms will become the latter). It would be much harder to turn this around if there were a string of disasters behind them. Instead, it’s more like a vacuum. And those can be easily filled.

Common Weal has published ‘Renew’ – a suggestion of six packages of policy options the Scottish Government could pursue. There are plenty others. It just requires nerve and will power (and some kind of recognition that the neoliberal centre ground was the wrong place to be).

Nicola Sturgeon has seen a collapse in public attitudes towards her

Yes, that’s true. She’s lost 32 percentage points in approval in just over a year, and there were clear signs throughout. In fact, she lost a full 18 points between March and September last year, a time when the media believed she was ‘playing a blinder’.

Unfortunately, such is the fate of all personality-focused strategies. Did no-one think all those life-sized cardboard cutouts and all that flying around in helicopters might not go down well in Scotland? This is a country with a philosophy one poet described as “ca’ the legs aff the big bastard”.

But this doesn’t need to be fatal – not many politicians are actually all that popular. The Scottish Government has failed to promote a wider range of talent. If it does that, the relentless focus on Sturgeon becomes less problematic.

And the independence movement always needed many more audible voices who were not paid-up party politicians. An effective team is almost always a better option than focusing on a single person anyway.

But we’re all so reliant on the SNP and the Scottish Government

Yes we are – but that can be addressed. Let’s start by being clear; all that talk of ‘only the SNP can deliver independence’ was only rhetorical trickery for party political benefit. The truth is much more specific; only an SNP-led Scottish Government can deliver a Section 30 order enabling a vote.

That is absolutely true; the reason it is essential the SNP gets its game together is that we need it to be in a position to do its job in parliament. That is the one role that only the SNP can deliver.

And I’m afraid that the idea it was going to deliver it completely on its own was again party political rhetoric and counterproductive. Banking on a decade of majority SNP rule in a proportional parliament now looks faintly ridiculous, but it was widespread currency in 2016. It’s going to take a coalition.

That is doubly true of the actual campaign. As I’ve already suggested, that needs to be cross-party and non-party, and not (visibly) led by party politicians. That’s the only way to win, so getting on with it is the key.

Yes, but the party is so centralised, can it change?

That is my biggest worry. I don’t think I’ve seen a party which is quite so centrally controlled as the SNP – and I worked for Labour in the early Blair years. The clique at the centre of the SNP is tiny and is frankly disdainful of outsiders.

Some figure close to the leadership gave a briefing to The Sun claiming that since the independence referendum was a “highly political issue” it was above cabinet responsibility and would be decided by the first minister alone. It was one of the most outrageous statements I’ve ever heard in politics. Were I a member of cabinet I’d have been absolutely furious, just not that surprised.

Because it is a universal truth that the way you do things becomes how you see the world, and the way the SNP leadership has done things is to make it clear that the membership should do nothing more than nod when prompted.

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It’s very frustrating for me because the SNP genuinely has an amazing membership – bright and lively and full of ideas. It needs to remember that loyalty does not mean doing what you’re told but doing what you need to for the cause. (And yes it’s been perpetual election mode – but that’s not a sufficient excuse.)

So it’s not all the leadership’s fault – the reason parties have structures like a national executive committee and governments have cabinets is precisely to balance the inevitable centralising tendency of leaders. They should have acted to prevent this – and must do so now.

But for now this is the bit about which I have least confidence – I’ve never known a political leadership to get itself out of its own problems. It’s very difficult to unthink what you’ve thought for two years. They need rescued from outside.

But that ‘outside’ (cabinet, elected politicians, wider membership) isn’t really up to speed with how to rescue a leadership. It needs to learn fast.

But nothing has been done to move us forward

Not true. Lots has been done, it’s just not visible enough – and the SNP simply hasn’t yet embraced what has been done.

The Scottish Independence Convention has reasonably detailed plans for developing the campaign. Common Weal has done a mountain of work fixing aspects of the policy case. Lots of local groups have been doing what they can to sustain and invigorate the movement.

Unfortunately, the reflexive response of the SNP leadership has generally been to treat these initiatives as if they’re a threat. No-one ever talks to us. I’d be paranoid, but I know lots and lots of parts of the movement and they don’t get talked to either. It’s not that we’re nowhere near ready. In reality we’re close.

It has been SNP caution which has proved the barrier, not the movement, not our capability of solving problems, our technical knowledge, our enthusiasm or commitment. If the SNP would only remove its damn, this movement could flow freely in a very short space of time.

Fine, but people need a roadmap

Let us be honest that as of June 2017, we shouldn’t be over-confident or make automatic assumptions about achieving a pro-indy majority in the 2021 Scottish elections (though we absolutely can).

So let’s think autumn 2020 or thereabouts for a vote on independence. We start developing a campaign and its fundraising capacity right now (opinion research, building a campaign organisation). We get ready to launch early in 2018.

Later this year we get local groups organised and trained – and feeding back ground-level information. By summer next year we’re into an effective pro-independence campaign. In time for that we’ve had a summit and sorted out the prospectus – not by one person dictating it to everyone else.

Then we campaign for 18 months, never once mentioning a referendum. We need to get to 60 per cent. Then we prepare a blistering campaign focused on Westminister if it is still blocking the public will. Civil disobedience if need be.

We get either a Section 30 order or an advisory referendum in Scotland and a constitutional crisis. If we stay at 60 per cent, we win, either way.

Picture: CommonSpace

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