CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says the indy movement has a lot to be upbeat about after the General Election
I REALISE that it might feel counterintuitive for a lot of you but, although disappointed, I’m feeling really quite positive about yesterday’s outcomes.
My biggest concern is absolutely not about whether we face a bigger barrier to independence (which I don’t think we do) but that this may hit morale and that we could do without a dip in morale right now.
So, here are some reasons to be cheerful.
1.) We can all finally agree that the movement must be more than the SNP
For reasons good and bad, since the first referendum the interests of independence have at all times been relegated behind the interests of the biggest political party supporting independence.
There are times when I was fully behind that – for example, the 2016 Holyrood election was one where I felt strongly that the issues to focus on should be domestic policy, not independence.
But there are quite a lot of times when I was also very frustrated. I am a detailed observer of the art of the press release. For a long time now it has been absolutely clear to me that both the SNP and the Scottish Government had a policy of never defending independence on an issues basis.
So when a bad GERS figure came out, all the SNP or Scottish Government would talk about was how they had put some money into Scottish Enterprise to grow the economy.
In fact, if you go back and look at every comment put out in response to an indy question you’ll find that in every occasion they answered it on the basis of the domestic policies of the SNP.
I know that there are voices round the SNP leadership who have promoted this ‘get away from indy’ strategy because they thought that it was ‘Nicola’s’ personality that was winning them everything.
In fact, the person who Nicola Sturgeon recently appointed as her de facto chief adviser (Ewan Crawford) wrote an article the week after the first referendum saying that the reason he thought we lost was because of the impact of the wider movement and the grassroots campaign.
In his view, all the positivity and grassroots enthusiasm put off the middle class vote and needed to be closed down. That seems to have become the leadership’s policy; notable signs of support for a wider movement have been hard to find.
This has been justified on one basis – that the SNP was so overwhelmingly popular that they were a self-contained ‘movement’ all by themselves, that they could win independence on their own.
It was never true. Even at the peak the SNP wasn’t getting numbers that would have been enough to win a second referendum (yes, they were getting just over 50 per cent, but of a turnout much lower than the indyref).
I’m afraid that this delusion was promoted by too many people. Every time someone said or wrote ‘only the SNP can win independence’, my heart sank. It was a troubling misreading of the reality of the Scottish electorate.
Independence was only ever going to be won by a broad-based campaign that could reach beyond the SNP. People who thought independence could be won by the SNP alone have slowed progress.
We always needed to decouple independence from party politics. This was prevented. Now it can’t be. Since you can’t win an argument without arguing, the simple fact that we can finally be in a place to make a case, unashamedly and proudly, is liberating.
‘All you need is Nat’ was an unhelpful tune to be singing. A much more effective range of voices can now be set free.
2.) We can finally stop talking about referendums
This is a little technical, but for reasons I don’t quite understand the indy side doesn’t do qualitative (or indeed quantitative) research. This is the business of focus groups and opinion polling. It is the foundation from which political strategy is built.
Because we on the indy side don’t do this, I’m just guessing. But I am guessing fairly confidently that the other side has done their qualitative research. This is structured discussion work aimed at finding out how people are really feeling.
I would put money that what the unionist research has discovered is that people’s attitude to independence is much less hostile right now than people’s attitude to referendums.
I mean, even the most pro-indy of you out there can’t possibly claim to be wholeheartedly looking forward to yet another referendum. They’re a pain in the arse. They’re a necessary and an important route to change, but in the way that visiting the dentist is an important route to teeth that don’t hurt.
From everything I’ve seen from the other side, I’d guess that they have discovered that independence isn’t actually unpopular. If it was, they’d be attacking independence.
But they’re not. They are – 100 per cent – attacking an independence REFERENDUM. The trigger word here is referendum, not independence.
I’m afraid that I think that Sturgeon fell into this trap almost completely. She has talked about nothing other than referendums, Section 28 orders, parliamentary votes for referendums. And did I mention referendums?
But her people have told her not to talk about actual independence (what currency, what vision, what difference would it make and all that stuff). Like a mouse sidling up to the cheese in a trap, we’ve done precisely what they wanted us to.
So now we can absolutely stop talking about referendums (no-one is now talking about that happening in the very near future). Instead, we can start talking about what would be so great about an independent Scotland.
Do not underestimate how good this would be for us – or how much it would disrupt the other side’s ‘no referendum’ strategy.
3.) Everything about this election tells me we can win
If I believed that Labour had gained from presenting a unionist position, I’d be feeling more pessimistic. I’m almost sure that’s not what happened.
In fact, I suspect that Labour lost hardcore unionists to the Tories (who really believe this stuff). That I believe they then gained a lot of indy supporters who were frankly disappointed with the SNP pitch may be bad for the SNP, but it is NOT bad for the independence movement.
My worry was that the moment when Scots could be won over on a ‘boldness and hope’ agenda might have passed. I’ve been concerned that we may have squandered the ‘indyref moment’ and that people’s hopes have diminished.
This tells me that, among our core target audience, they absolutely have not. They didn’t ‘go Labour’ because of Dugdale or Murray. They went Labour despite Dugdale and Murray and entirely because of Corbyn.
If we had to win independence on the basis of caution and stability (and all that), I’m not sure we could have done it. It’s the wrong dynamic for a big decision like that.
Instead, I simply think the SNP has paid a heavy price for two years of uninspiring, managerial government. It is absolutely not too late for them to turn that around, but this is a different issue than whether we can galvanise a Yes vote.
Yesterday tells me we can. That’s good.
4.) Commentators don’t decide when things happen
We’ve seen a rather odd rush to conclude that the prospects of another independence referendum have disappeared among the commentator set. As always with commentators, they say it with authority but you should take it with a large pinch of salt.
For a start, these are the same commentators who said Corbyn was unelectable (and Hillary had it in the bag and common sense would lead to a Remain vote). They were wrong when they assumed that independence was a done deal after Brexit and they’re likely to be wrong now.
And it is typical of the strange algebra of political commentary that they can read so effectively across a wide spectrum of political complexity and boil it down to one single meaning. There was certainly an anti-independence vote – but there were many, many other kinds of vote, too.
But in any case, there is only one thing that will deliver a second referendum and that is the sheer weight of public opinion. I’ve always thought that we needed to campaign and hit about 60 per cent support for the concept of independence before we’d be able to force a referendum from Westminster.
That’s still what we have to do. Painting the election as a referendum proxy is just page filler.
5.) A coalition of chaos is a helpful backdrop
A giant Tory majority would have brought out the worst in the Tories. That would have set a helpful backdrop for an independence campaign. A chaotic minority Tory administration, however, is no better for unionists.
We’re in a strange (and unexpected) situation where, for indy, we can now say ‘vote No, vote DUP’. Brexit was never going to be good for unionists – at least not during the process. But the impression that at least it was being handled authoritatively would have helped.
The next two years were going to be painful, but they might have looked orderly. That’s less likely. And Ruth Davidson’s Tories may have their heads high in Scotland right now, but will it last? Can they really manage to avoid all responsibility for the actions of a badly damaged UK Tory leadership?
I doubt it. I doubt that 12 MPs beats a May meltdown over the medium term. Conditions are not terrible for us.
6.) We’re ready
Nicola Sturgeon says she needs to go away and reflect. She does. She needs to take John Swinney and Peter Murrell with her. They cannot afford to come out of that particular room unchanged.
We don’t. While none of us have been talking about this, through the Scottish Independence Convention a group of really good people have been working hard over the last few months to develop a strong and effective strategy for winning independence.
There are detailed plans, people in place, major activities ready to go, a very clear focus and genuine optimism about what we think can be done.
We have a pretty detailed strategy for raising substantial sums of money. We have a major programme of political research (those foundations of all strategy I mention) on which we’re ready to press the ‘go’ button.
We are working on detailed plans for a first rate professional campaign organisation. We’re working on major initiatives to train a mass army of grassroots activists in the current leading-edge organising techniques.
(And don’t doubt the effectiveness of this – it is in substantial part precisely these techniques which enabled the Corbyn campaign to unleash the youth vote which did so much to end the Tory majority).
Everyone has been tight-lipped about this. We were planning to meet the SNP straight after the election to talk all this over and, effectively, get their permission. We still will. But I simply don’t see how the SNP could now even consider withholding that permission.
I know it would be great if we could keep the wider movement informed about everything that’s been happening (and I for one am frustrated that we couldn’t) but it is essential that we keep all partners on board – and the SNP is the biggest partner.
So we’ve been patient – but that does not mean we’ve been passive.
The leadership of the SNP must go away and reflect deeply. The rest of us must get on with the work immediately. There is nothing to wait for. No-one is coming to save us. So we begin now.
For all these reasons we’re finally in a position where – as a broad and wide movement that was always more than one political party – we can almost certainly do what we always should have been doing.
I absolutely didn’t want an SNP reversal of the scale we saw on Thursday. But I am afraid that having watched the last two years and the campaign they just ran, it was increasingly inevitable – if not now, then very soon.
The SNP can still be reborn as the party it should have become after 2014. I hope it does. But the interests of the SNP and the interests of the independence movement are now clearly not identical.
If we can all now agree that this is an issue above and beyond party politics, we become stronger. That was always how we were going to win, and now I think we’re much freer to get on with it.
I know a lot of you will be hurting this weekend; some will need a little time. But don’t get too down. We have a pro-independence majority at both Westminster and Holyrood and the means to actually begin an independence campaign.
The conditions still look propitious to me. Thursday needn’t be a setback if we learn the right lessons.
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