CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine is rejoicing at the prospect of getting down to business with the independence case
HURRAY. We’re finally ready to begin.
There are moments in politics where you can see a clear turning point, one which alters the dynamics. Yesterday felt like one of those.
Because in the First Minister’s announcement we heard what I think was the first, solid workable and winnable route forward for Scottish independence since 2014.
Work now as a broad movement to win support for independence as a goal in its own right and not the byproduct of Brexit or anything else. Inspire, and do it together. Build support, get unionists back on the back foot and don’t talk about referendums until we’re ready.
“Work now as a broad movement to win support for independence as a goal in its own right and not the byproduct of Brexit or anything else.”
We have been weak because we’ve been stuck on process and our opponents have been strong because they got to attack relentlessly a process which in itself isn’t that popular. But if we’re talking about how to build a better Scotland, they have to get back to knocking that vision – and defending their Brexit-DUP-May reality.
Add to that a serious refresh of the domestic agenda and there are so many reasons to be optimistic. For the first time in quite a long time I feel like I can let out all three cheers, wholeheartedly.
But what will it all look like? I’ve written a few times on the broad skeleton of a structure for going forward. But that may not provide a clear picture on what it would look like.
So let me be clear about my view; for about five years I have argued consistently that you cannot ‘manage’ or reassure people into accepting a big change like Scottish independence. It’s a leap, and to get people to take a leap you must either make them scared of what they’re escaping or excited and motivated about what they’re jumping towards.
“You cannot ‘manage’ or reassure people into accepting a big change like Scottish independence.”
We need to inspire with vision and hope. But that does not mean we don’t need to be organised and professional. If you’re pushing all the hope stuff but people still have a big fear at the back of their mind which you’ve not addressed properly, inspiration might not be enough.
So we need to do proper, professional-quality research work. We need to know who is most susceptible to changing from No to Yes, what would be the kind of thing that gets a non-voter out to vote and so on.
When you have that information you can use it in many ways. I recognise that a central independence campaign organisation can’t pursue all the arguments I’d like it to, because I’m more on the radical end of the spectrum.
So the central campaign needs to do solid, technical things like get good databases together, develop some top level messaging which is calibrated to the outcomes of its research, reacts to fill holes in the case and so on.
“We need to do proper, professional-quality research work. We need to know who is most susceptible to changing from No to Yes, what would be the kind of thing that gets a non-voter out to vote.”
But it can also be sharing its information with, for example, Women for Independence or Common Weal. At Common Weal, if the research finds that the big fear is uncertainty over currency, we can promote our suite of reports (here, here and here) explaining calmly and simply how that uncertainty can be resolved.
But if it turned out that funding public services is the bigger fear then we could put more emphasis in our campaigning on the work we’ve done on Gers, on tax (we have a major report coming which tax expert Richard Murphy is working on) and on economic development.
(The New Labour parallel with focus groups is wrong; they used focus groups to shape their fundamental principles. That’s patently wrong. But once you know what your principles are and what you’re fighting for, using the best possible research to help you become most effective in arguing for those principles and make you better at fighting for what you’re fighting for is what successful campaigns do.)
“What is so important about the First Minister’s invocation of a wider movement is the recognition that much of the excitement and inspiration will come from that wider movement.”
A new ‘Yes Scotland’ (or whatever a collective campaign organisation is called) should provide a professional and technical spine. It should help to organise people, coordinate activity, deal with the media, provide training and resources and so on.
It also needs a core message, a core case, a core campaign, and this must be something that all its partners can live with. It must be a message of hope.
But what is so important about the First Minister’s invocation of a wider movement is the recognition that much of the excitement and inspiration will come from that wider movement.
So we have a spine to the campaign which provides really strong direction and coordination along with those technical services. But it still leaves an independent movement free to produce vision.
“The idea that every local Yes group wants to start from scratch and invent its own campaign is simply not my experience.”
And much has been talked about the ‘grassroots’, but I think there are different concepts being confused here. So groups like the Radical Independence Campaign or Pensioners for Independence are grassroots, but they’re national campaigning organisations.
There is a different kind of grassroots which is all about localism. Many of them don’t have their own agenda or strategy – they just want to contribute to winning. They’re screaming out for leadership, support and coordination.
The idea that every local Yes group wants to start from scratch and invent its own campaign is simply not my experience. They want to deliver a really strong campaign to which they can add a local accent.
“What a new independence campaign won’t look like is Scotland in Union, creeping around in the shadows running the Scottish Labour Party like a puppet reading Lord Darling’s scripts.”
Local groups have invaluable local knowledge that you can’t get any other way. Give them a solid framework of a campaign and they’ll deliver top-notch local campaigns tailored to local needs and issues.
Probably the best model for this is the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US. This wasn’t a ‘centrally controlled’ campaign like the Clinton campaign – it involved thousands upon thousands of motivated campaigners each of whom had real ownership of their role.
But the main campaign provided them with training, support, resources and the foundations of a strategy. It isn’t a choice between Stalinism and anarchy.
What a new independence campaign won’t look like is Scotland in Union, creeping around in the shadows running the Scottish Labour Party like a puppet reading Lord Darling’s scripts. It’s going to look much more like the 2014 campaign, only with a lot better technical organisation.
Another thing which cheers me up a lot is a recognition that this is about Scotland, not about Brussels or Westminster. Too much has been focused on what’s wrong with others and not enough has talked about what we could be.
“Yet another positive aspect of the announcement was the recognition that we need to get our case together.”
And yet another positive aspect of the announcement was the recognition that we need to get our case together. It’s a little difficult to tell what if anything is going on with the ‘Growth Commission’, but the fact that it doesn’t accept submissions or talk formally to anyone suggests it’s not taking the right approach.
What reassures me is that the mountain of work we’re ploughing through with the Common Weal White Paper Project [LINK: http://allofusfirst.org/library/the-white-paper-project-version-10/] (and obviously I know what is in a lot of its future publications) has shown there really is a solid case with few if any gaps, that the case is something we can all rally round and that it is attractive and very ‘sellable’.
I don’t know if anyone has been thinking about a mechanism for achieving a shared prospectus, but it should be a priority. I’d very much like to see a ‘Claim of Right’ -style launch of that new broad prospectus.
“It would draw a line under the old campaign and all the old and increasingly out-of-date unionist tropes about deficits and currency fears.”
It would draw a line under the old campaign and all the old and increasingly out-of-date unionist tropes about deficits and currency fears. If done well it would give us something solid from which to kick off the new campaign while forcing unionists to defend Brexit.
Do not underestimate the effect of that shift. In rugby if you’re awarded a penalty (particularly near your opponent’s line) you get a generous period of advantage which is known as a ‘free ball’. For a while, you can do what you want with almost no consequences.
Unionists in general and Ruth Davidson in particular have been playing a free ball for two years now. The second referendum question was binary and had nothing to do with the UK as it is – either you hold one or you don’t. If you’re in favour of ‘don’t’, there’s not much more to say.
Ruth Davidson can stop and start wars, she can prevent or require legislation that saves tenants of social housing burning to death, all tax rates are ‘Ruth Rates’. She holds the power, so she answers for it all.
But now Davidson holds the balance of power in the UK. She commands 13 MPs who represent the Tories’ tenuous grip on power. Other than ‘acts of god’, everything – almost literally everything – is her responsibility, her fault.
With a sweep of her finger, Davidson can stop or start anything. She can stop and start wars, she can prevent or require legislation that saves tenants of social housing burning to death, all tax rates are ‘Ruth Rates’. She holds the power, so she answers for it all.
Cowering behind her and fatally wounded is Kezia Dugdale, alive only because the party leader she despises saved her.
“I suspect that Davidson’s only vision of the future is her reputation not being destroyed. I imagine Dugdale’s vision of the future doesn’t stretch far beyond surviving.”
I suspect that Davidson’s only vision of the future is her reputation not being destroyed. I imagine Dugdale’s vision of the future doesn’t stretch far beyond surviving.
I don’t doubt that unionists won the ‘Battle of Referendum Technicalities’, a battle I don’t think we should have been fighting in the first place. Yesterday the First Minister announced that independence supporters were going to exit that swampy mess of a battlefield.
The ground she has indicated we’re now going to fight on is much, much firmer. In the land of vision and hope, Scottish Labour has few weapons and the Tories none. Nothing has changed my mind that the advantage on that ground is with us. I can’t wait.
So as I head off for a wee family holiday up north, I do so with a big smile on my face. Finally, I think we’re ready to begin.
Picture: Scottish Parliament TV
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