Robin McAlpine: This is a moment for honesty – we haven’t made enough progress in the past 5 years

Ben Wray

Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine argues that the independence cause has not moved forward sufficiently in the half-decade since indyref. Robin will be discussing this more at our CommonSpace Forum to mark five years since indyref on Thursday 26 September.

HERE we stand, five years on. And I have to ask myself, should we really be happy with progress? Is this where you thought we’d be five years later? Or rather, if I’d told you then what was going to happen next, and I told you this would be our response, would you say ‘that sounds adequate’?

It’s like that old tale about the frog; ‘if you drop a frog in a pan of water and then suddenly withdraw all ambition, hope and political leadership, it will rebel – but if you slowly and gradually condition the frog to lower its expectations and accept soundbites in place of leadership, it will grumble slightly and disengage’.

This isn’t good enough; here isn’t good enough. I want to make clear to you just how not good enough things are by pointing out some realities.

Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of indyref. What did the media lead on? The Herald led on a story set up by Scotland in Union. The Scotsman led on a story set up by Scotland in Union. BBC Scotland leads on Brexit. The Record barely mentions independence at all. The National leads on a Sturgeon puff piece.

Imagine you’re neutral for a second and ask yourself what you’d conclude? My conclusion would be that the unionists have a concerted campaign to persuade the public that independence is bad, while the SNP leadership has a strategy of trying to stave off discontent among its troops over its lack of action.

READ MORE: The 2014 road to independence is dead: What comes next?

We are seeing Scotland dominated by a pro-independence political party and we’re seeing the United Kingdom’s political system falling apart before our eyes. We have the sympathy of the international community and a worried domestic audience.

I mean, if you were running the show, what would be on your tick list of conditions to be met before you’d actually do something?

And by ‘do something’ I don’t mean ‘grind a generic piece of enabling legislation through parliament which doesn’t actually do anything to make a referendum more likely’.

I don’t mean ‘brief all the media that the SNP General Election campaign is going to be all about stopping Brexit, except for the National which you brief that it’s all going to be about independence’.

I obviously don’t mean ‘avoid the hard work of setting up a proper campaign and instead do a mystic meg act in which you simply predict that all barriers to everything you want will simply disappear in the future’.

And I certainly don’t mean ‘put the bulk of your energy into keeping any discussion of independence off the party conference agenda’.

READ MORE: Craig Berry: I voted No in 2014 – this is what moved me to Yes

I hate being a gloom-monger; it doesn’t make me any friends. But I won’t be able to live with myself if I look back at the things I wrote during this period in the independence movement and I was complicit in the paralysis.

We need to say out loud the tasks we face. The polls aren’t rising fast enough. I’m blue in the face explaining the carefully researched reason why; it can be summarised as ‘swithering voters don’t think we’ve got a sufficiently robust plan’.

I know just how much activists in the movement are prone to saying that ‘the details of delivering independence are for afterwards, now is about the principle’. And I get it; that would work if our target voters felt like you. But they don’t; they’re more worried.

Independence needs to look an awful lot better planned than Brexit. But I’ve been writing about this over and over since this day five years ago. Indeed I dedicated two years to my life to a big project to do just that (How To Start a New Country). But it has been completely and utterly ignored by the Sturgeon team.

Instead they produced the Growth Commission – and whatever it is, its certainly not an answer to the complicated questions of borders and customs and tax collection and setting up armies and building proper financial institutions and expanding the civil service and all the rest (or currency for that matter…).

READ MORE: Iain Black: Thank You for 2014

I have come to believe that the real reason the SNP leadership doesn’t want to push the independence case faster is because it simply doesn’t know how to begin to prepare to deal with the detailed cross examination which undoubtedly waits ahead.

That’s the first thing; we need solid background work. Second, we need a story, and here things seem equally bad. Can any of you tell me what the SNP’s story about independence is, other than ‘stopping Brexit’? The only other lines I’ve heard is ‘democracy is good’ and ‘we can make choices’.

And that isn’t stimulating voters to run into our arms. I also know not enough people believe me but our target voters don’t even know there is an independence campaign at all, never mind aware of what it’s messages are.

The standard line on this shared by many activists is that ‘it doesn’t matter, we’ll do all the winning during a referendum’. Yes we might, but it’s unconscionably risky and frankly weak. We need to campaign now, and that needs a story.

The problem is that Sturgeon based her premiership on not being the independence movement. Someday I will record the history of the months after indyref and what really happened. A key part of it was that Sturgeon’s ‘people’ let it be known to journalists and influencers that she was having nothing to do with the legacy of indyref.

READ MORE: Val Waldron: Five years on, Scotland and the UK have changed dramatically since indyref1

She was a professional politician and was going to govern from the centre. There was no place in her plans for a rag-tag bunch of amateur activists. ‘Another Scotland is possible’ was very much off the agenda.

Indeed the first four anniversaries of indyref involved concerted efforts to show just exactly how much the SNP was not connected to the movement. On the first anniversary all the elected members of the party were asked to keep the date free in their diary for an event which didn’t happen. It was messaging – we’re not them.

Not talking about independence was her main strategy; not only was the old case for independence lost, a new one didn’t take shape because Sturgeon was going to govern for unionists as much as nationalists so independence was very much ‘out’.

We need a story about independence, and right now the SNP leadership doesn’t seem to know what it is. I’m also blue in the face explaining why a single political party is a terrible way to communicate with the public and that a broad civic campaign works better. But that would mean relinquishing some control…

Finally, there is another task we need to state out loud; be ready for a dirty fight. Frankly there is nothing which makes me less confident in our leadership than when it says ‘Westminster opposition to independence will simply melt away if you give us another big majority’.

READ MORE: In Defence of 2014 – in defence of popular democracy

Sorry, will it fuck. The British Empire wasn’t built by playing fair and the UK is a leading world expert in dirty tricks. Right now they’re normalising the idea that the vote will be Leave/Remain and seeding the idea of a supermajority. That’s vanilla stuff compared to what’s to come.

(Just a side note to unionists; supermajorities are indeed required to alter the constitution in almost every nation state except Britain – but that’s a supermajority of parliamentarians if they want to change the constitution without a public vote. You’re meant to protect the public from the politicians, not the other way round.)

The dirty tricks won’t just be like the last indyref – because we’ll win this time and then the really dirty stuff will start during negotiations. The panglossian idea that ‘the leadership’s closed circle is political genius and will win without any preparation or real civil service support’ isn’t funny, it’s really scary.

We need to have a team capable of a serious fight, and we don’t currently have that. They need to be really, really well prepared, and no preparation has been done. This is not a game.

One thing has held true over the five years; the independence movement remains disciplined and loyal – in public at least. It’s a good job the Scottish media doesn’t know what is really being said in private…

READ MORE: Karen Dietz: Remembering the Indy Choir

Many people feel the same as I do. They mostly hold to one response; everything will shake loose after January and then things will change. (We’re still all talking about the Salmond trial and its enormous consequences in code, right?)

Mibby aye, mibby naw. But that would make for a risky Plan B – and for a lot of people it appears to be Plan A. What are we going to do if it doesn’t all ‘shake loose’?

I wish I was celebrating today. The experience of 2013 and 2014 was like nothing else in my lifetime. I spoke at nearly 250 public meetings and was swept up in one of the world’s most exciting social movements of the century so far. It was intoxicating. The friendships I formed shape my life to this day.

I want to be saying ‘we now hold all the cards, after five long years we’re now right on the cusp of a historic victory and it feels good’. But while we do indeed hold all the cards, they’re not being played.

I woke up on 19 September with my (then) four-year-old daughter hugging me. I only got to bed minutes before she woke up. A tear-stained mum explained why I was still in bed – and she wanted to cheer me up. I wanted to drink the day away.

READ MORE: ‘As anti-democratic as Boris Johnson’: Jo Swinson slammed as poll shows Lib Dem voters back indyref2

But I woke to social media despair. So while writing a positive ‘pick me up’ article was hardly what I wanted to do, I believed it was my responsibility to try some of that hard-headed Scottish utilitarianism and propose a path to a place which didn’t feel like that morning felt.

My personality yearns to be pushing a positive story today, to reminisce and enjoy my memories. But just as I felt it was a responsibility to be positive then, I feel an overwhelming responsibility to be honest now.

Honestly – something serious needs to change or we’re going to blow it. That change needs to come now.  

Picture courtesy of