YOU CAN’T REALLY ARGUE with twenty polls in a row for independence. And those same polls show the SNP sweeping May’s planned elections. Yet dig deeper and the Scottish independence movement is filled with dread and acrimony. Superficial analysis centres on the Salmond affair and gender recognition reforms, the two factors allegedly behind the defenestration of Joanna Cherry. However, the poison in those debates must be seen as symptomatic of a deeper malaise.
From an outsider’s vantage point, SNP members tend to be a thoroughly pragmatic bunch: they regard their party as a vehicle to get independence as quickly as possible. They are not the sort to fall out over arcane theoretical debates. But beneath the online vitriol, many are convinced that the pursuit of popularity – and, above all, respectability with the upper ranks of business and professional Scotland – disguises the absence of a viable plan for independence. Their nightmare is that a unique historical moment of British crisis could pass without a decisive manoeuvre to dismantle the state.
Forgive the sporting analogy, but, if the above holds, it could make Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell the Dermot Desmond and Peter Lawwell of politics. Superficially, the record shows bucketloads of silverware. But that was when historic rivals were plopping around in the lower leagues. Loyal fans, who cough up for season tickets and kits for the bairns, suspect their loyalty has been abused while the board coasted on easy options, without planning for the future. Now, there’s a mood of impending collapse.
Where this analogy falls is that the SNP remains competitive – then again, the same was true of Celtic twelve months ago.
SNP members who criticise Sturgeon are routinely portrayed as unreasonable, but there are two entirely rational grounds for their suspicions. Firstly, most would consider the proposed “roadmap” to independence as too flimsy to withstand Westminster truculence. This raises suspicion that it is a palm off, not a serious proposal. Secondly, there has been no work on the crucial economic programme. The Sustainable Growth Commission was always an eccentric exercise in neoliberal social engineering. But after Brexit and the vast government borrowings of the coronavirus, its proposals simply don’t add up to anyone. A government serious about independence would make this priority number one.
This weekend sees the launch of Now Scotland, the first national membership organisation of the Yes movement. Theoretically, it could organise a vast constituency inside and outside the SNP. Now Scotland grew out of All Under One Banner (AUOB), an organisation who should take more credit for organising one of the largest street movements in Scottish history. It attracts support from the likes of George Kerevan and Lesley Riddoch, so it potentially has clout.
AUOB was effectively boycotted by Sturgeon and treated with contempt by most commentators. I always detected more than a whiff of aesthetic snobbery here, a gut reaction against flyover Scotland’s political aspirations, a preference for controlled lobbying among Russell Group “activists” and their professional peers. I don’t even buy the common claim that AUOB was “apolitical”. Speeches and flags on the demo said solidarity with refugees, opposition to nuclear weapons and even no to NATO. If that’s apolitical, what is a Scottish Labour conference?
However, AUOB never had a specific vision of independence beyond the moral generalities. And right now, that’s half of what we are missing. Grassroots organising will be crucial, but that economic programme is ultimately a much larger barrier than Boris Johnson’s belligerence.
Still, Now Scotland, modelled on the Catalan National Assembly, could play a vital role. To get independence properly on the agenda requires more than voting – it will require a united movement focused on civic mobilisation. If Now Scotland can somehow unify a fractured activist base – avoiding the culture war dynamics tearing apart the SNP – then its function could be historic. But achieving that will require more than spirit. It will require guts, bridge building, and, on all sides, swallowing some activist pride.