What is to be done? Indy activists on political strategy in the era of Boris Johnson


The rise of Boris Johnson has provoked a sense of urgency in the Scottish independence movement. How should it respond to his premiership, and what should its next move be? CS speaks to activists in the movement to find out.

BORIS JOHNSON’S accession to Downing Street has placed fresh emphasis upon the Scottish Government’s calls for a second independence referendum.

Writing to the new prime minister in the aftermath of his victory, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made it clear that it is necessary, “now more than ever”, that Scotland be presented with an “alternative option” to the political reality Johnson has promised to deliver, and the union which he has pledged to defend.

Following on her from her government’s pursuit of legislation earlier this year to enable a second plebiscite on independence before the next Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021, Sturgeon wrote: “The right of the people of Scotland to determine their own future is a basic democratic principle that must be respected.”

So, beyond grand and combative statements, what does the new Johnsonite regime of British nationalism mean for the independence movement? What should its next move be?

CommonSpace spoke to a range of pro-independence figures to get their view, and determine those arguments that will potentially decide whether Boris Johnson is, as Ian Blackford has predicted, the last prime minister of Great Britain.

Mike Small, editor of Bella Caledonia

“The issue is not so much the independence movement, as how to engage with the wider Scottish electorate. This is a key point that political activists seem to have forgotten. Three factors – partly out of our own control – will have a major impact on the road ahead and the prospects for Scottish independence.

“First, the elevation of Boris Johnson and his appointment of an extraordinary collection of far-right politicians into office may be a turning point in the long, slow British crisis. It may well lead to disillusionment and awakening from those voters who, in good faith, imagined a different future in a United Kingdom and voted No in 2014.

“Second, the British crisis has another parallel dimension in Ireland. The Conservative party’s obstinate refusal to deal with Anglo-Irish history or to acknowledge the importance of the Good Friday Agreement, and the political reality of their reliance on the DUP means they are stuck in a position of complete denial about the ‘backstop’ and no amount of bluster will change this. The withdrawal agreement won’t be re-negotiated. Repeated polling shows that people in Northern Ireland are increasingly seeing themselves as people in a state rather than binary entities, and there is every prospect of a border poll in favour of a United Ireland. This will release demons in both Scotland and Ireland, but a democratic vote would be uncontainable.

“Third, the forces of capital that the new government explicitly represent will enact a set of economic practices that will be as aggressive as they are exploitative and brazen. This will happen with or without a No Deal Brexit. The coming economic chaos will be brutal.

“The question is how the progressive and radical forces in Scotland respond to these crises. The Scottish Government can make moves and set a strategy but is beleaguered by its supporters’ impatience, and it has trials ahead that no-one wants to speak about. The wider movement needs to be completely reconfigured and re-imagined if it wants to stop talking to itself and engaging in fantasy. The SNP at Westminster could develop some tactics of withdrawal and protest short of refusing to sit, though that should not be ruled out. A progressive alliance should not be ruled out

“All of this is to play for in a political situation that was created by (but is not controlled by) a combination of insurgent English nationalism and class interests.

“If the Scottish democracy movement can unite around key demands and some simple tactics, we can win our way out of an increasingly hellish political state.”

Robin McAlpine, director of Common Weal

“There is nothing I can say about what we need to do next that I’ve not said many times before. You don’t need a referendum to have a campaign but you do need majority support if you’re going to get a referendum. We have to campaign first, really move opinion and then demand a referendum from a position of strength. The campaign must be a case for independence and not a campaign against Boris Johnson or Brexit. That is still the only way I can see to achieve this and pretending we’re going to get a referendum before 2021 on the basis of where we are now is unrealistic and unhelpful.

“So it’s about the infrastructure of a serious campaign and making sure that the case is really fit for purpose. The Growth Commission doesn’t even nearly fill that gap. It has nothing to say on borders or international trade or membership of international organisations or how to develop a withdrawal bill or the many, many other things that will need to be explained if we are to be taken seriously. Until we abandon altogether the idea that we’re currently working to a coherent plan for achieving independence we’re going to be providing comments on ‘what now for independence?’ for years to come. This is now an urgent matter and I have some very serious concerns about how we’re being led.”

Adam Ramsay, journalist and OpenDemocracy editor

“It’s absolutely vital that we remember that the case which will persuade people won’t be an essentialist argument that nations will be independent. Our arguments should be rooted in the fact that we can’t secure economic justice through the British state – that Westminster and Whitehall are designed to preserve an elite. 

“Boris Johnson makes that argument by his very existence.”

Ross Colquhoun, SNP strategist

“Support for independence is on the rise as we reach out and make the case to people from across Scotland every single day. 

The SNP is preparing for a referendum on Scottish independence. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently published legislation that would enable a new referendum and we recently launched the first stage of our ‘Yes’ campaign, which is encouraging people to pledge their support for independence. 

Over the past two months we have gathered over 250,000 signatures. This enables us to instantaneously inform people in communities across Scotland about the positive case for independence. However, this is only the beginning and we are soon to enter the next phase of our campaign.

The SNP will be making the social and economic case for Scottish independence, and we’ll be encouraging the people of Scotland to imagine what is possible with Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands.

Much of the party’s success over the past 12 years has been built on meticulous planning and precise timing. The date of the next referendum isn’t yet entirely in our gift, but we know it is coming, and we are already working to win.

In 2011, I helped launch National Collective, a group of artists and writers that set out with the aim of imagining a better Scotland. Our platform gave unheard voices an audience across the nation. Now, more than ever, it’s important that people from all walks of life make their voices heard too. Sign up at www.yes.scot and help shape our campaign.”

Tejas Mukerji, co-founder of Neutral Scotland

“It is increasingly clear, from his new ultra-right-wing cabinet, his hardline Brexit pledges, his sacking of the Scottish secretary and his demeanour at PMQs, that Boris Johnson is going to be investing far more energy in securing Britain’s withdrawal from the EU than he will to protecting the union. With this change of tack, it’s time for the SNP and Yes movement as a whole to come together to put forward a credible prospectus for independence that it can unite around, while the Scottish Government pursues the legislative and political processes required for holding a referendum. There must be serious debate about what the movement does if it continues to face obstruction from Westminster.

“There will likely be an election soon, and the SNP must make clear to prospective coalition or supply-confidence partners that its price for supporting a government be a Section 30 order. Likewise, the Lib Dems nominating Jo Swinson as party leader should focus minds, and unseating her should be a priority, rather than getting sucked into the morass of UK-wide Brexit intrigues – even though opposition to Brexit itself should remain steadfast.

“Attacking Boris for his Trumpian personality will not be enough – it will be necessary to highlight not just him, but the political system that facilitated his rise to power.” 

Sarah Glynn, Scottish Unemployed Workers Network activist

“For very many people in Scotland, independence cannot come soon enough. Westminster rule is making a misery of people’s lives – sometimes even killing them. In the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network, we have always argued that the need to escape the ravages of austerity was more than sufficient reason for acting quickly, while the ignoring of the ‘vow’ provides sufficient technical argument for a new vote.

“Boris clearly stands for all that’s worst in an already appalling government, and the only upside of his prime ministership is that it could spur people into action. I hope that the campaign, when it comes, doesn’t get tied to membership of the EU, but looks at the whole picture and at the progressive alternative that Scotland must aim for. Certainly, we can protest the dismissal of Scottish views and interests, the appalling manner in which the ‘negotiations’ have been handled, and the way Brexit has been used as an excuse to roll back on devolution, cut standards, and cosy up further to the US; but let’s not have illusions in the EU as a progressive force. Time for a new, wider, radical independence movement.”

Cameron Archibald, founder of MMT Scotland

“The independence movement is now faced with an openly far-right Westminster government, one that has endorsed a reckless and intolerant leader. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson can no longer guise unionism under liberal one-nation Conservativism.

“However, this alone is not enough to convince voters to back independence. The SNP must focus more time in creating a real grassroots campaign and energise existing Yes branches to join in. This means increased canvassing, leafletting and communication with local communities. Independence campaigners need to leave the Yes bubble to spread the vision of independence.

“The vision of independence must be one in stark contrast to ‘Make Britain Great Again’ mantra. Progressive ideas such as basic income, a voluntary job guarantee, green jobs, an economic stimulus programme and retrofitting infrastructure are vital to inspiring the electorate to back independence.”

Colin Fox, Scottish Socialist Party leader

“Boris Johnson’s elevation to Prime Minister changes little as far as the tasks confronting the YES movement are concerned. I reject the idea he is some gift from the gods that magically secures us that illusive majority. I recall that same view being trotted out after the election of that other Old Etonian toff David Cameron and then Theresa ‘Home Counties’ May after him. The case for independence is far more profound than opposition to whichever Tory millionaire is in Downing Street. Like his predecessors Johnson is a ‘died in the wool’ unionist who will never grant permission for a second referendum. 

“If Nicola Sturgeon is ever to secure another referendum YES will need to show majority support in the polls in Scotland first. And frankly that demands a better case for independence than the one she has offered since 2014. 

“The SNP has been blindsided by Brexit. Tying the case for YES to EU membership has been a big mistake. This issue will not lead us to that majority support for Independence. Until the YES campaign makes a more persuasive economic and social case for independence to Scotland’s working-class majority we will toil. And frankly the horrific number of deaths from drug overdoses in this country, registered last week under the Scottish Governments watch impedes that case badly. As does its failure to open the sick kids hospital in Edinburgh, an SNP PFI project at that, on time. We can hardly blame Boris Johnson for either of those.”

Marty Smith, activist with the Autonomy campaign

“Our campaign believes that any progression towards holding a second independence referendum must also include a commitment from the Scottish Government to engage in the process of holding a subsequent referendum on membership of the European Union. This must be undertaken as a democratic necessity, should we gain independence, as opposed to what we perceive to be the current position of a predetermined application for full membership of the European Union without any discussion or debate on the issue.

“With approximately 400,000 active Yes supporters voting to Leave the European Union, there are serious questions to be asked about whether their support will hold steadfast if it means being tied to another undemocratic union of nations. Whilst many Yes supporters state that Scotland’s position is already firmly pro-EU, a subsequent referendum would offer Scots a decision on an exact type of relationship with Europe, with the example of EFTA also being on the table, as opposed to the black and white Remain/Leave narrative of the UK wide 2016 referendum.

“We urge the First Minister to engage with the thousands of Yes supporters who voted Leave in 2016 and listen to our concerns regarding the intertwining of Scottish independence and membership of the European Union.”

Picture courtesy of Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916

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