Following a number of insightful pieces on the prospects of a future independence referendum from Robin McAlpine, Ian Macwhirter, and Euan McColm, it seems there is a chorus of caution entering into the debate surrounding a potential indyref2.
There is a view held by some commentators that it is “only a matter of time” before Scotland obtains independence and so we should wait it out for more favourable conditions to manifest.
Implicit in this argument is that the devolution process started a one-way train towards independence and there is nothing that can be done to stop it, regardless of political developments in the meantime.
Resting on the idea of a permanent SNP juggernaut or, more broadly, a pro-independence majority being present at Holyrood, may be comforting for some. However, this is based on the erroneous assumption that the status quo will continue to prevail. Political developments often surprise even the most astute political commentators.
The only reason people can argue indyref2 is only a matter of time is because the SNP dominance is assumed to be in a fixed position come what may. If we remove this assumption, holding to the “only a matter of time” argument becomes considerably more difficult.
“It bears repeating — now and in future — that a second independence referendum is not guaranteed. A week is a long time in politics, to say nothing of months and years.”
In just over the last year or so, the list of political events that were near impossible to accurately predict include: the Corbyn victory, the Sanders surge, the SNP landslide at the last UK elections, and the victory for Leave in the EU referendum.
On the specific question of the SNP, the last Scottish election showed how much voting patterns are consolidating around the constitutional question. Although we shouldn’t read too much into a by-election with a meagre 20 per cent turnout, Tory transfers in the recent North Ayrshire Council by-election helped Labour scrape over the line. Whatever the exact cause, the impact of increased Tory representation reflects a rejuvenated right and, unfortunately, it is not a guarantee that their vote share won’t grow. It wasn’t so long ago that the Tories were thought “dead” in Scotland.
The debate around tactical voting seems likely to sharpen at the next Scottish election and not in a way that benefits advocates of independence. Aside from anything else, the last result helped to make the Tories seem like a legitimate alternative to a struggling Labour Party — Ruth Davidson’s party is no longer isolated after years in the wilderness.
Furthermore, the political landscape in the UK could change sufficiently in such a way that could make blocking a second independence referendum more likely. For example, if the Corbyn/PLP dynamic ends badly, the prospect of an increased Tory majority is not so farfetched. In this political climate, it is entirely possible that attitudes in England towards granting a second independence referendum could harden.
Finally, if we wait for what would undoubtedly be years of negotiations, with independence campaigners inevitably reduced to spectator status in the absence of a new referendum, we won’t have a campaign. In fact, the political direction of any future indyref2 we do get could be seriously compromised because of the lack of grassroots involvement, which by then would likely have substantially dwindled.
“While it’s true that taking risks makes defeat possible, the ‘Yes’ campaign stands to lose out for a second time if we choose to sit and wait for the right moment that might never come.”
It bears repeating — now and in future — that a second independence referendum is not guaranteed. A week is a long time in politics, to say nothing of months and years.
That said, the flipside to this position requires equal scrutiny. Robin McAlpine, has argued that “we don’t have a hope in hell” of getting a second independence referendum, but let’s consider what this view is premised upon.
The common assumption within this argument is that the Tory government would block a new referendum. This significantly understates the political implications of such an action, and even Ruth Davidson has quite forcefully argued against doing so. It would provide Sturgeon with a platform to continually denounce the undemocratic instincts of the Tory government and, given how much impact the SNP had on the UK debates previously (with people wanting to vote SNP in England), this may not be a path Tories on either side of the border would want to go down.
It’s also worth remembering that many people claimed that the first referendum wouldn’t happen. Similarly, the idea that the Tories could challenge the democratic mandate to call a new referendum is also problematic. People voted SNP knowing their well publicised claim that they had the right to call a new referendum if, for example, Scotland was withdrawn from the EU against its will. No-one was misled on this point.
“It’s also worth remembering that many people claimed that the first referendum wouldn’t happen.”
Although polls temporarily showed an increase in support for an indyref2 following Brexit, I’ve argued before that the post-Brexit bounce could be temporary. Similarly, both Euan McColm and Iain Macwhirter argue that there is no clear evidence of an increased support for independence.
However, that is only part of the story. What Brexit has achieved is to trigger the only condition in the SNP manifesto that explicitly states the right to a new referendum. As a result, it has energised the independence movement and the recent pro-independence march exceeded all expectations. In addition, No voters may well be more receptive to our arguments in a post Brexit context.
In light of this, the argument that we need to wait for consistent polling of 60 per cent for ‘Yes’ before calling for a new referendum poses considerable risk, as this is a condition that might never come about. Of course, independence campaigners will seek to get the number as high as possible in the meantime, but if we tie ourselves to a specific support percentage, we may not get the chance for an indyref2 at all.
Does anyone think the last independence referendum was a waste of time? The ‘Yes’ campaign was miles behind when the race began, to the point where the UK media was trying to kill it off with an almost daily bombardment of polling showing how hopeless it all was. Fortunately, it was far closer than many predictions and Scottish politics has not been the same since.
“Of course, independence campaigners will seek to get the number as high as possible in the meantime, but if we tie ourselves to a specific support percentage, we may not get the chance for an indyref2 at all.”
The bonfire of the Blairites that resulted and the Corbyn surge arguably stemmed from this shift in the political landscape. While winning the last few per cent over to ‘Yes’ is of course a challenge that needs to be met full-on, we are starting from a much more solid base in the polls and have more organisational strength this time around.
In our corner, we now have alternative media outlets; research we did not have previously (e.g. on currency); activists with more experience of campaigning, and therefore a potentially much larger base of people willing to chap doors and talk to people than ever before, steeled in the mistakes and defeat of the last campaign.
Euan McColm’s recent article citing Alex Neil is a useful contribution to the debate, citing uncertainty over the EU and the Brexit deal, potential borders with England, and the currency question and should be engaged with seriously.
The work around currency, in particular, is evidence of a turnaround in the debate and it is very welcome. Doubtless, regarding the potential outcomes post-Brexit, a power of work would have to be done to prepare our arguments within an admittedly complex set of circumstances, and more still to adequately address issues already pre-existing from the first referendum.
“Whatever the exact cause, the impact of increased Tory representation reflects a rejuvenated right and, unfortunately, it is not a guarantee that their vote share won’t grow. It wasn’t so long ago that the Tories were thought “dead” in Scotland.”
No-one should avoid these essential discussions. Each needs to be addressed. However, there was plenty of uncertainty last time around — there always will be. Fortunately, people like Robin McAlpine, among others, were strongly arguing to prepare the ground immediately after the last referendum, given that we were not strong enough on some of the issues last time.
While it’s true that taking risks makes defeat possible, the ‘Yes’ campaign stands to lose out for a second time if we choose to sit and wait for the right moment that might never come. Robin McAlpine insists that we cannot be 100 per cent sure we would win it if we did have a second referendum, but how often can we be 100 per cent sure of anything in politics?
However, as Tommy Sheppard has suggested, these are “challenges to be overcome”, rather than problems which should lead to paralysis. If we unleash the creative potential and intelligence that independence campaigners have displayed in the past, we can start putting together the building blocks we urgently need for a new Scotland. If we start to build the campaign now, we could have an independence referendum by 2018. There is no time to waste.
Danny McGregor, Ph.D., is a former lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University, and an active campaigner for social justice, equality, and Scottish independence. He can be found on Twitter @dannym_1984