A Peeliewally Campaign; the SNP Must Discover some Smeddum if Independence is to be Won
Smeddum is a fine word from my other native tongue, and like a lot of Scots words is a little difficult to define in English. Two more Scots words: peeliewally and peeliewersh. Peeliewally is the better known word, it means weak, insipid, off-colour. However, I suspect peeliewally only really applies to humans. Peeliewersh has a similar meaning, but I believe may be a more appropriate word in this context. So I begin this short note with an apology for poor grammar.
Is it not extraordinary that for an entire election campaign, independence was a central theme of the Scottish Tory party, but not of the SNP? Now I understand the Tory logic: around half the population are opposed to independence; they sought these votes and did so successfully. It is rather more difficult for Labour to imitate Tory tactics, as a huge chunk of their support actually back independence. This means that if you are completely opposed to independence a Tory vote is a logical vote. Furthermore, if you actually believe in neoliberalism, and either like (or have no great problem with) xenophobia, then staying in the UK is common sense. Here again the Tories have the edge over Labour. There are many Labour supporters who are not yet convinced of independence, but who dislike neoliberalism and the UKIP-style view of the world. Those Labour supporters must be increasingly ambivalent about independence. They may not like the idea, but it must be increasingly obvious to them that only independence is likely to bring the social justice and internationalism which they crave. Labour, therefore, have a problem; go too hard against independence and you risk losing your independence supporters whilst at the same time pushing those who are ambivalent into a position where they have to make a decision. This decision is not something Labour want to push their supporters to make. They simply cannot afford to let their support sink further. The Tories have a clear advantage in pushing an anti-independence agenda and that showed with the huge increase in their vote.
The interpretation of the results by the Tories and Labour is that the vote is a huge rejection of a second independence referendum. This may also be Nicola’s view, given her comments indicating her belief that a call for a second independence referendum cost the SNP votes. There is, however, a problem with this interpretation. Polls prior to the election indicated a rise in support for independence. Now it is a little difficult to relate a rise in support for independence, or even static support for independence, with a collapse in the SNP vote due to a rejection of a second referendum.
There are only two logical conclusions:
Independence support has collapsed. This is not very likely, given that the polls indicated otherwise and, more importantly, nothing whatsoever has happened that might conceivably change the mind of independence supporters. Rather the opposite in fact, given that a huge part of the No campaign centred round the risk of Scotland being forced out of the EU.
The result, therefore, had little or nothing to do with the call for a second referendum.
Readers of my writing will not be overly surprised that I am going to argue the opposite view.
What happened was the triumph of courage and conviction over cowardice, arrogance and complacency. The triumph of courage and conviction was of course that of Corbyn, who has argued his political principles in the face of a barrage of abuse, smears and internal civil war. Well done, Corbyn! The failure of arrogance and complacency was of course the failure of May, who decided at the start of the election that the constant media abuse of Corbyn, combined with the high poll rating of the Tories, guaranteed her success. How pleasant to see solid rational political argument win over smears and fear. And the failure of cowardice, you ask? (I assume you ask this, as you are still reading.) The failure of cowardice was the failure of the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon.
I feel the need, the need for smeddum.
The SNP under Nicola’s leadership have shown a consistent lack of courage since the independence referendum. But the lack of courage starts before that.
Prior to the independence referendum the SNP spent remarkably little time actually pushing for independence. Their manifesto said it supported independence, but no manifesto had ever actually put a strong case for independence. Worse, the SNP became caught in the devolution trap. Many within the SNP came to believe the facile argument that if they demonstrated that they could run a devolved government then people would support them for independence. This argument is facile on two grounds. Firstly, government ministers change; even if the present lot can deliver good government that does not prove that the next lot will be able to do the same. Secondly, and more importantly, proving that you can make devolution work can only convince the electorate that they should vote for you to run the devolved parliament. It provides no argument whatsoever for independence.
Look at it this way. Imagine that everybody in Scotland agrees that the Scottish Government has done a great job with the NHS, turned back the tide of privatisation, improved care delivery, etc. So everybody agrees that the Scottish Government has done a great job with the NHS, does this demonstrate that the Scottish Government will do a good job on defence, international affairs, and cutting tax evasion? No! Running a devolved government well is an argument for devolution, not for independence. The argument for independence needs to demonstrate what Scotland can do better as an independent nation. Other than at a very superficial level, this is not something the SNP has ever done.
The referendum campaign by the SNP was pretty gutless. I have given my views on this elsewhere so I will be very brief here. The idea of the big tent – let’s try to keep everybody on board – is a cowardly idea. It arises from a fear that if you run a radical campaign you might put some people off voting for independence. When you avoid talking about a vote on the monarchy, or redistributive taxation, you may well avoid scaring Tory monarchists. But seriously, will they ever vote for independence? The problem is that the ‘big tent’ also reduces your appeal to republicans, socialists, and liberals who believe in a more just society, all of whom are much more likely to vote for independence than neoliberal monarchists.
Following the independence referendum, the lack of courage in the SNP leadership continued. The vote was close. Logically that was the time to start building the argument for the next referendum. Whether that next referendum was sooner or later is irrelevant. Given that almost half the population supported independence, it was essential that the SNP keep the independence argument running. It will be a huge error to leave the actual campaigning for independence until the referendum is declared. We need to build support well in advance of the next referendum
One of my final acts as a member of the SNP was to argue that a section of the party manifesto should be dedicated to independence – that the manifesto should not just state that it supported independence, but that it should provide a raft of policies that could be delivered under independence. My argument was rejected, and an opportunity to further the argument of independence was lost. Worse, at that Scottish Parliamentary election Nicola barely mentioned independence, whilst Ruth Davidson argued constantly against it. The SNP gave the impression that they were running scared of the argument: not the way to inspire support for the cause.
Now we come to the recent general election.
If ever there was a need for smeddum it was this election. The SNP failed on two counts.
They failed on general policies. An obvious example is progressive taxation and the fight against inequality. Yes, they said they would increase the higher tax rate. The problem with that argument was that they could already have done that in Scotland. Their failure to do so makes a sharp contrast with their general election manifesto. What they are in effect saying is: we believe in progressive taxation, as long as somebody else takes the risk of introducing it. Not a terribly convincing argument.
But their big failure was on independence. Nicola had already committed herself to a second independence referendum. Having made that commitment, the general election was clearly the time to argue the independence case and highlight the failings of Westminster: to attack Westminster on austerity, foreign policy, and xenophobia; to make a clear case for how much higher an independent Scotland might aim. Take the worst-case scenario, a huge collapse in the SNP vote. Well, in that case the SNP would have known that independence was not on the cards. OK, they would have lost some seats, but then if the SNP are about independence (as against careers) that would be a price worth paying. As for the best-case scenario, supporters of independence would have reacted to Nicola’s courageous and principled arguments and shown their support for Scotland and the high road.
Does principle and courage work? Hell, I don’t know. Ask that fellow Corbyn!