Routes to Independence Four: Howls of Frustration Aren’t Enough
“I totally understand if you want to go faster – but it is time to interrogate the depth of that thinking. How are you going to deliver a referendum, a winning vote, an acceptable withdrawal deal with the rUK and the orderly set-up of a new (and functioning) nation state purely on the basis of demanding a referendum in a loud voice? I don’t think that’s a viable plan, because I don’t really think that’s a plan at all. It’s just a howl of frustration, a frustration I entirely share” argues Robin McAlpine.
When should Scotland hold another referendum on independence? The answer that I give to this hasn’t changed since the 19th of September 2014 – this is the wrong question.
The question for me is how quickly can Scotland achieve its independence? A referendum is part of that – but it is only a part, and it’s not the first part. So to understand this let me work backwards. If Scotland wants to establish itself as an independent country we should want to do so avoiding a ‘No Deal’ scenario with the rUK.
This is because if the rUK refused to recognise Scotland as an independent country, none of the other major world powers would either. This would leave Scotland in a difficult position, probably unable to join crucial international bodies. No one who supports Scottish independence should be hoping for a No Deal outcome.
So if we step backwards from that, it means that any non-agreed route to settling this issue (i.e. a unilateral declaration of independence or a referendum the other side refuses to recognise) should be rejected as our first option.
But equally, we should be very wary of the idea that an ‘ask to be rejected’ approach is particularly helpful either. I know a lot of people think this would provoke a backlash among undecided Scots, but if we ask from a position where we’re behind in the polls I’m very sceptical that such a backlash would occur.
It would need there to be a sense of injustice among undecideds, and I don’t think ‘referendum refused for country that doesn’t even want it’ (if there was less than 50 per cent solid support) would feel suitably unjust.
I think this is back to the confirmation bias that led too many people to be convinced that the Brexit vote in and off itself would deliver us a poll lead. I was pretty sure it wouldn’t (it didn’t) and I’m pretty sure that, right now, the same would happen if we took this gamble.
In any case, it would (yet again) frame the independence debate as an argument over technical process – if we’re asking for a referendum through parliamentary process, that’s what will dominate the media coverage. And that means the story would be a ‘parliamentary intrigue’ one – which is a turn-off to a lot of voters.
And the flip-side of ‘generate a sense of injustice’ is the risk that what we really generate is a sense that we’re out of touch with public opinion and, frankly, weak. Don’t underestimate what it looks like when you ask and a more powerful body just dismisses you. It doesn’t tend to inspire confidence.
That means we need to ask from a position of strength. I know some of you will have read me going over this point a hundred times (I even wrote a book about it…), but I’ll stop writing it as soon as I think it’s no longer true – we need to ask for a Section 30 Order from the position of being consistently ahead in the polls. That is the only way to create the sense of democratic injustice that we would need to deal with the problem of Westminster potentially rejecting a Section 30 Order.
Now I know that many independence supporters believe that the only way to move opinion is during a referendum. I’ve heard the ‘we added 20 points during the last referendum so we’d definitely win this time’ argument many times. I’m sure most of you will appreciate that this is a logical fallacy of the first order – if we held three more referendums in succession would we then be at 100 per cent support?
But much more to the point, to write off our ability to convert people to independence without really trying is a mistake. I know how hard many people (me included) have worked to keep pushing a pro-indy message. But to do it without any resource, without any infrastructure, without any coordination and without the support (frankly) of the SNP, it has been impossible. Telling yourself that ‘we tried’ because we went on a march really is letting ourselves off too lightly.
There are many reasons to be concerned about the near future. I fear that in the context of what is happening around the top of the SNP just now, the Brexit mess might look like the least of our uncertainties. But that’s just another very good reason to remind voters that independence is about much more than one political party, that we’re a broad campaign,
Thankfully this is also the point when the Scottish Independence Convention (owned by all the movement’s national and regional organisations) is about to launch a professional campaign organisation. It will have only one purpose – to speak to soft No voters with a different tone than the political too-and-fro they’re used to.
The biggest remaining barrier is that it simply hasn’t been possible to get the SNP leadership to engage with the question of what case for independence we’re going to present. I’ve been looking at internal public attitude research on views on independence and our biggest problem (post-Brexit calamity) is that people have just been asked to jump blindly – and it went very badly.
Put simply, most of our target voters know the plane is on fire and most of them could be persuaded that the ground is a safer place for them – but they’re still not going to jump out of the door without a parachute. That ‘parachute’ is a proper, comprehensive plan which suggests that we’ve properly prepared for the days, weeks, months and years after a Yes vote. ‘Wait and see’ or ‘it’ll be fine’ are just about the worst things we could possibly say to this audience.
Prepare a plan for independence which answers voters’ key questions (the Common Weal White Paper work is the only work which has been done, but it is a comprehensive starting point), campaign on independence (properly) until we shift enough voters, get to a consistent 55 per cent in the polls, ask for a referendum and prepare a strategy to ratchet up the constitutional pressure if Westminster is still stonewalling when we’re in the position of power – that’s the only realistic route I can see.
I totally understand if you want to go faster – but it is time to interrogate the depth of that thinking. How are you going to deliver a referendum, a winning vote, an acceptable withdrawal deal with the rUK and the orderly set-up of a new (and functioning) nation state purely on the basis of demanding a referendum in a loud voice? I don’t think that’s a viable plan, because I don’t really think that’s a plan at all. It’s just a howl of frustration, a frustration I entirely share.
But if we act in frustration rather than wisdom, we may very well make things worse. There is a path forward – but I don’t believe there is a shortcut.
Routes to Independence One: Changing Minds, by Gerry Hassan
Routes to Independence Two: If not Now, When? by Ruth Wishart
Routes to Independence Three: A Collective Transformation by George Kerevan