2007 - 2022

The Crisis and Opportunity of the Independence Movement

As the collateral damage from Boris Johnson’s leaked comments calling Scottish devolution “a disaster” continues to cause shockwaves through the British political system, the consensus is that the Union is facing its end days.

Writing in Open Democracy Peter McColl points out that the contrast between Sturgeon and Johnson’s COVID response is awakening a new political imagination: “For too long, political imagination has been squeezed to the margins – even north of the border, given the very limited powers that devolution originally bestowed upon us. But Westminster is now so fragile that almost anything that’s done differently breaks its spell. And this is why devolution is becoming dangerous.”

As Alex Massie notes of the beleaguered Douglas Ross: “Ross is trying to hold a thin blue line against the SNP and at every turn he is sabotaged and undermined and betrayed by the Prime Minister. If it weren’t actually a serious matter it might be worth a gallows chuckle or two. It is, after all, only the future survival of the United Kingdom that is at stake.”

Disbelief and Rage

To say that there is some panic in Unionist quarters is an understatement (Andy MacIver, a former head of communications for the Scottish Conservatives, said Tory MSPs were feeling a mix of “disbelief and rage” over comments that were a body blow to the party and its hopes for narrowing the Scottish National party’s huge poll lead ahead of next May’s elections for the parliament in Edinburgh).

Now we’re told that there will be a  “Union Task Force” to boost the case for the UK. The FT reports that government insiders have “confirmed that the new task force, to be launched in the coming weeks, would consist of Conservative MPs from England, Wales and Scotland. It will report to Downing Street, feeding in policy ideas and make the positive case for the union. While past attempts have primarily focused on boosting the pro-union case in Scotland, Mr Johnson is eager to make the emotional case in England and Wales too.”

In breaking news that might not exactly set the heather alight we are told that some of No 10’s new televised press briefings, set to begin in 2021 under the auspices of the new press secretary Allegra Stratton, will be broadcast from the devolved nations. Hold the Front Page!

Wait, there’s more …

One senior Scottish Tory MP said: “We have to make sure the union is at the heart of everything we do, every policy needs to have a Union Jack emblazoned on it.”

That should do it.

If there’s a blinking incomprehension about much of this, and a post-Cummings / mid-covid weariness too, it’s not all plain-sailing.

Yes both the SNP and the Yes vote continue to soar. Yes the clutch of “alternative indy parties” seem to have failed to rise beyond a tiny social media bubble. Yes according to the latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 61 per cent of people said they trust the Scottish government to work in the national interest; whilst just 15 per cent trust the UK government to do the same. Yes 14 consecutive polls have suggest that there is a sustained majority in support of Scottish independence. Yes the First Minister’s approval ratings continue to soar whilst the Prime Minister’s continue to bomb. Support for independence has never been so high.

But there are major problems.

Months (years actually) of festering unresolved discontent across a myriad of issues has left a grassroots Yes movement feeling cast adrift from the political party a large part of it is still umbilically attached to. The gulf between the SNP as party machine (often highly professional but cautious and canny) and the Yes movement (often highly unrealistic and incoherent) has never been wider. Complaints of gerrymandering of the SNP conference (the leadership blocked a public debate on referendum strategy, a Scottish currency, and an independent Scotland ratifying the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons) and the publication of a paper from the SNP Westminster group of its submission to the UK Government integrated review of foreign policy and defence have only widened this gulf.

Writing in Conter George Kerevan (also of this parish) wrote: “Amid the verbiage there is a clear shift towards multilateralism, a disingenuous softening of the party’s commitment to unilaterally ratifying the UN Treaty on Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons, and a call for Lossiemouth to be the hub for combined Scottish, UK and US P-8 maritime bombers. Again, this has caused deep concern among veteran anti-nuclear campaigners inside the SNP.”

In response to this – this week a huge online assembly organised by AUOB came together to create a new grassroots campaign body called YesAlba. The use of a gaelic name may or not be significant and may or not be retained (it’s a working title).

One memorable moment was Lesley Riddoch interviewing the SNP’s Ian Blackford.

In an exchange that resembled Lucy and Charlie Brown preparing another goal kick, Riddoch could barely contain her incredulity at Blackford asking for the trust of the movement in return for – seemingly – nothing at all.

It was a great example of how alternative media can represent a movement and question and interrogate political power.


But there are problems with this model too.

The AUOB conference is the movement speaking to itself.

For all of the people despairing at the SNP’s lack or urgency there may well be people pleased that they are not campaigning in the midst of pandemic. The predicament for YesAlba is the same as the predicament for the 2014 Yes campaign, that is the challenge is not to bring on board those already at your events, on your blogs and on your Facebook group, the challenge is to sway those that you don’t know and that don’t share your framing and obsessions. This was a key lesson from 2014 – don’t be fooled by the phenomena you are immersed in – it’s NOT the same as the society you are part of and the electorate you are campaigning in.

And this touches on some of the challenges facing YesAlba.

The opposition to the SNP’s approach combines people who are opposed to WMD (‘Bairns not Bombs’); people angered by the lack of progress towards a referendum; people who want UDI; people furious about the GRA; people motivated by the Hate Bill; people who are passionate against the ‘leadership’; people obsessed with the “woke”; people who fantasise about Alex Salmond’s resurrection; people who believe a ‘Plan B’ is the most important issue we face; people who believe in the importance of a new Scottish currency; and on and on.

The problem, or the challenge is these groups don’t really cohere.

A YesAlba will also (presumably) include hundreds if not tens of thousands of people who aren’t necessarily motivated by these concerns but are motivated by a belief in the strategy (such as there has been one) put forward by the SNP. These are not distinct categories.

In this context two things will be crucial to a new grassroots campaign/movement. The first is how it navigates these differences, and what mechanisms (technical and political) it invents to manage them. Most importantly how it manages the people in a formative grassroots campaign who aren’t just critical of the SNP but want it destroyed and replaced. Secondly is the question of leadership. Is there a figure that emerges to be a figurehead for this extra-parliamentary campaign that has the skills to manage both internal conflict and external outward-facing communication to the wider public? Who would that be?

Or, would the campaign emerge to have multiple points of leadership as happened in 2014?

Finally I find some of the Conteresque framing a little simplistic and a little convenient.

As Kerevan states (“The Week the Gloves Came Off”):

“The advent of YesAlba is only one sign of the emergence of a grassroots, working class independence movement outside of the parliamentary arena.”


“Though the SNP won a clear majority of seats in Scotland, it lost nearly half a million (mostly working class) votes compared to the 2015 election. This suggested popular disenchantment with the SNP’s growing parliamentary conservatism, vacuous political messaging (so not to frighten the Scottish middle classes); and often slavish devotion to EU institutions (which the party leadership uses as an incessant excuse not to take interventionist steps in the industrial economy). Into this political vacuum stepped AUOB, an ad hoc group of working class activists largely outside SNP membership.”

There’s several problems with the neatness of this categorisation.

It defines political views into linear compartmentalized (and automatic) class categories. This doesn’t feel real-world. It romanticises the grassroots to the point of parody.

The grassroots movement – and the SNP – are a bit messier and complex than this, in my experience. The grassroots movement is brilliant in many many ways, but it’s not some kind of off-the-shelf proletariat of radical visionaries, and to pretend it is is just a bit weird.  Equally the SNP is not some kind of uniform bloc caricature of reactionary militant centrism, and to pretend it is is just a bit weird too.

The Good News

If all of this sounds a bit complex and messy and annoying, that’s because that’s what political campaigning is.

Holding together a diverse movement with different priorities isn’t impossible, and it’s possibly the best news in very long time to have an autonomous grassroots campaign. Having this explicitly separate from the SNP is probably a good thing, but that campaign will have to transcend the contradictions of having elements within it that want to destroy the vehicle on which it is dependent. It also needs to figure out how it relates to other campaign groups such as Voices for Scotland, the Scottish Greens, Women for Indy, RIC, Business for Scotland and the Scottish Independence Convention, amongst others.

These challenges present the independence movement with both crisis and opportunity as the Union crumbles and collapses in the face of its own ridiculous contradictions.

At our best we can admit ‘unity in diversity’ and engage different parts of civil Scotland in different ways and play to our strengths. But that’s a challenge. Asking these questions is an attempt to meet that challenge. We can do this – and we must do this – as the last days of Britain play out in some tragic exceptionalism pantomime.








Comments (19)

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  1. john Wakenshaw says:

    COVID or no COVID after The PMs ” disaster” remark. The FM should be shouting loud and clear the contempt the English establishment has for Scotland and catching up the Independence vote!

  2. Daniel Raphael says:

    While those who view the SNP as *the* vehicle for bringing Independence to pass, and the (messy) overall effort includes those who want to “destroy” the SNP, it seems incontrovertible that, by the very nature of the undertaking, the SNP will be *transformed* in the process. Whether that will be to enough people’s liking seems as good a way of pointing to what will constitute “critical mass[es]” in the fight for Northern emancipation as any other single processional feature. Involvement with the world at large always gets one’s hands dirty, and sometimes dirt proves germinal. Good luck with that.

  3. Axel P Kulit says:

    I have always taken the view that Independence is first and then we can iron out almost everything else.

    I suspect the SNP may get ONE term after independence as a way for the people to say “thanks” or “OK, now fix the problems independence has revealed”

    It is also possible that the SNP vaguely centre right pose is a pose to prevent scaring soft Yes voters.

    it is also possible that the discontent is being stirred up by “dark forces”

    In short: the time to destroy the SNP is AFTER independence.

    1. Dougie Harrison says:

      Ah, that it were so simple!

      The rather more complex Irish independence struggle was more complex not least because it involved a belief in the use of arms by both those seeking independence, and their opponents – ie Carson’s threat of protestant illegal armed insurrection in the northeastern conclave, and the ‘Royal’ Artillery shelling Dublin’s Four Courts.

      Fine Fail, successor to the SNP equivalent Sinn Feinn, split over the protestant gerrymander of the north-eastern six counties. It and Fine Gail have between them swopped and sometimes shared Irish government ever since… that is, for nigh on a century. Much the same, with detail differences, has happened in many countries which have since won independence.

      The key problem facing the independence movement is how it wins a majority of what remains of the labour and trades union movement to support it, not who wins wee theological arguments amongst the argument-lovers of those seeking independence. What matters is the shape and flexibility of those seeking to slip through the indie needle’s eye-hole.

  4. Josef Ó Luain says:

    Nobody in the Yes movement is trying to or wants to destroy the SNP as a vehicle for independence. The problem and the tragedy of the situation lies with the perceived unreliability of the vehicle amongst a growing number of its passengers.

    1. James Mills says:

      I think that , like any political movement /party , some noisy activists can give the impression that MANY within the movement/Party share the same views . Recently there have been noisy interventions by some within the SNP-Independence movement that would suggest that all is not well and that this foreboding is shared by the majority .
      I take the view that most independence supporters are quietly content to let matters evolve as they are at the moment , with our ‘enemy’ making all sorts of Napoleonic pleasing mistakes .
      I assume , like me , that most people are not activists and view the squabbles among the noisy few ( some with their own agendas to pursue , it has to be said ) with the same detachment / apathy that we reserve for the latest pronouncement from Gordon Brown when someone inadvertently wakens him from his semi-permanent hibernation .

  5. MBC says:

    I think the movement has to agree on main points and allow diversity in others. The main and essential points all need to agree on are: (1) to actively campaign for the dissolution of the British union and the reinstatement of Scottish sovereignty; (2) counteract the narrative that Scotland cannot make it on her own.

    Anything else is detail and doesn’t really matter for the purposes of the movement. The movement is not a political party which seeks election and thus requires to develop policy but a campaign of national liberation. It doesn’t need to be any more specific than that.

    Policy is developed by parties not movements. If free discussion is allowed within the movement, ideas will begin to cohere and can form the basis of political parties after liberation.

    1. Daniel Raphael says:

      Excellent post.

  6. Kenny Smith says:

    The SNP are at a cross roads. They either start to show a bit of spirit and commitment to finding a way out this shit show pronto or the will lose everything as a party and as the main outlet for independence. I totally understand the are in a strange position in a sense that they are both a party of government and protest which is really fine line but it feels like they are squeezing the breath out the whole movement. If they were behaving like a party determined to gain independence then there would be no new indy parties coming into existence and I wouldn’t be thinking of voting for them. Iv never voted for anyone else and the fact I’m even considering it speaks volumes. Hopefully the get the finger out because the UK is shagged independence is now a must

  7. Dougie Blackwood says:

    The basis of the argument is sound. The SNP is the vehicle to independence, of that there is little doubt, but what we decide upon after independence is important but very much for that time, not now. Those that push one particular version of their vision are delusional and we must avoid fragmentation before we gain the prize.

    When I first joind the Yes campaign, before the referendum and before joining the SNP, I had a discussion with another member; he was a rabid monachist while others in the group were rabid republicans. This monachist member was with us for only a short while and dropped out despite listening to my argment that these questions were for after independence; first gain the prize then decide, here among the electorate, which road we follow.

    Once we gain independence I hope and expect the SNP will fragment and, while still playing a leading role be only one among a number of parties. In my view that situation is the best outcome for us. I likes the original Scottish parliament with it’s rainbow parties and strong characters. Would we have banned warrant sales without the? Not a chance.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Dougie Blackwood, you say vehicle, but perhaps the SNP are more like a stage in multi-stage launch vehicle. To be expended once their usefulness is over and jettisoned before their weight drags the mission down to failure?

      1. Dougie Blackwood says:

        Just at the moment there is no other vehile that will achieve independence. If one comes along that might or more likey wont help the cause.

        SNP is a very broad church where almost every member wants independence. It is also full of many strands of opinion and they should ALL be respected. Once independence is achieved then will be the time to sort out the future path but we must not be like the multiple left wing parties that split and squabble over detail, becoming an irrelevance.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Dougie Blackwood, those would be the left-wing parties infiltrated by UK undercover political police and their paid agents? I think the idea of a constantly-divided socialist movement is something of a state invention, after the success and power of mass movements with common causes that shook the British establishment, although I’m sure fractious infighting can crop up anywhere (at least, I gather that is FTI Consulting’s boast). I think the point is that the SNP can be ditched if it looks like hindering Independence (or the kind most people want), and that should be made very clear to its leadership.

          1. Dougie Blackwood says:

            Sorry but the SNP and other parties each have their infiltrators. Every group has it’s own negative posters seeking to sow discord. The strength of the SNP is that they can shrug their shoulders and press on regardless. Can Tommy Sherridan, Colin Fox , Rosie Kane and all the rest work together? Not a chance. Their hearts are in the right place but they each follow their own and different True Path to Nirvana.

            Keep the faith. Win Independence that sort it out afterward. Many will go down blind alleys, some will lead and most will follow but we can do it in the end. There is nothing worse than losing the next referendum because we argue about details and fall out before we get there.

            These are my last words on this subject.

        2. Axel P Kulit says:

          I am reminded of the Life of Brian where the greatest enemy of the Judean Peoples Party is not the romans but the People’s Party of Judea. Similarly Labour seems to prefer fighting itself not the Tories and I am sure there are similar factions in the YES movement.
          This may be why so many people sit back and avoud participating in any form of community action or politics.

  8. Wul says:

    I found Lesley Riddoch’s interview of Ian Blackford above quite revealing.

    He sounded exactly like a man playing for time with very little of substance to say. He sounded uncomfortable and evasive. He did not sound like a man wholeheartedly telling the truth.

    In the words of a well-known Scottish TV comedy show: “I smell shite”

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      I’ve never been impressed by him. He’s an investment banker, I believe. During his time as party treasurer, he tried to impose austerity on the SNP to reduce its corporate debt. And, as late as 2015, he’s been an advocate of a zero rate of capital gains tax, ostensibly to help Scotland to attract investment.

      Once upon a time, come the revolution, he’d have been one of the first against the wall.

  9. Wul says:

    Forgot to say: The “Alba” part of the “Yes Alba” name is a bad idea. Smacks of kilts & bagpipes and all that.

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      How about اسکاٹ لینڈ instead, from another of our languages, Urdu?

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