Where does the Yes Campaign Go From Here?

On Saturday, as part of The Break up of Britain? conference in Edinburgh I’ll be chairing a panel asking: “Where does the Yes Campaign Go From Here?” with Laura Webster, the Editor of the National, Lesley Riddoch, broadcaster and author, Jonathon Shafi, co-founder of the Radical Independence Campaign and Siobhan Tolland, SNP NEC Member.

It seems clear that the sense of confidence and optimism that characterised the movement for independence around 2014 (and some way beyond) has largely gone. This is for several connected reasons: the active thwarting of a referendum vote by the British state, and the Unionist parties; the lack of coherent strategy to counter this by the SNP; the failure of the SNP to gain momentum from historic electoral victory; exhaustion and disillusionment within the wider Yes movement; surround-sound media hostility; and the ebb and flow of government and change of leadership.

There are other factors at play.

The Unionist messaging has shifted dramatically from talking of a Union of Equals and a Family of Nations to actively attacking and undermining devolution itself. Therefore the ‘task’ has moved from gaining independence to defending the devolution settlement. That’s a settlement that is deeply flawed in itself, and the party that created it (Labour) have abandoned. Secondly the historic high of enormous electoral gains of SNP MPS hasn’t translated into any real momentum for change. Thirdly the prospect of a Labour government being elected at a UK level has become a reality, whatever misgivings or critiques you might hold about the Starmer ‘vision’, this changes the dynamics at play. Fourthly the police investigation hangs over the SNP like a pall. It is without resolution and has had the effect of tainting the former leadership.

Finally other global factors have over-taken some of the issues of independence. The war in Ukraine has been used to undermine the case for independence, when in fact it could have been utilised to stress the need for self-determination. Equally the social crisis and economic breakdown has found many communities overwhelmed by crisis and destitution and insecurity. Climate change and breakdown has also reached levels of urgent manifestation on our shores and streets and homes. None of these things offer convincing or credible arguments in favour of continued Union – quite the reverse – but compelling arguments haven’t been made about how and why people should feel more economically secure, more militarily safe or more defended against climate breakdown in an independent Scotland.

I think it has to honestly address these and other issues that have been allowed to fester, and avoid either a culture of blame or a return to the insularity of movement politics. The constant return to the idea of somehow ‘uniting the movement’ seems to be a dead-end resulting in very stagnant conversations between a very small pool of people.

Where does the Yes Campaign Go From Here?

The task, it would seem to me to be to a) address the outstanding issues about the process of change that the electorate remain unconvinced by and b) creating the institutions and infrastructures of change to allow it to happen c) confront honestly the problems we have faced and re-build a campaign accordingly. While the Yes movement faces considerable problems it also has an opportunity in the continued problems of the British state, its institutions and its feeling of impending and continuing decline and perpetual crisis. This must be matched with an alternative that is transformative and imaginative and true to the problems and opportunities of the 21st century.



Comments (16)

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  1. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Yes I broadly agree. But I want to see a more educated understanding of the way in which Westminster has been able to block us. Understanding of the complexity of decision making and challenging power – too many people still think that getting a mandate at Holyrood should automatically deliver independence. Of course it should but there are questions of power and domination which mean it isnt a simple thing. People need to understand why we have been tied up in knots by the establishment and the way in which many of our arguments are tied up and turned back against ourselves. The National has started a wee series on how other countries became independent from England but the lessons need to be brought together in some kind of framework. Particularly the twin strategies of ignoring us and delaying any development.

  2. Graeme McCormick says:

    The facts are simple! Poll after poll shows we are within a whisper of a majority yes vote, so why retreat from an Independence Election? if we do we become an irrelevance in a U.K. electoral context.

    If the SNP committed to dissolving the Union all the bickering would stop and people then gave a timeframe to concentrate all their efforts.

  3. Jim Anderson says:

    You say the Yes movement faces considerable problems – personally I think there is only one problem, the political leadership skill set. It is a skill set that lacking across the whole political spectrum at present. Currently the buck stops with the leader of the SNP on Holyrood governance, the impacts of British governance and internal party governance. The FM therefore needs the whole management skill set, which can be found by anyone using Google. Unfortunately, the past and present FM do not have any of the expected skills – Leadership, Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Finance and Project Management – nor has the current FM in his Cabinet team, as is demonstrated daily by their pontifications that lack the use of most of the expected skills. Every initiative, every policy, every utterance is rightly subjected to close scrutiny and discrepancies correctly flushed out – however, it should be the SNP that does the most analytical scrutiny but that seems beyond their ken.

    If I am even a small part correct in my assessment, the leadership skill set is where the problem lies for the Yes movement.

    1. I think the idea that the problem is down to individuals – and that magically different people would have produced different results – is really limited and limiting. The problem is a structural one – a system highly resistant to change. What is required is power – and momentum – the power to create the conditions to overcome that system.

      1. John says:

        There is no magical route to independence – it will require a rigorous strategy, cooperation and hard campaigning from the independence movement to convert the approximately 50% supporters into a firm majority.
        We have had 9 years of SNP administration at Holyrood at the same time as increasingly right wing Tory government at Westminster and Brexit and we are still only hovering around 50% support for independence.
        At the moment the only things that unite majority of Scottish electorate is dislike of Tories and opposition to Brexit.
        We need an honest conversation about what is needed to achieve a firm majority for independence and while this must include criticism of SNP at Holyrood infighting, personal insults, finger pointing and fragmentation of independence movement will only set the movement back.
        Good news is the demographics are in the favour of independence but we cannot afford to take the support of younger voters for granted.
        I also think that as this article stated younger voters are more likely to be focused on cost of living issues at present.
        The independence movement needs to convince voters of benefits of independence economically and socially in short and longer term if they are to achieve the level of sustained support that Westminster cannot ignore. If we cannot do this I am not sure that, however much I personally desire independence, we can justify it?

      2. Jim Anderson says:

        Except that is exactly how many big businesses turn a non-achieving business in to a success story. If leadership is missing where does the power to change come from?

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Jim Anderson, ah, the Myth of Leadership, sibling of the right-wing Great Man (Occasionally Woman) View of History. Innovations tend to come from idea communism, not information-hoarding, and teamwork plays a far more decisive role in developing new products than a leader’s vision, in the areas I’m familiar with. There are a couple of fascinating documentaries on the creation of groundbreaking computer games Lemmings and Goldeneye for case studies, for example. When everyone’s ideas are valued without prejudice, network effect multipliers kick in and syncretic problem-solving has exponential power. Studies of the effects of sports managers suggest a relatively small effect on results, which like any managers, can be negative. Looking at the performance of political party leaders in the UK, negative effects seem the norm (partly because of copying patterns of court politics over the centuries).

  4. Matthew says:

    The Yes movement is held back by its own beliefs.

    The problem is continually defined as ‘ how do we get another referendum’ when it should be ‘how do we get a solid majority (60%+) in favour of Indy’

    Secondly, us No voters don’t all believe that we are ‘better together’, it’s just that ‘considerably worse off in the short to medium term’ didn’t fit on the posters.

    Until the Yes movement accepts that the early years will be difficult and starts to seriously address the big questions it won’t go anywhere. Where is the register of state apparatus that will need to be created and the rough cost and time scale? How does sterlingisation work when you are running a fiscal and current account defecit? What’s the tax and spend projection for the early years?

    When it comes to the big questions there are no big answers, no evidence of big thinking and no real acceptance that these are serious issues at all.

    1. John says:

      Matthew I do agree that a much larger focus should be placed on asking why people who could be persuaded to vote for independence are opposed to it.
      If you consider that the most significant factor in whether someone voted Yes or No was homeownership this would back up the personal finance perspective.
      I would however not rule out quality of public services including education and NHS which are key to most peoples life in Scotland.
      I also think that honesty with electorate on these issues short and medium term is essential for two reasons:
      after 2014 independence referendum electorate are far more aware of issues involved
      the Brexit referendum was won in UK on a very thin prospectus and the outcome has been chaotic. I also happen to think that one reason electorate in Scotland voted against Brexit was the fact that they could see the lack of plans after going through 2014 referendum.
      I personally have come to conclusion, after a lot of research, that Scotland as a country has more than enough resources to have a thriving economy and be a more prosperous and socially fairer country than it has been.
      I realise there are many others who are similarly sympathetic to independence but not yet convinced. You are right in stating that this is target audience not grandstanding and infighting.

    2. Cruachan says:

      This would be worth at look. Straightforward tasks, timelines and issues.
      All difficult, but all achievable, with the political will required.

      1. Matthew says:

        Thanks, I’ll take a look.

        Nice to have productive discussions on here!

  5. Dougie Blackwood says:

    I attended a Yes Helensburgh meeting last night and posed this very question. As Graeme McCormick says in his piece, the route seems to be to use a General election as a plebesite. This was apparently agreed at the SNP conference but has subsequenty disappeared from view.

    The next election will be sometime in the next year and if we are to lay the groundwork for a positive result we need to start campaigning now. We hear nothing in the way of plans or proposals from the SNP as I fear they are unable to get a sensible agreement with the other players on the Yes team. In the present circumstances we must fire the starting pistol or we will be having the same converstion in 10 years time.

    Scotland is a country and there are many things that our population want to change. Rather than acting like a real country we act as supplicants to Big Brother that holds the puse strings and makes the rules for the English Supreme Court to follow.

    Heads need to be knocked together and agreement reached to stand a candidate in every constituency under the name “Independent Country” or whatever the electoral commission will agree to rather than the SNP and the rest standing as separate parties and splitting the vote. It is not beyond the wit of those that have Scotland’s place in the world at heart to agree some arrangement for putting a proportionate number of candidates from the various parties to stand under the one banner.

    Time is of the essence and action is required or we WILL be in this position or worse in 10 years time.

  6. florian albert says:

    What exactly is the ‘Yes Campaign’ ? I know what the SNP is and what Alba is, but the ‘Yes Campaign’ – not really.

    Mike Small implicitly accepts this when he writes of the need to create ‘institutions and infrastructures of change.’

    This might prove to be a long term project. It took the SNP 40 years to get from the Hamilton by-election to control of Holyrood in a minority government.

    Is there a pool of sufficiently dedicated activists to get such a project up and running ? That remains to be seen. Alba was launched on the assumption that it would be able to attract such activists who were disillusioned with the SNP. Despite attracting a number of well known names, it has, so far, failed to successfully engage with voters.

    There are clearly many independent (and independence) minded people outwith the SNP. However, their unwillingness to join the
    SNP, when it was sweeping nearly all before it, suggests that these are not people who would easily be united in a single organization.
    For the foreseeable future, the campaign for independence is likely to depend on the SNP.

  7. Observer says:

    It seems unlikely that an objectively far left activist like J Shafi is well placed temperamentally to understand that section of the electorate which was and remains nervous about the impact of independence on their personal finances. L Riddoch is a good communicator but known best for her various policy hobby horses, many of which are achievable right now under devolution. The SNP has had a good run electorally but needs to go into opposition in order to allow Labour to appear to fail and present independence as the answer.

    Only a massive, sustained and legitimate sense of grievance will suffice to persuade sufficient numbers of Scottish voters to believe that the prize of statehood is worth the risk of leaving the U.K. A decade of dire Tory rule post referendum and our departure from the EU hasn’t moved the polls an inch; I see no sign that the remnants of the Yes movement have any ability to shift the political agenda back towards independence as a solution to anything.

    1. John says:

      Unfortunately I think you are probably correct. There will always be uncertainty about short to medium term financial impact of independence and it is difficult to see how the small c conservative middle aged homeowners can be won over on this basis especially when they have already voted No.
      Demographics shows that younger people have less to lose financially and are more supportive of independence. Incumbency and internal wrangling, hyped up by a hostile media, have left SNP looking tired and independence movement fractured. A period of opposition may help recharge batteries and allow independence movement to realign and refocus.
      I would like to see independence achieved on a basis of optimism but now think it will not be achieved until dislike of Westminster parties and governance becomes so great it overcomes the fear of change from independence

  8. Satan says:

    I suppose that nationalism is a good default comfort blanket for a lot of people who aren’t particularly intrested in campaigning for change in the here and now or the there and later. That may explain why it’s so barren.

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