A Summer of Discontent in Scotland’s Independence Movement

Gerry Hassan

Sceptical Scot, August 9th 2017

It isn’t a happy time for the Scottish independence movement. To some it seems like the silly season; to others a summer of discontent. But clearly something is going on which matters for the state of Scottish politics and the cause of independence.

The context is important. The SNP reverse in the 2017 election came as an unwelcome shock to many independence supporters. It has thrown many post-2014 assumptions into the air concerning the inevitability of another independence referendum, its timing and result.

The differences have been telling. Pro-independence blogger Wings over Scotland – aka Stuart Campbell – has said he will take Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale to court for defamation after she said remarks of his were homophobic. Green MSP Ross Greer said ‘The National’s’ front covers were ‘cringe-inducing’, and criticised the ‘bile’ of part of the independence movement. One example he cited was the personal abuse Cat Boyd faced following the revelation she voted Labour in the June election.

As revealing has been the reactions of many prominent independence supporters. Robin McAlpine, head of pro-independence Common Weal, wrote last week: ‘There is no part of the independence movement that I do not recognise as a thread of the wonderful tapestry that makes us what we are.’ Lesley Riddoch in a podcast on the current situation reduced the controversies to ‘a pack thing’, suggesting that ‘Scotland is caught up with clannishness’, and noting the perils of instant comment on Twitter and social media.

McAlpine previously defended Tommy Sheridan’s ‘Hope over Fear’ in the aftermath of the 2015 election, saying it wasn’t just a Sheridan front (which proved untrue), and that it was ‘exuberantly, unashamedly gallus’ and contributed energy no one else did to the independence movement.

No enemies

The McAlpine credo has similarities to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘no enemies on the left’ stance – whether it be Venezuela, Hamas or Hezbollah. There are fortunately for McAlpine no armed militias as part of Yes. But is he really saying in a piece, supposedly about championing ‘kindness’ over ‘cruelty’, that the most intolerant and hate filled independence supporters are his comrades in arms and part of his chosen political community? Good luck with that, but it comes at a cost, namely setting yourself apart from any conversation about modern, progressive Scotland.

Rather revealingly the response of some independence supporters is to claim that there is nothing to see here. The media campaigner with the alias G.A Ponsonby has regularly taken to Twitter to deny that there are divisions and disagreements. Instead, he has taken umbrage at a ‘radical/intellectual elite’ in independence circles who are daring to criticise part of the movement.

There is a strange mixture of noise – disagreement and controversy – alongside silence and evasion. The noise reveals that many people feel anxious, angry and confused, which is hardly surprising. But the silences are equally important as people avoid addressing some of the fundamentals. One pro-independence campaigner said he didn’t want to run any pieces on the current stramashs saying that he had recently been ‘showered by a new bout of vicious abuse’.

Political divides

Scottish politics are in a vacuum after the SNP reverse of 2017. However, this has deeper roots than one election result, reflecting the absence of leadership on the part of the SNP and independence movement since 2014. Now, shorn of an immediate referendum people don’t have a common cause or shared future destination to keep them focused, disciplined and hiding other differences.

Informing this is the different interpretations people have of independence. For some it is a goal to be pursued at any cost, and for others a means to an end. Alex Massie writing in ‘The Times’ captured this distinction when he wrote ‘the divide between those who see independence as a means of building a better house and those for whom it is, fundamentally, a question of cave ownership is growing.’

This is a divide as wide as any previous one between fundamentalists and gradualists in the SNP. It is between a politics of doing things in the here and now and near-future, compared to the attitude that none of this really matters and all that does is bring forth the great Independence Day.

Some pro-independence voices and commentators think the above tensions will abate when the holidays and the (occasional) summer weather end. But this is a false hope missing the underlying dynamics at work.

Take a couple. The SNP have been in government for a decade – the object of a recent study by myself and Simon Barrow – ‘A Nation Changed? The SNP and Scotland Ten Years On’. They have a lengthy record in office, and a number of achievements but there are increasingly problems in health, education and law and order that can be criticised. It is also apparent that the SNP for now have run out of a convincing explanation of their aims in government, beyond saving us from the worst excesses of Tory cuts and policies.

There is also the absence of a current independence plan – or any sign of one in the near-future. This always made the belief of much independence opinion pre-2017 election that Scotland was on the cusp of another referendum and Yes vote questionable. Even as Nicola Sturgeon announced her intention, due to Brexit and UK Government intransigence, to hold a second independence referendum before she was outmaneuvered by events and Theresa May there was the small problem that there was no new independence plan. There will be time now for that to be rectified.

Independence maybe

Then there is the non-SNP independence movement. Numerous groups and people – Common Weal, Robin McAlpine, Lesley Riddoch – have given themselves uncritically to the cause of independence and by association talked down any legitimate commentary critiquing the SNP. In so doing they have reduced what influence and leverage they might have had with the Nationalists.

This was understandable pre-2014 referendum, but subsequently is a strategic mistake. Thus, such people have lost their political antennas in how they listen and respect the views of non-SNP and anti-independence Scotland. And equally and importantly, because of this they are listened to less by the Scotland yet to be convinced of independence which is in the majority. That is a tragedy and one which could have been avoided.

What this has missed is that the Scotland of the future will be determined by who wins over voters – either with a pragmatic, conditional case for independence or the union. A whole swathe of voters as yet unconvinced are open to the case for independence – but not in an unconditional, take it or leave it, ‘we might be poorer, but we will have our freedom’ sort of way. That approach has been the one of hard Brexiteers: the sort of UKIPers who don’t care if they or their families see their income reduced. It hasn’t worked with Brexit and it won’t work with Scottish independence.

The current hiatus is as much an opportunity as anything else. It offers the chance for a different Scottish politics and one less defined by the recent trench warfare of independence versus the union. It also allows us to escape the politics of some independence supporters post-2014 which assumed that Scotland could remain on permanent political heat and then cajole and hector to get over the winning line and win a popular majority. Those days are now over.

For some who want these tensions and difficulties suppressed a wider question has to be asked: how is the independence movement – if it cannot deal with and call out unacceptable behaviour – going to deal with some of the bigger substantive issues? Such as the absence of a new independence offer. Or the fact that such an offer has to address difficult choices and priorities or, post-independence, to hold government and authorities to account and speak out when the SNP and Scottish Government get things wrong. Are we really meant to think that current conformists of the ‘everything will be alright’ school will morph into one challenging and questioning people and institutions on their side? If so, wouldn’t it be better to start now.

Conformist culture

This is a fundamental faultline. Lots of people who gave their votes and voice to independence in 2014 but aren’t of the SNP note the grip and culture of conformity and squashing debate and dissent, and worry about it. They link it into a wider pattern about how Scotland has consistently failed to hold power to account: think Glasgow Rangers FC, the Royal Bank of Scotland, the numerous scandals of the Catholic Church, and many more. They worry that this would be the state of affairs under independence. In other words, we need to practice democracy and debate now, not leave it to some unspecified future date.

There have been exceptions to the above such as the pro-independence sites CommonSpace and Bella Caledonia. They have taken enormous hits for daring to think independence was about independent thinking. And as often there is the issue of gender in this, with some of the most prominent independence campaigners daring to speak out being women – Angela Haggerty, Carolyn Leckie, Cat Boyd – then facing abuse and misogyny and widespread silence and even collusion in its aftermath.

There is a problem with party, movement and social media. The SNP is a political party prone to shortcomings and mistakes that invite criticism. Yet it acts as a movement to avoid criticism, while not being a movement in the genuine social sense. The wider independence movement doesn’t have the resources or clout to take on the SNP and at times has come across as an extension of it.

All of this has also exposed the limits of social media. Yet, there is an equally important issue of what happens to insurgent media when their cause becomes one of insiders: it becomes more difficult to adjust your targets from waging war on opponents, to fessing up to shortcomings on your own side. This has been true of Breitbart and the alt right media with Trump, the various sites around the Corbyn camp in Labour, and with Scottish independence.

The state we’re in

This summer of discontent says much about the state of Scotland. It isn’t an accident that there have been heated exchanges in independence opinion. This reveals much about where we find ourselves – with the instant independistas disappointed and angry that change isn’t happening around the corner.

A different approach is going to be needed from independence opinion and from unionists. More detail, policy and ideas are going to be required. Independence needs a new plan and unionists such as Ruth Davidson’s Tories are never going to get away with the one trick pony campaign of bashing independence in the June 2017 election.

For many on the independence side this is all a bit of a let down, but instead it should be seen as a challenge and window. Scotland’s journey to greater self-government isn’t all about the SNP. Nor is it about keeping quiet and burying any reservations until Independence Day.

The Scotland of the future is being made and remade every day in hundreds of thousands of conversations and exchanges. It is up to all of us that for the most part, these come from the best of our instincts, and not some primordial basic instincts. We can make a better, more honest, fair Scotland in the process: one where we hold power of any hue and type to account. Yes, we need to champion kindness and not cruelty, but there also have to be parameters of debate and behaviour, and a calling out of abuse wherever it comes from.