An Open Letter to the SNP and Independence Supporters
Bella Caledonia, March 17th 2017
These are fast moving political times for Scotland. The events of the last week illustrate the accelerated fragmentation and disintegration of the UK as we know it.
But these are also times of high stakes and stand-offs, with the Scottish and UK Governments gaming and predicting the actions of the other. Monday’s announcement by Nicola Sturgeon took the UK Government by surprise and seized the centrestage of British politics – forcing the postponement of triggering Article 50. Theresa May’s most recent statement, declaring that ‘now is not the time’ for a referendum’ until the Brexit talks are completed, was predictable. Despite this, it would be ill-advised to underestimate May and the UK Government who, despite her personal inflexibility and lack of comprehension of modern Scotland, will play hard to keep Scotland in the union.
Similarly, while time works in favour of independence, it also has downsides. The SNP have been in office ten years, and with each passing year have more of a record to defend. Next time, the careful 2014 balancing act of being insurgent and incumbent will be much more difficult to pull off. And the SNP’s domestic political dominance (rather like the Tories in the UK) has costs: in that there is, across the SNP and Scottish Government, a tangible weakening in political antenna and sensitivity of how policies and stances appear to those outside the administration. Such a time of high-wire politics means that it is more urgent than ever to reflect, tell hard truths, and to institutionalise more effectively a deeper pluralist politics.
- Post-First IndyRef
The first indyref was an enormously positive experience for many of us. Independence came in from the cold; and the SNP and Yes defined the post-referendum environment. However, in this climate, a number of opportunities were missed which matter to this day.
In the immediate aftermath of the indyref, the SNP leadership (Salmond and Sturgeon) talked to the 45 per cent who voted Yes, and did not adequately reach out to the 55 per cent who voted No. There was a public failure in the weeks after the vote to reach out to the whole nation.
Then there was the absence of any strategic post-mortem beyond the most private circles. Political defeat can be a release, catharsis, a liberation and a huge opportunity for growth. But that requires a sober assessment that includes a public element and is collectively understood and owned by the wider movement. That didn’t happen for reasons which are hard to fathom. The permanent campaigning of Scotland post-2014 is often cited, but there is such a thing as multi-tasking.
There has been in the period post-2014 an absence of leadership – in the sense of telling the party and movement some hard and difficult truths about how it does politics and the content of any future independence offer. I will go into some of the missing detail of this below.
- Post-Brexit Scotland
A thorough post-mortem could have informed and assisted post-Brexit political choices. The Scottish Government has presented some informed, thoughtful proposals on Scotland’s position in the UK and EU, but has been boxed in by the inflexibility of the UK Government. If the SNP had been more courageous and reflective post-indyref it would be in a better position to speak for a wider Scotland beyond Yes and legitimately make the case for the national interest being threatened by the actions of the UK Government.
- From IndyRef1 to IndyRef2
The absence of any real post-mortem means that a number of erroneous assumptions have become widespread which need to be questioned in the build-up period to indyref2.
These include the myth of the 45: a dangerous and ill-advised assumption that independence starts from 45% and underneath it that the only way is up, and that, because of this, winning won’t be that difficult. This is sometimes framed in the often-cited view that indy last time got from 30% to 45% so it won’t be too difficult to get over the winning line next time. Yet, the change last time was mostly the low hanging fruit, made up of many disillusioned former, or soon to be former, Labour voters. Getting over the winning line by a decent margin requires heavy lifting, not aided by reinforcing the myth of the 45.
Many factors show this as the dangerous mythology it is: differential turnout could be even more crucial next time (and might even more aid No), there will still be a demographic advantage for No (with the over-65s turning out more than younger voters), and part of disadvantaged Scotland might not turn out so enthusiastically for Yes this time as they did last.
- Tone and Content
How the case for independence is presented tone wise matters enormously. The tone of Nicola Sturgeon on Monday was right, but often even prominent people don’t come from the best place.
For starters, a tone of disappointment that the union no longer fits Scotland’s needs is better than anger and bitterness. Therefore, the tone and content of a wistful goodbye, rather than two fingers up to the UK is much better politics. Anger isn’t a great foundation story for an independent Scotland. Instead, the nature of our goodbye should inform the style of our hello onto the international stage.
- How the next White Paper comes about
The White Paper on independence cannot emerge like last time – produced almost as if from a magician’s hat like a rabbit with all the expectation and suspense that entails.
Next time there has to be an element of better process and wider ownership of the independence proposals. There are lots of examples around the world of popular constitutionalism – from Ireland to Iceland to Australia.
Maybe it is time to dust down one of the most powerful and evocative clarion calls of the wider self-government movement and invoke the tradition of ‘A Claim of Right for Scotland’. There have been three previous claims: 1689, 1843 and 1988, and maybe the right set of circumstances has come for a fourth, making real the rhetoric of popular sovereignty (something the Scottish Constitutional Convention cited, but never practiced). Today any initiative has to do both: reference it and practice it in its actions.
- What the White Paper does
It was understandable that last time the White Paper was 650 pages long, but in this over-inflated form it was a statement of weakness and a strategic mistake. Next time, the shorter the better. A good model of an inspirational document of political and social change, and one with programmatic detail is Labour’s 1945 manifesto, ‘Let Us Face The Future’, which was a mere 27 pages long.
Don’t just have one big hit, document wise next time. Then the monthly UK Treasury expert reports did lasting damage by causing multiple hits, whereas independence waited until its one date with destiny. Considering a series of supporting documents to the short, main prospectus is one possibility.
If there was the time the ideal question to ask might not be what was asked last time, but: ‘Do you give the Scottish Government a mandate to open negotiations with the UK Government?’ This has consistently shown a popular majority, parks independence on the side of the Scottish question, and would mean the amount of detail the Scottish Government would have to answer would be reduced. It would mean two referendums would have to be held – one on the principle, one on the actual deal – and that probably isn’t possible or desirable in the tense political environment. It might be too late for such an approach, whatever its merits.
- Policy and Ideas for Independence
A big question in Scotland is: where do policy and ideas come from? We have a small policy community (as well as powerful conservatism in many parts of public life – including the Scottish Government).
One possible idea and vessel would be to set up an Independent Commission on Independence – which could be situated at an independent institution such as a prominent Scottish university. This could form a twin-track process with the more participative processes of ‘A Claim of Right’ running alongside a more expert-led initiative.
A good move would be to consider putting together a public citizens’ panel of sceptical Scots (or even completely of No voters) to speak to about their concerns and doubts over Brexit, the neverendum, EU membership and the independence offer. Signals matter in politics, and this would send out a powerful signal of listening and leadership.
Beyond campaigning dynamics, there is an urgent need for an independence supporting think tank – beyond the sterling work of Commonweal (itself a hybrid model of think and do tank). This has to be independent of the SNP, but needs a relationship with it. Moreover, we need in preparation for independence, a plethora of such bodies and research institutes. In terms of how expert and professional opinions views the independence project, this could be helpful both to win converts and produce a better polity. The SNP leadership, traditionally, over the devolution period, has not seen the need for such political advice, preferring to focus on the party as the vehicle for change. But the party cannot have a monopoly on ideas. It also needs actively to facilitate such a political culture and encourage a climate more fertile to new ideas and policies for a future independent nation. Substance cannot wait until day one of independence.
- An Emotionally Intelligent Politics
These are fast-changing times, disorientating and disrupting for some. The ideas, policy, culture and pluralism of a future and independent Scotland is being made in the here and now.
For some, the permanent political campaigning environment of Scotland post-2014 is a threat and unpleasant. We have to be able to understand that. It also has implications for how the Yes movement and mindset judges the political moment. Many are impatient for change, but do not recognise that much of Scotland doesn’t feel the same.
There is a need for some honest talking about the strategic choices of an independent Scotland. Independence supporters need to be careful not to believe their own hype or mythologies. The Saltire filled rallies of last time while good for the troops didn’t win over many floating voters (and probably scared some away). The zealots and over-partisans – including some very prominent independence supporters – need as much as possible to be stood down. The existing SNP leadership approach of silence about specific abuses, while condemning the abusive and unacceptable in general terms, isn’t sustainable.
A final thought. We have to reach out and have a politics informed by emotional intelligence and the multiple identities of Scotland. Many No voters feel they face the prospect of losing a part of their identity under independence. That needs to be listened to as well, and not (as I have seen too often) dismissed with scorn and condescension. A number of high profile initiatives geared towards showing that the SNP and independence movement understand this would be smart politics.
Now isn’t the time for safety-first politics or just repeating what brought success in the last ten years. It is the time to carefully and strategically choose when to strike out of comfort zones and embrace a political practice which puts flesh on independence, makes it more widely owned, and engages with numerous publics and groups in what could be seen as a genuine ‘national conversation’. That is, one which contributes to changing our political culture. Independence is a process, not an event, and all of the above is part of it becoming an element of everyday life and normalised. Moreover, this aids making independence not just abstract – something inspiring to some, but tantalisingly in the distance to many – but real and practical, and hence a project and vision with more popular appeal.
Gerry Hassan is author of Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back published by Freight Books, £9.99..