Independence is about more than an indyref. It is about changing minds and Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Bella Caledonia, January 25th 2019

Independence has to be about more than tactics and processes – which has dominated too many conversations since 2014.

Independence is about more than an indyref – and in particular, timing, the question asked and how it comes about. This is politics as process and taking the substance for granted. And it is a trap too many independence supporters have fallen into post-2014.

The last four plus years have been a strange time in Scottish politics. The democratic spirit of the indyref has been allowed to wither and fade – as in part it must naturally. But it is a serious failure that subsequently no new forms of engagement have been created by the Scottish Government or other public bodies. Instead, for ‘official’ Scotland it has been back to business as usual, when the country could have risen to something better.

The SNP have shown little imagination post-2014 or understanding of the Scotland that emerged after the indyref. Instead, we have been offered a leadership which does little in the way of actual positive leadership: honesty about difficult issues, recognising hard choices, and challenging people to come out of their comfort zones. Rather we have been offered safety-first caution, command and control and silence on the big issues.

Letting Go and Understanding 2014

The SNP and independence supporters have to learn from 2014 but also at the same time let it go: i.e.: stop trying to continually fight past battles until you get the right result. Similarly, it is not helpful or healthy politics to think independence can be put to the people when there has been no reappraisal of the last flawed offer and no sign of a new offer emerging in the immediate future.

As problematic there is a widespread disrespect in too many independence supporters of the 2014 result. No won by 55.3% to 44.7% on a turnout of 84.6% in what was effectively a three-year campaign. Those three factors give the No victory not just legitimacy but weight and depth. No won by a margin of 383,937 votes. Any future referendum has to look to win by the same margin; the delusion that independence can be won by a narrow victory of one vote or more just isn’t going to happen.

There is too much denial of such basic hard truths aided by the complete absence of the SNP leadership to facilitate a debate. I was at a meeting at the end of last year when before I spoke the SNP Depute Leader Keith Brown said ‘we lost by 5%’. That is completely inaccurate. Yes lost by more than twice that: 10.6%. What he had distorted into the above fake fact is that all things being equal Yes needs a swing of 5.3% to win by a single vote.

Since 2014 and more so since the Brexit vote the SNP have fallen into a politics of managing their dominant position and shutting down others including in their own party. They have departed from the script and lessons of 2007 and 2011, which were about the importance of being outward-looking (beyond your base), positive and future facing. These were the three characteristics of those two election victories and will be at the core of any successful independence campaign.

There is a paradox at the heart of the SNP at the moment. On one level the leadership don’t really promote or advocate in any real sense for independence: there is no current offer, no campaigning, and no interest in over four years in understanding why Yes lost (this last point is damning). Yet at the same time all the SNP seem to have become interested in (along with staying in power) is banging on about independence. This is the worst of all worlds: slowly alienating your own supporters while turning off those you need to win.

To those outside the base (meaning those crucial to any future referendum) the SNP have given the impression that all they care about is independence. And that nothing else really counts: the state of public services, finances, and even Brexit. The consequences of this have been predictable: it isn’t an accident the polls haven’t really moved since 2014. The SNP’s stance has pushed away the critical soft No voters who are pivotal to any future vote; many have got so fed up with the Nationalists that they have stopped listening to what senior figures are saying on anything.

The Next Independence Referendum

There nearly certainly is not going to be an indyref before 2021 at the earliest. Nicola Sturgeon knows this. She is just going through the motions to keep the troops on side, distracted and reduce the chance of a mutiny. If she does push a referendum further this year it will be on the assumption Westminster will refuse a Section 30 order. This will not lead to an unofficial or Catalan vote; you don’t do that after you have had a legal vote. What it could do is give the independence argument the democratic ground which is important.

There is logic to this as long as we understand there are two levels going on. First, there is an element of jockeying and grandstanding going on between the Scottish and British Governments. Both have cases and both have weaknesses: the Scottish know any vote has to be legal and with a Section 30; the British know that they can only play for time by saying No (‘now is not the time’).

Second, this period – which could last for several years – is actually helpful to the independence side if it is used wisely. It is terrible politics to assume winning an independence mandate by one vote would be somehow enough. Or that we can go to the country with no indy offer (or no offer until the last minute).

Independence came in from the cold in the last decade. In so doing it altered fundamentally Scotland and the power balances in the UK. That comes with increased expectations and new pressures. What got independence from the margins to 45% isn’t going to be the same politics that is required to get to a winning 60% plus.

A different politics and a different kind of independence will be needed in the near-future. Given we are – without a Brexit no deal ‘national emergency’ – not going to have an indyref in 2019 or 2020 we need a politics centred on the following:

1. Independence is about more than an indyref: this is the politics of process. The substance and nature of independence matters much more.

2. There has to be more focus on doing politics differently and that includes in government. For example, on the latter, the Scottish Government has to aspire to do politics by more than announcing annual shopping lists of legislative policies and then assuming they are done. Detail and delivery matter.

3. The cause of democratising Scotland is about more than the Scottish Parliament and independence. Moreover, Scotland has in many senses retreated democratically the last two decades of devolution with the forward march of centralisation under Labour-Lib Dems and then SNP, and the atrophying of local government.

4. Political and social change cannot just be about abstracts such as ‘independence’. This does not win over more than the true believers and is a political message which is completely unfocused on winning over floating voters.

5. Independence cannot look to win by one vote or 52:48 like Brexit. The last result matters and that figure of 383,937 votes – and turning round 767,874 voters to win by a similar margin. This should be central to the politics of independence and is critical for a future result to have legitimacy and be accepted by the No side if they lose.

6. This is about a politics beyond the short-term and looking to create as wide a national consensus or sentiment for independence and self-government. This fundamentally matters to the spirit and culture of what Scotland would be like in the early days of independence: meaning what we do now and how we act in the here and now matters in how it affects and shapes that independent Scotland.

7. We need to think about creating new spaces and resources which are not run on goodwill and a shoestring and the DIY Scotland of activists. Independence needs new platforms and institutions (think tanks, research agencies, publications), which connect sustainable business models with the energy and dynamism out there and the audiences and participants who want to support and engage with them.

8. One practical observation. Critical to any future indyref will be Scottish Green votes (who have a soft indy vote) and that of Labour and Lib Dem voters. To make sure a 2021 mandate is inarguable the SNP, Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialists should all agree a form of words on an independence mandate in their manifesto. One agreed paragraph shared by the three would do. This would mean if, as is likely, the SNP do not win a majority of seats on their own, if there is an overall independence majority, then there is no argument and doubt what voters have endorsed.

None of the above entails short cuts. Those who think that it possible to do so and call an immediate independence referendum must know that the current backdrop of the Alex Salmond legal case and bitter fallout between Salmond and Sturgeon reduces its likelihood to near to zero.

We have come a long way in a relatively short time in our history. But to gain independence people need to recognise that a different politics is needed from the one which got us here. We cannot just cajole and hustle people to independence. The multiple crises of Britain and the momentum of recent times offer an historic opportunity to Scotland and independence. But with that comes a need to acknowledge the mistakes and causalities along the way and the need to reach out and listen to doubting, unconvinced Scotland. Amid all the noise we should all listen to the silences and anxieties up and down our land – including the silences on the Yes side.