Is it really time for another pro-independence party in Scotland?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, August 14th 2019

It is the silly season after all. This used to be the traditional time when daft stories got headlines as newspapers struggled for real news. But now we live in such a topsy-turvy world that silly season stories appear all year round.

Thus, on first appearance the news that pro-independence blogger, the ‘Rev.’ Stuart Campbell – ‘Wings over Scotland’ on social media – might launch a political party, seemed to have all the hallmarks of such an item. But these are not normal times anymore, and it turns out the ‘Rev.’ wasn’t joking, but is deadly serious.

He floated this kite in an interview in ‘The Times’ on Saturday with Kenny Farquharson. It made headlines over the weekend and subsequently, doing so in a fallow period for news (inbetween Brexit disasters). As the story grew, Campbell doubled down and subsequently said that he was ‘fairly likely’ to do this in the run-up to the 2021 Scottish elections – on the proviso that Nicola Sturgeon hasn’t called and won an indyref by then.

Campbell went further in a subsequent blog, exploring the notion that any new party (which he at times referred to in passing as ‘the Wings party’) could stand in the Scottish Parliament elections in 2021 on the regional list. The thinking behind this was that voting SNP on the regional list is basically a ‘wasted vote’ with, in the 2016 elections 953,587 votes producing a mere four list MSPs – whereas the Tories and Labour with an equivalent vote (960,141) between them got 24 and 21 seats respectively. The SNP’s paltry return was, of course as everyone knows, because the party had done so well under FPTP – winning 59 out of 73 constituencies.

A new pro-independence party could ‘game the system’ by taking SNP list votes going nowhere, win seats otherwise going to non-independence parties, and produce a pro-independence parliamentary majority. If a decent percentage of the SNP’s previous list switched to this new force, rather than seeing their vote do nothing, it could win new representation and dish unionists in the process.

This proposal met with overwhelming, but not universal approval from Wings readers. Mostly, they like the idea of circumventing the electoral system, designed for preventing political parties winning a majority of seats which some of his followers see as ‘rigged’ (and which the SNP bust in 2011). And they like breaking the d’Hondt system, seeing it as a dubious creation, and punishing individual unionist politicians and their parties.

Yet, the shortcomings of this seemed oblivious to most Wings followers. First, it is open to being seen as anti-democratic. The SNP won few list seats in 2016, because they were over-represented in FPTP seats, winning 59 out of 73 constituencies on 46.5% of the FPTP and 41.7% of the list vote – the last of which is meant to indicate the overall share of seats a party wins.

Second, engaging in obviously ‘gaming’ techniques could easily have unintended consequences. It could backfire on pro-independence opinion, depriving it of some of its moral argument. Even if the SNP stood as far as possible from such an exercise and made clear that it was done without any kind of approval, even informally, it would be used against the SNP, who would be among its beneficiaries if there was a pro-independence majority of MSPs. Such a venture could produce the opposite effect to what it was intended: harming the SNP vote and representation, and hence, pushing back the cause of independence.

Practically, any new party might not just take votes from the SNP list vote. It could also take them from the Scottish Greens, which might not bother Campbell, but could remove pro-independence seats. The Greens won 6.6% of the list vote in 2016, with their lowest ‘winning’ vote securing representation a mere 5.3% (West Scotland). The loss of 1-2% from the Green vote could deprive them of list seats, and if any new party failed to win seats, could produce a net loss in pro-independence seats.

From the Wings Story to ‘a Wings Party’

The background to this political intervention and its author is illuminating. Remember Campbell doesn’t live in Scotland, and said at the weekend that he lives in the Georgian city of Bath because in his words: ‘I don’t want to live in the most gutless country in the world’, meaning a nation which isn’t independent.

If this were uttered by your average ‘yoon’ people like Campbell would jump on it and declare it ‘talking Scotland down’ and proof the person was anti-Scottish. But in this world of double standards, everything is excusable because he is 100% pro-independence. He went on to elaborate that if he lived in Scotland: ‘I would cringe every day stepping out my front door and looking around thinking: ‘God, you people won’t even run your own affairs.’’ That is a basic contempt for the country you profess to care about.

Campbell laid out his minimum prospectus for such a party. It was pretty thin fare, based on growing suspicion of the SNP’s intentions and actions, stating that ‘I think the SNP is a shambles at the moment. It doesn’t know what it’s doing’; as well as this his offer would be pro-independence and anti-trans. Previous Campbell positions and comments include rather pronounced views on women, domestic abuse, the Gaelic language, Hillsborough (blaming Liverpool fans), and that is only a small sample of a very long list, not to mention the court case with Kezia Dugdale that he lost.

Is it possible that there is a public space and constituency for such a party which could win representation? The experience of the left-wing force RISE in the 2016 elections prove a salutary warning. They emerged from the energy and noise of the Radical Independence Campaign in the indyref, but when it came to an election, they won a tiny amount of votes, behind the Scottish Christian Party and the remnants of Tommy Sheridan’s battered army.

Previously, the Scottish Socialist Party when Sheridan was at his peak won a sizeable vote, and six seats in 2003, before self-imploding. The Scottish Greens broke through the same year winning seven seats, before falling back in 2007 and 2011, rising again in 2016 to six seats.

The inspiration for ‘the Wings party’ is clearly none of the above. It is Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. The similarities are striking. The Brexit Party is about democracy or one version of it. Then there is the notion of a one election party if their main policy plank happens (Brexit, indy); and as with Farage, placing one man at its centre and guaranteeing their place in history.

A ‘Wings party’ would be a sovereignty party; there are rumours that it could link up with Alex Salmond, depending on the result of his trial. It would surely say that it wanted a full-blooded version of independence shorn of compromise and nuance. It might following this logic to dare to demand in 2021 not some ‘soft’ version of self-government, but a ‘clean break independence’ – or what its opponents might call a ‘No Deal Independence’. In an age where some people find simplicity attractive you can see the appeal – just like Brexit. Let’s just leave a 300-year union and put all of it behind us!

Scottish nationalism, populism and ‘othering’

With little policy prospectus it is still clear where this kind of force would sit. It would be articulating a populist, rage against the machine, anti-elitist politics. Some of that might entail taking aim at Scottish elites and establishments. George Kerevan, former SNP MP, summarised this saying ‘it would offer a hodgepodge of populist slogans’ and that it would not amount to ‘a programme for government’. There is a high chance such a venture could spill into an intolerance and prejudice against all sort of minorities and vulnerable groups, and wouldn’t present the most attractive or generous political face to the public.

Part of its inherent appeal would be to the permanently angry, indignant, intolerant mindset, raging against the condition of the modern world. This is a constituency which isn’t exclusively but is more male than female, is older and more working class, and nearly entirely white. There is some overlap with the constituency who attend All Under One Banner (AUOB) marches which have been popping up all over the country: though they have been until now celebratory and upbeat, as well as increasingly fed up with Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘wait and see’ politics. The ‘Wings’ constituency is filled with the sort of people who in other parts of the UK support Farage and want Brexit done and dusted irrespective of the damage; here some of that is uber-independence: one reads the ‘Daily Mail’ and one detests it, but the similarities are stark.

Too many people in the SNP and independence opinion have colluded with this kind of politics and it has come back and bitten them. Campbell ran a phenomenal operation in the indyref and showed a grasp of political entrepreneurship rarely seen in Scotland. His ‘ Wee Blue Book’ provided 68 pages of arguments and facts for independence, and nearly 300,000 copies were produced and distributed. But since then, for all his success at crowdfunding, Campbell has become a victim of believing his own hype.

Many SNP politicians have often cited and referenced Campbell before the party leadership told them to distance themselves. However, he still gets the retweets and commendations. When I was speaking to Argyll and Bute SNP as an external speaker one year ago I followed Keith Brown, depute leader of the party, who gave an overview of the situation, and in half an hour, voiced two citations of Wings as a political authority. To this day many of the most prominent independent voices and campaigners have said not one word of criticism of Campbell: special exception must go to Mike Small of ‘Bella Caledonia’ and in the SNP, Stewart McDonald, the party’s defence spokesperson.

The writer and pro-independence voice Neal Ascherson said at the weekend at Govanhill Book Festival when asked about the state of independence and nationalism in Scotland, that we have to be ever vigilant. Scottish nationalism, he commented, is continually, citing its progressive, inclusive, civic nature. But we have to look beyond that as ‘we can say our nationalism is all civic, but all nationalisms the world over, also have something darker, which says this is who we are, and this is the ‘other’ and who we define ourselves against.’

Ascherson quietly observed that while our story of modern nationalism has been mostly benign, we cannot allow for complacency, or believing our nationalism is unlike any other in the world. Pivotal to this he said was that ‘we have to guard against a culture of victimology’ and seeking out and blaming others, which is the first step in that darker nationalism becoming ascendant. He did not name Campbell, but didn’t have to responding to a question from the journalist Jen Stout about the rise of an ‘alt-right’ and ‘populism’ in independence circles. This is after all a bigger problem than one man and their blog.

Maybe this summer story will go away. Yet the underlying dynamics that have fed it are powerful and aren’t going away anytime soon, namely SNP inaction and lack of direction, frustration and rising anxiety in independence opinion; a wider listlessness in the independence community and sense of a vacuum, and an absence of a substantive political debate about real choices.

Look around at the state of British politics, the deceits of the Boris Johnson government, and the damage they are planning to inflict on society, and it isn’t surprising that many people want to jump on what look like the most simple, easy to reach for remedies and messages.