“Effectively then, the start of the second campaign for independence starts now in earnest. And if that campaign is going to be ultimately successful then the Independence Convention must be involved. If I had my way they would be at the centre of the action directing strategy.”
The passage above comes from an article Kevin McKenna wrote for The National on August 2nd. The body McKenna is talking about is the Scottish Independence Convention [SIC].
Until recently SIC has been little more than a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a Website. Occasional articles in The National and Common Space have given a fleeting glimpse into who is behind it and what its aims are. But there’s been little else on which to form an opinion.
Despite this, the Scottish Independence Convention is set to meet with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this month. In his article Kevin McKenna listed a series of points he argued the Convention should make to the First Minister. The top two points are shown below.
1. Without the Convention, the independence campaign is a non-starter.
2. The SNP have to hand over their funds and then take a back seat.
They are interesting to say the least.
Before I continue it’s worth looking at what we know of the Scottish Independence Convention.
The name of the organisation will seem familiar but it bears little relation to the 2005 organisation of the same name, although SIC claims that it is effectively the same entity and has merely been relaunched.
The driving force behind the new entity appears to be Robin McAlpine. McAlpine was listed as a member of SIC in an article in The National back in August 2016 which heralded the birth [or rebirth] of the organisation.
This was, as far as I can ascertain, the first official mention of the new SIC. However Robin McAlpine had already indicated several months earlier that he was involved in ‘talks’ to create a body to replace the now defunct Yes Scotland and relaunch the Yes campaign.
Speaking at a Radical Independence conference in February 2016, McAlpine said: “I don’t want to say too much, but we have been in talks to bring the Yes campaign back together.”
The Scottish Independence Convention got off to a rocky start on September 18th 2016, the 2nd anniversary of the independence referendum, when its launch event was embroiled in controversy after a female rap troupe referred to Ruth Davidson as ‘Dykey D’. A second more formal conference was held in Glasgow’s Radisson Blu hotel on January 14th 2017.
In March 2017 The Herald reported that there had been ‘secret moves’ to set up Yes Scotland 2. According to the article, SNP Chief Executive Pete Murrell was leading a plan to set up a cross party independence campaign.
The newspaper reported that Murrell had been in contact with SIC leaders about his plan, but added: “However, last night, a source said that while SIC would not form a Yes Scotland2 campaign it was hoped it “could give birth to it” if a Section 30 order is granted.”
It seemed to indicate that SIC and whatever Peter Murrell was planning, were going to be two completely different entities.
Despite this, SIC has presented itself as an umbrella body for the whole of the independence movement as the note to editors from a press release in April this year shows:
The Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) is an umbrella body representing all the groups (party and non-party) which support the cause of Scottish independence. Member groups include the SNP, Greens, Common Weal, Women for Independence, Scottish CND, Pensioners for Independence and Yes2. The co convenors are Elaine C Smith and Pat Kane, Vice-Convenors are Lesley Riddoch and Richard Walker.
Fast forward to now and the Scottish Independence Convention is taking on a more formal shape. It has published a list of those involved.
Elaine C. Smith
Women for Independence (2 Votes)
NHS for Yes (1 Vote)
Common Weal (1 Vote)
Christians for Independence (1 Vote)
Scottish CND (1 Vote)
National Yes Registry (1 Vote)
Scottish Green Party (2 Votes)
Scottish National Party (2 Votes)
Scottish Socialist Party (1 Vote)
Labour for Independence (1 Vote)
SNP Youth (1 Vote)
Radical Independence Campaign (1 Vote)
Pensioners for Independence (1 Vote)
Business for Scotland (1 Vote)
AyeScotland (1 Vote)
Other Co-opted members
Max Wiszniewski (Press Officer)
Shona McAlpine (Administration)
Robin McAlpine doesn’t appear on the list of members. Asked to explain this omission when earlier newspaper reports described him as a member, SIC said: “Robin is the representative of Common Weal. Each organisation has nominated representatives they send along to full meetings and working groups. On occasion they rotate but usually the same person.”
There are some impressive names listed above. Lesley Riddoch and Elaine C. Smith are figures who command respect across the Yes movement. Indeed in May 2016 when I proposed a Yes Scotland Mk2 I suggested Lesley Riddoch as a leader.
In my article I outlined what I considered to be a key structural requirement of any new organisation:
Any attempt to resurrect the Yes movement must include all of the major players from indyref1. That includes the Scottish Greens, the socialists, the a-political and the SNP.
There must also be an open door for those within the Unionist party ranks who wish to participate. Alan Grogan caused considerable panic within the No campaign during indyref1 when he launched Labour for Independence.
The new Scottish Independence Convention has embraced this ‘all parties and none’ approach. The SNP is involved, along with the Greens and the SSP. Business for Scotland is there as is Radical Independence.
Asked by me how its members had been chosen, SIC replied: “The initial meeting when reconvened last year a selection of the organisations, mostly who were registered during the referendum, were involved in forming the constitution (reminder this is an umbrella organisation providing space for key stakeholders).”
When I proposed a Yes Scotland Mk2 last year, I also added a warning:
Ground rules should be agreed. There must be no party-politicking of any description. Everyone would have to agree to abide by a code of conduct. A Yes movement that descended into the kind of SNP sniping we witnessed during the Scottish election would collapse before the year was out.
My only concern regarding a ‘Yesurrection’ is the unpredictable radical element who have been champing at the bit to hold another referendum. These fringe mavericks could cause problems for the wider Yes movement if they decide to launch a radical equivalent to Yes Scotland 2.
Why did I issue this warning? It was prompted by an article in the Holyrood magazine written days earlier by RISE supporter Jim Sillars. Jim wrote the following:
My information is that once the EU referendum is out of the way, the Yes side will be coming back together, to rebuild its organisational structures at the community level, and start to produce policies around which the movement can re-launch an educational campaign to take us from that 45 per cent in 2014 to a winning number in the years immediately ahead.
The thought of a radical left version of Yes Scotland filled me with dread. That Jim Sillars had felt comfortable with what he had been told suggested the policies he said would be produced would be of the radical variety.
Was Jim Sillars talking about the Scottish Independence Convention? I don’t know. However this clip of Robin McAlpine speaking at the Radical Independence Campaign conference three months earlier suggests Sillars was indeed talking about the same organisation.
You can watch the complete version of McAlpine’s speech here. You’ll catch a glimpse of Jim Sillars on the panel towards the end.
Policies and Indy
In an article in Common Space in June this year on the Subject of the Scottish Independence Convention and what it’s strategy would be, Robin McAlpine wrote: “… at Common Weal we’re trying to develop the policy work needed for that fleshed-out ‘independence proposition’ “.
But should a future ‘Yes umbrella group’ be fleshing out radical policies for any future independence proposition? I don’t think so. In fact I’d argue that any group presenting itself as an umbrella organisation for local Yes groups shouldn’t be arguing specific policies at all – radical or otherwise.
In the aforementioned article, McAlpine says the following:
We can’t keep trying to sell a half-finished pitch for independence. We need to decide what the answers to the big questions are – currency, pensions and all the rest.
This plays into Unionist hands. We witnessed this during the last referendum campaign when every answer to every question was forensically picked over by the Unionist media and ‘impartial’ academics. Once you lay out any policy, no matter how socially fair and universally popular, you are effectively leading with your chin.
And what happens if the SNP doesn’t agree with the policy but the party’s SIC members are outvoted? What may seem like a good idea to well-intentioned yet strategically naive fellow members of the SIC voting council, may be a campaign calamity waiting to happen. The media will, quite rightly, make hay with such a split.
The grass-roots lifeblood of the Yes movement, namely the local groups, are not party political entities. Asking them to promote what will in effect be a manifesto will dilute their effectiveness. Indeed it may lead to conflicts within the group if some disagree with a specific policy but others embrace it. This is a referendum, not an election.
If we learned anything from the last referendum it is that the more we allowed Unionists questions to set the narrative, the more we were placed on the defensive. We need to keep things simple next time and adopt a simple generic message that no Yesser can disagree with. The message is simple, once we have independence then we choose what’s best for Scotland.
What currency will we use? We’ll choose what’s right for Scotland. What income tax levels will we adopt. We’ll choose what’s right for Scotland. Same on EU membership. Same on Trident. Same on welfare. Same on migration.
Keep the message simple. We trusted the No campaign in 2014. They betrayed our trust. Hammer it home time and again. In radio and TV interviews. In every statement in every press release.
Let the Unionists explain why they broke so many indyref1 pledges. Ask them what they’re going to do when Brexit leads to 80,000 Scottish jobs going. Let’s see how Ruth, Kez and Mundell like it when we are asking the questions.
But there’s another problem that’s reared its ugly head these last two weeks. Some commentators are calling it infighting.
I refer of course to the ugly online exchanges that followed an attack on Stuart Campbell of Wings Over Scotland in an article published by Common Space, and a subsequent attack on Campbell by the Common Space editor in the Sunday Herald.
The attack on Wings has spawned several similar attacks by figures with links to Common Space on other well known Yes bloggers. James Kelly of Scot Goes Pop and Jason Michael McCann of the Butterfly Rebellion have been targeted.
This is by no means a one way street. Kelly and McCann have each criticised Common Space and some of its more strident supporters and writers in their own inimitable ways. However, unlike Common Space, neither make any claims as to their importance to the Yes movement and neither are linked to a body seeking to present itself as the umbrella group for that movement.
The twitter rammy instigated by Common Space has serious implications for the Scottish Independence Convention. Common Space is funded by the Common Weal. Thus, we have within this self-styled ‘umbrella body’ a member which is implicitly funding an attack on a very high-profile, and popular, Yes blogger.
When I made my own suggestion of a replacement for Yes Scotland I gave Common Weal as an example of a group that ought to be included in any such organisation. I think recent events must call that into question.
Robin McAlpine is of course the director of the Common Weal – a body he created. He is also a regular columnist on Common Space – another body he created. McAlpine is the driving force behind the Scottish Independence Convention. There is a very clear conflict of interest here.
Moreover one look at the Scottish Independence Convention twitter account and the close links between it and the Common Space are even more apparent. Common Space articles saturate the twitter feed. The only other outlet that comes close to it in terms of retweets is The National.
On the SIC Facebook page, Common Space is again the dominant outlet. The National and Bella Caledonia are the only other two outlets whose articles receive any significant coverage.
The favouring of these outlets mirrors a speech given by one of the SIC conveners when the organisation held an event last January in the Radisson Blu hotel in Glasgow. Former editor of The National, Richard Walker, urged Yessers to get behind Bella Caledonia and Common Space.
Not content with this selective promotion of two alternative media outlets, Walker also launched an attack on elements of the Yes community who had criticised these same outlets over their promotion of the now all but defunct RISE.
Writing at the time, I couldn’t believe SIC organisers had allowed Richard Walker to criticise elements of the Yes movement at a conference intended to promote a ‘Yes umbrella’ organisation. In an article in which I gave my own reaction to the speech, I wrote:
Richard Walkers’ speech, for me at least, bordered on the offensive. It reeked of intellectual snobbery, of looking down on the ungrateful and vulgar Yes ‘riff-raff’ who couldn’t see how marvelous The Sunday Herald, Bella Caledonia and Common Space were. It screamed … “We know what’s best”.
You don’t have to be a genius to see the radical thread running through the Scottish Independence Convention. As well as the clear links to the Common Space we also have Mike Small of Bella Caledonia as a co-opted member. Other SIC members sit on the Bella Caledonia advisory board.
Asked by what means the Bella Caledonia editor had been co-opted and if any other alternative media editors had been approached to be similarly co-opted, SIC said: “It was decided at the recent constitutional change that there wouldn’t be media on the voting organisation list however Mike has been involved (previous secretary pre-referendum) in SIC for many years so is respected both in the organisation as well as alternative to MSM.”
There have been three noticeable rows within the online Yes community since 2014. The creation of RISE, Cat Boyd’s ‘Proud to vote Labour’ boast and the attack on Stuart Campbell. Bella Caledonia was heavily involved in the RISE debacle. Common Space has been at the epicentre of the RISE row and the Campbell attack. Its editor has endorsed Cat Boyd’s ‘Vote Labour’ stance.
Regardless of your views on Common Space, it is pretty clear the site is seen by many in the Yes community as divisive. It attracts support from a radical element for whom independence appears secondary to their own left-wing agenda. The site projects defiance and confrontation.
The current twitter spat has been magnified beyond recognition by commentary in the main stream media. Some of this commentary is by supporters of Common Space. So bad is the situation for Common Space that Robin McAlpine is currently engaged in a damage limitation excercise which included an appearance on Radio Scotland alongside Gerry Hassan.
Out of control
Robin McAlpine created Common Space in order to promote radical ideas. It has become a monster he cannot control. It now threatens his other, far more important project, the Scottish Independence Convention.
The Scottish Independence Convention has been tainted through association with the Common Space. Robin McAlpine, and others associated with SIC, have allowed themselves to be dragged into a spat that ought to have been kept well away from the fledgling organisation.
Instead of keeping their counsel and concentrating on developing the body’s Yes credentials, some opted to wade in. No genuine Yes umbrella body can afford to take sides in this manner.
According to Robin McAlpine the Scottish Independence Convention will be launching a fundraiser in August. The sum being sought is an incredible £100,000. This appeal will be launched against the backdrop of the Wings/Common Space episode.
As things stand, I genuinely can’t see this target being reached such is the level of mistrust the radical fringe has generated among grass-roots Yessers. The Scottish Independence Convention needs to take steps to distance itself from these ill-disciplined radicals if it is to have any chance of succeeding.
The steps I would take are as follows:
- Common Weal cannot continue in its capacity as a member. The attack on Wings Over Scotland by the Common Space means a conflict of interest exists. This conflict of interest undermines the Scottish Independence Convention claim to be an umbrella body for the whole Yes movement. There can be no suggestion that it, or any of its members, are taking sides in external disputes.
- Any and all links to media outlets must be severed. This includes alternative media outlets and traditional media outlets alike. Indeed I cannot for the life of me work out why it has links to any media outlet, alternative or otherwise. It is supposed to be an umbrella body for grass roots activists and organisations.
- Ditch this idea of developing policies. Leave the area of policy development to political parties whose responsibility it will be to draft policy after independence. By all means make the public aware of the options that will be available, but do not endorse. Currently your only aim is the securing of a referendum Yes vote.
Unionists will be rubbing their hands in anticipation at the dripping roast SIC will surely become if changes are not made. Look at how they are salivating over a tiny twitter spat.
And what of Kevin McKenna’s points that the Convention should make to Nicola Sturgeon when she meets their delegation:
1. Without the Convention, the independence campaign is a non-starter.
2. The SNP have to hand over their funds and then take a back seat.
It would be better if the Scottish Independence Convention is a success. However McKenna’s points, especially the second, are not to be taken seriously.
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