Gathering the strands

There is no doubting the the importance of local groups. It is the informal, organic network of Yes groups the length and breadth of Scotland which will be the engine of the next independence referendum campaign. That is where the power comes from. But there is no magic in this power. The referendum campaign will not succeed simply because of an absence of any hierarchical organisation. Unless the power of the Yes movement is harnessed and directed it will be ineffective against the might of the British state.

Nor will independent Scotland be defined by the nature of the campaign to restore independence. Certainly not in the mechanistic way suggested. The stuff about a top-down hierarchical campaign resulting in a top-down and hierarchical Scotland is simplistic nonsense. It is only at the extremes that the nature of the campaign can significantly influence that aftermath. At one extreme, a campaign characterised by violence will tend to have a legacy of simmering hatreds and an atmosphere of bitterness and recrimination. At the other end of the scale there is the campaign which is so weak and timid as to leave niggling uncertainties about the outcome.

Even the extreme of a violent campaign does not necessarily imply a particular kind of country afterwards. As South Africa demonstrated with its truth and reconciliation process, it is entirely possible to recover from the bloodshed. So it’s just foolish to suppose that Scotland will be absolutely defined by the nature of our next referendum campaign.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t strive to make that campaign as positive as possible. Certainly, it must be peaceful, lawful and democratic. Hopefully, it can also be honest, edifying and even joyful. But above all else it must be successful. And for that to happen we need to get tough. We need some hard-headed, pragmatic thinking. We need solidarity, focus and discipline.

The Yes movement is massive and powerful. But that is not enough. That power alone will not be effective against a British state well used to thwarting democratic dissent. The British establishment will exploit any weakness. The British political elite will use the age-old strategy of divide-and-conquer which has served it so well for so long. There are at least three pernicious ideas prevalent to various degrees in the Yes movement which offer targets for this strategy.

There is the notion that the SNP can be sidelined. This is often expressed in statements such as those insisting that the Yes movement is bigger than the SNP. Or that there are more people prepared to vote for independence than are willing to vote for the SNP. It is even claimed that the SNP somehow puts people off voting Yes. The first is little more than a statement of the obvious. The Yes movement is bigger than the SNP. In the same way, a clockwork mechanism is bigger than the spring. But try getting that mechanism to run without it. The fact that the SNP is only part of the independence movement doesn’t matter in the slightest. It is a vital component. It provides the effective political power without which the massed energies of the Yes campaign have nowhere to go. Unless the power of the Yes movement is channelled through an agency operating effectively within the British political system, that system will simply shrug it off.

As to the supposed unpopularity of the SNP, this is hardly born out by what is happening in the real world. The party hasn’t lost an election in Scotland for over a decade. After ten years in office, it still holds a commanding lead in all the polls. Campaigning is about changing attitudes, not pandering to them. If the Yes campaign cannot ‘sell’ the SNP as the de facto political arm of the independence movement, how might it hope to ‘sell’ the idea of independence?

Then there is the notion that the Yes movement can afford to make accommodations with explicitly hard-line Unionist parties and/or groups which support those parties. Quite simply, every vote for a British Nationalist politician is a vote against independence. Never mind the triumph of hope over experience involved in being swayed by the Corbyn hype, it just makes no sense whatever to try and justify campaigning and/or voting for British Labour on the grounds that you will vote Yes in a referendum that British Labour is determined to ensure will never happen.

Commitment to the democratic right of self-determination must be absolute and uncompromising. Otherwise, it will be denied by the British state. Commitment to restoring Scotland’s independence must be unequivocal and unconditional. Otherwise, it will diverted by the British state.

The third pernicious notion threatening to present the British state with a weakness it can exploit is the idea that the coming referendum campaign need not be like ‘normal’ politics. The quaint fantasy that the Yes movement can somehow stand outside the mire of British politics and not be affected by it. We must rid ourselves of such debilitating naivety. Constitutional politics is still politics. It is the most basic and crucial aspect of politics. It is the debate concerning the essential question of ultimate political authority. We are not talking about a campaign to save a popular tree threatened with felling. We are talking about the struggle to determine where power lies.

I make no apology for repeating here the analogy in which the SNP is the lever by which Scotland will prise itself out of the British state; the Scottish Parliament is the fulcrum – the sold ground on which that lever rests; and the Yes movement is the force that will move the lever. That force must be properly applied in order to be effective. Without the other two components, the force is useless. It cannot be effective.

Already, we see the British state mobilised against both the SNP and Holyrood, deploying its considerable resources to undermine the party and delegitimise the Parliament. The immediate task for the Yes movement is to protect the party as its political arm and defend Holyrood the locus of Scottish politics. The Yes movement cannot stand aloof from politics. It cannot rise above the political. The coming referendum campaign must be recognised and accepted as an exercise hard-headed in political marketing just like any electoral contest, and demand many of the same strategies and techniques.

It is important that the Yes movement maintains as much as possible of its informal, organic nature, while improving its communication skills and networking capacities. But it must also develop a clear awareness of its purpose. and that purpose must be to serve as a support mechanism for the political arm of the campaign.

Whether Saturday’s meeting in Dunblane will be helpful remains to be seen. While I hope for the best, I remain somewhat sceptical. I am far from convinced that some of those taking a leading role in this effort are cognisant of what is required of the Yes movement. I’m dubious about some of the agendas and motives of particular individuals. Already, I’m hearing about people being excluded from the meeting on the most questionable of grounds. It doesn’t look promising. Time will tell. But time is not something we have a lot of. Not with the new referendum looking increasingly likely to be held in September 2018.

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3 thoughts on “Gathering the strands

  1. duncanio

    Great article Peter and I agree with all you say about the Yes movement ‘getting real’ in terms of its tactics and strategy, especially your point about independence supporters questioning the SNP being precisely what the divide and conquer Brits want us to do.

    However, I am intrigued as to your confidence in the referendum date being 18th September 2018. I agree that it makes sense for the movement as this gives the possible opportunity for Scotland to avoid being dragged out of the EU before the UK exits on 29 March 2019. Is there really enough time between now and then to organise a referendum, convince enough No voters (and some Yes to No switchers since 18th September 2014) and get the UK government agree to recognise the outcome?

  2. Matt

    I have to say you make a number of very good points Peter. Not least of which is the determination of the British Sate to divide and expose any weakness the Yes Movement ay exhibit.

    My main worry (and I’ve heard in in various places) is that the Yes Movement / SNP Government have not put forward any realistic case that Scotland would be able to stand alone independently (without the so called broad shoulders of the UK) so to speak?

    What I would like to see is a real focus on these areas and also currency. What I would also suggest is a dedicated dismantling of the Annual GERS figures to expose them for exactly what they are. Totally meaningless to measure the viability of an Independent Country. Apart from Dr Richard Murphy I have seen nothing of the like from the Yes Movement / SNP, who in fast endorse them. This should be done with serious caveats.

    The Yes Movement (if your timing for another Indy Ref is right) will need to get it’s act together pretty fast and achieve buy in from the Scottish Government for a successful outcome

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