Another dead year ahead – and how I could be proved wrong

by | 16 Oct 2023

The SNP has set a 'strategy' everyone knows will fail and so the next year is one more dead year. I could be wrong about this, so here are some ways to tell you if I'm wrong.

I stood with colleagues in the office when, in 2019, the former First Minister made a parliamentary announcement with a series of ‘blockbuster’ initiatives on independence. One of them was a Citizens’ Assembly to break the deadlock, one was a promise to set up a Constitutional Convention, the third might have been to promise independence papers, but I can’t really remember.

Others said to me ‘that’s a big step forwards’. I said that no, it was actually a pure stall. It would waste 18 months and achieve nothing. The Citizens’ Assembly was held but the remit didn’t mention the constitution and it was totally ignored anyway (despite having done good work). The Constitutional Convention didn’t happen.

You can give me all the Covid excuses you want, it all failed to work because it was designed as a stalling mechanism, not to make progress. There isn’t a question you can ask a Citizens’ Assembly that solves an impasse like the constitution. No-one serious was going to join a constitutional convention in 2019 and even if they had they wouldn’t have been in a position to design a policy.

It didn’t work and was never going to work because none of the things that needed to be overcome or addressed to deliver progress on independence were addressed by the proposals. They were make-busy to buy the SNP more time before it faced a reckoning over it’s independence strategy. It worked.

Which takes us to Sunday. The SNP has produced a strategy which (I think I’m correct in saying) not a soul thinks has a chance of working. That’s not a strategy, it’s a deal. The deal is that a traumatised party just won’t have to think about this question for another year if everyone will just pretend the ‘process is sorted’.

That this is, nominally, the outcome of a year-long process with major summits and regional assemblies and detailed analysis, which suggests that the SNP doesn’t have the internal resources (or the will of the leadership) to produce a workable strategy. That is a deep concern.

All things being equal, there will now be another dead year in which SNP politicians stroll round TV studios staring into cameras like scared rabbits being asked ‘so your strategy is to lose as many 14 seats and then claim victory and demand negotiations about something, but you’re not clear what?’. Then there’ll be a difficult General Election.

And that becomes the key moment. Yesterday the SNP went through one more cycle of postponement, can-kicking and make-busy and that will run its course through to a General Election. The only question I have is whether that will mark the beginning of another cycle of SNP postponement, can-kicking and make-busy.

I guess I’ll just keep writing this until it isn’t true (which isn’t any time soon) – causes that stretch beyond party politics are never best pursued primarily through party politics

If, during the autopsy about the election result, the SNP says ‘right, now we need to start the process of building a policy on how to use the Scottish Elections as something that is going to break the deadlock, presumably also on the back of us losing some seats’, you’ll know the game is up until at least 2026.

All of this does only one thing; it keeps the SNP in complete control. It is in control of a collapsing empire, but it is in control of that empire and that will do. There is no longer anything you can really call an independence movement to counterbalance that.

But let’s say I’m wrong, let’s say the SNP is serious about independence and let’s say it actually has an interest in progressing the case in the immediate future, what would it look like? How would you know I’m wrong? Let me give you some indicators.

First, the SNP would avowedly not set up an independence campaign from inside SNP HQ. There are more reasons for this than I have space for, among them the fact that there has nominally been a campaign from SNP HQ since they unilaterally grabbed the Yes logo in 2018, that we now know SNP HQ is badly misfiring and that there are real questions about the skills of those in the office.

But that’s not really the main point. The main point is that if you have a cause which is polling at at about 50 per cent and appears to be at least solid or potentially rising, you don’t progress that cause from behind the banner of a 37 per cent political party which shed four percentage points of support in the preceding month.

I guess I’ll just keep writing this until it isn’t true (which isn’t any time soon) – causes that stretch beyond party politics are never best pursued primarily through party politics. You’d know the SNP was serious if it supported an all-movement campaign body that can reach people the SNP can’t.

Then there is the whole ‘stop talking about process, start talking about the case’ rhetoric from yesterday. Yes, sure, I’ve been arguing that since 2016. But just like my comment about ‘we need to get to 60 per cent’ was a case for urgency which was used as a reason for prevarication, so this ‘substance not process’ argument looks like it is going to be a reason to mess about with slogans for a year or two and pretend that is significant.

If I’m wrong, you’ll know, because some kind of entity with the credibility to do the kind of preparatory work we need to do would be set up. It would categorically not be Angus Robertson (Constitution Secretary) instructing some junior civil servants to write content of the abysmal quality of the ‘independence papers’ published so far.

You’d also see three others things happening which are adjacent to all of this. First, you’d, well, not see but rather sense that hostilities in the movement were being dialled down by the SNP and that a divided movement wouldn’t be divided further.

Second, you’d see a party that realised it got into this mess because of top-down autocracy and that the party needed real, meaningful democratic reform. And third, you’d have reason to believe that the SNP knows why government is going wrong and it would be taking serious steps to stop that happening, an essential step in persuading people Scotland can govern itself.

I’d love to be wrong, but there would need to be some evidence to suggest I’m wrong, and I can’t see it

What it wouldn’t look like is a leaflet knocked up in SNP HQ pretending to be a cross-party campaign but which is pursuing narrow political goal on behalf of the SNP by saying independence is about getting rid of Tories and by pre-judging the results of every election to come in an independent Scotland. Rewatch the recent PPB; when was the last time the SNP produced a bit of campaign material which you thought was good?

It certainly wouldn’t look like a continuation of the ‘independence papers’ process to produce a ‘negotiating strategy’, or the SNP just restating its existing ‘policy platform’ (Sterlingisation and austerity) and pretending it is progress.

It wouldn’t look like ‘Independence Minister’ Jamie Hepburn refusing to meet key civic groups in the movement because they are not pliant enough. It wouldn’t be the constant over-the-top hostility to ever critical comment from anyone not in their gang.

It wouldn’t look like the utterly blatant rigging of the SNP’s candidate selection process to ensure a narrow clique maintains power internally forever, untouched by party democracy. I suspect it won’t look like the governance review that is supposed to be the subject of a special conference next year.

And it wouldn’t look like, say, the ‘pause’ in the National Care Service bill in response to a rebellion, which looks like it will come out the other side with precisely the same unworkable proposals which will fail and which caused the rebellion in the first place – because nothing has changed at all.

In short, if the SNP wants to persuade us that it isn’t just wasting our time for another year as it has done for the last eight, it needs to show a hint of change. What I see is exactly the opposite. I’d love to be wrong, but there would need to be some evidence to suggest I’m wrong, and I can’t see it.

Make no mistake, the SNP can keep doing this indefinitely. So long as it can keep rigging its internal democracy, there will never be any way to change direction. It can and very possibly will come out of a bad General Election with a further paranoid crackdown on dissent and another two-year time-wasting strategy.

If you think it can’t get away with this, you don’t understand what’s happening in the party. Despite deep unease all over the membership, the last remaining clique of super-loyalists are still going wild for Sturgeon and she still clearly thinks she the actual leader, given that she said as much today (though I’m sure Humza is ‘incredibly relaxed’ about this and ‘will laugh it off’, which I discovered an hour after writing that sentence he was). So long as there are a hundred of them alive, they can keep stringing this out.

I’ve made absolutely clear in a lengthy and I hope serious strategy paper that independence can be won in a relatively short timeframe – but not by doing more of what we’re currently doing. I’m almost certain the next year is going to be a total waste. I have always believed the moment after that is the key moment for the independence movement.

At that point we either decide to sacrifice independence for the cause of the SNP again, or we do something different. I’m ready to let all bygones be bygones and start all over again as part of a positive, forward-looking collegiate movement.

But I need to see signs of change first. I certainly don’t see those signs just now.

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