First published by The National
This year has not gone as many in the independence movement hoped it would, so there isn’t an enormous amount of festive cheer around. Let me see if I can offer you the campaigning equivalent of a warm eggnog by a roaring fire to lift your spirits a bit.
There are some reasons to be more cheerful than might seem merited. I’m writing this not to ‘paper over the cracks’ or to encourage denial; the cracks are real and we do face problems. I’m writing it as a professional political strategist who, when a bit lost, will always make an assessment of what assets are available from which to build a winning campaign.
That certainly doesn’t mean ‘acknowledge them and hope for the best’, it means ‘clear your mind and ask yourself where your assets are leading you’. Trying to create a route forward doesn’t benefit from choosing a direction before you see the conditions. ‘Road closed because of snow’ is not an encouragement to run headfirst into the drift.
So let me start with ‘us’, independence activists. I talk to people all the time. Whenever I do I ask a simple question; ‘would you like the bickering in the movement to come to an end so we can all find a way to work effectively together?’. Almost no-one says no.
I don’t want to make this all sound simpler than it is, but an overwhelming number of activists want conflict to come to an end. Other than a few of the more aggressive combatants, the vast bulk of activists want some kind of compromise and collaboration. That’s great; everyone wanting something is a good start for getting there. At least we have a common destination.
But you need to look at the conditions around you as well, not just what you control. That picture could be grim. With the best will in the world, the Scottish Government is having some serious problems but has been able to point to a Westminster Government which is worse. That will change next year.
Had we faced the prospect of an innovative, exciting, transformative administration coming in at Westminster, it could have been really difficult for us. For a period of time it could have got people excited about change at the UK level again. Thankfully we’ve got Starmer instead.
These positive signs are assets, not victories – what counts is what we do with them
Actually, I think this is a double help for us. He’s not going to generate positivity, but it also blocks off the idea that Westminster can ever generate the kind of change people in Scotland want. A dull opponent who is barely liked by his own side is an asset.
Then there is opinion polling. I sometimes feel a little despair at the independence movement’s dismissal of polling. Opinion polling is surprisingly accurate when you realise it is not meant to predict the future, but to provide a snapshot of where people are politically-speaking on any one day.
Yes, there is bad news. The SNP does look like it will face an electoral setback in the year to come and it is far from impossible that that setback could be pretty bad. We need at least one viable, persuasive political vehicle for independence. If you ask me, the SNP as it stands is a bit of a fixer-upper, but I believe it can be what it needs to be to fulfil the role it needs to fulfil.
That role is not ‘absolutely everything’. What is most encouraging in these polls is the parallel support for independence which, according to almost all polling theory, ought to be falling along with the fall in support for its most visible proponent. But it isn’t. If anything its getting stronger.
It is not in any way anti-SNP to point out that evidence that the cause of independence is not wholly tied to the fortunes of a single political party is really positive evidence. All political parties rise and fall in popularity; it is inevitable. All but the most partisan party member should see that the cause not falling in support as the party does is a good thing.
All of this was in my mind when I worked on my strategy for achieving independence. These are assets, not victories. What counts is what we do with thems. I think they speak clearly to the merits of a stronger, united civic campaign not wholly controlled by any one political party and which focusses on inspiring voters and bringing us together while our leading political vehicle takes time to sort out its various internal issues so that it can fully play its part in what lies ahead.
No, this isn’t the place many of us hoped we’d find ourselves at the start of the year, but it is where we are. And though things may have felt grim, they offer a clear, shining light for us to follow. No-one would get everything they want out of it. But I believe, if we’re serious in 2024, we can all get what we need – real progress towards an independent Scotland.