When lost, in the absence of a better plan, it is worth retracing your steps to work out how you got to where you are – and the Scottish independence movement is nothing if not lost. Before we make yet another mistake, let’s see if we can learn what it is exactly which keeps leading to these gross errors.
After the 18th September 2014 there were two things the broad independence movement could have done – consolidate and build or move on and hope another opportunity emerged. The movement itself very much chose the first option, but the SNP leadership imposed the second.
In the first of many petty steps taken to undermine the non-party movement, the SNP chose to schedule a big rally little more than a few hundred metres away from where the Radical Independence Campaign was holding a long-scheduled conference. Having ordered and handed out big foam fingers printed with the soon-to-be ubiquitous ‘Nicola’ brand, the signal was impossible to miss – out with grassroots, in with corporate control.
Over the next year and a half there was a twin process of consistently undermining any part of the independence movement the SNP didn’t control (one day I will properly document how this was done) and very heavily promoting the personal brand of the new SNP leader. The message was simple – if you weren’t approved by the SNP leader, you weren’t legitimate.
The movement thought it was both established and going from strength to strength over this period but the fate of one organisation in particular was symptomatic of what was really going on. The Scottish Independence Convention had existed for nearly a decade before indyref and was the forum for all of the movement to meet and talk. The aggression with which the SNP leadership attacked it (through its agents and proxies) was breathtaking.
By the time people were going to the polls to decide the UK’s relationship with the EU, there was no real question left that Scottish independence was now a one-woman show. That show was about to take a dramatic twist.
The next bit I will never properly understand. On Brexit morning we were picking up our new son from his foster mum; I was in Aldi’s buying her flowers and chocolates (‘cos I’m classy like that) and the phone went. It was Ben Wray in the Common Weal team and he told me the First Minister had just announced a referendum.
I told him this had to be unionist media mischief-making. Two things were immediately clear to me. The first was that there would be no sustained change in voting intentions on independence until people started to see the effects of Brexit because that’s how it works (theoretical changes cause short-term blips in voting patterns but it takes real consequences to lead to sustained change).
The second was that there was absolutely zero chance of a referendum at least until after the terms of the Brexit deal had been negotiated – it was never realistic to expect people to vote to leave the UK at least until they knew what kind of UK they were leaving. We had to be patient.
We weren’t; when Ben read me out her words I nearly dropped the wine. My precise reply was ‘dear god she’s fucked us all’. I tried to write and explain precisely why this was the case but the team asked me to pull the article on the basis that everyone else except for me was elated and getting ready for a campaign. I was in despair. This was all utterly nuts, but we were stuck.
This kicked of a second facet of this period – chancerism. A depressingly long list of actors saw the prospect of an independence campaign as a means of securing funding. Without a shared umbrella organisation it was chaos – and then the SNP stepped in with a quickly trumped-up fundraiser the sole purpose of which was control. So interested in control was Peter Murrell and so disinterested in the law he didn’t stop to question the wording of the fundraising purpose – the police are still investigating and charges ought to follow.
No matter what the reason, that Brexit morning mistake was the defining moment, the inciting incident that set in train an inevitable chain of consequences that lead us here
A week or so after Brexit and it was clear I was right – the polls rebounded and actually dipped. We had bluffed and the bluff had been called. The more it was clear that the bounce didn’t stick and there was no delivery plan for a referendum, the more brazen became the bluff. By the years’ end ‘Scotland will not be dragged out of Europe against its will’ was the defining line. It was rubbish.
By mid-2017 this was all falling apart. I had been privately predicting a disastrous General Election result for the SNP and a rapid U-turn on holding a referendum. I was again proved right. Sturgeon had to eat humble pie and call the whole thing off.
Why any of this happened I will never, ever know. Had she consulted any wise head (perhaps someone who’d had a proper night’s sleep) or paused for a couple of days, the lack of wisdom in her actions would have been clear. Was this really all about nothing more that inserting herself front and centre in the world news agenda after Brexit? I still don’t have a better explanation.
No matter what the reason, that Brexit morning mistake was the defining moment, the inciting incident that set in train an inevitable chain of consequences that lead us here.
Once the U-turn was performed in late summer 2017 Sturgeon was in trouble. A leader who causes the payroll to lose jobs is always in a tricky position. By Autumn 2017 she had hit record lows in her personal approval ratings, things were going really badly in her domestic agenda and there were rumours Alex Salmond was eyeing a Holyrood return. Within a couple of weeks of this she had staff working on a new, ‘specially designed’ complaints procedure…
Now everything was about party management. For the next two years there were subtle but perceptibly-escalating dog-whistles to her base – things like ‘when the time is right it is my intention to hold a referendum’ turning into ‘it is important that as soon as the time is right we should hold a referendum’.
What was weird over this period was how many people told me they secretly knew the actual date of the referendum. I came to conclude that people were intentionally being fed misinformation precisely to spread it around to maintain the illusion of progress and immediacy.
Common Weal was doing hard work on how to get round to answering those questions soft No voters said they had and, since things aren’t allowed to be out of SNP control, it immediately set up the Growth Commission in competition. It took time for that to appear and for people to understand how bad it was, but when it did the leadership started losing conference votes.
So the escalations had to keep rising. Every time an SNP conference came round you could be sure there would be a new statement which ratcheted up the rhetoric (and a new National front page ‘exclusive’ about ‘imminence’). This was getting silly and so new set-pieces were concocted. In 2019 there was a heavily-trailed ‘major intervention’ to be announced in Parliament.
This turned out to be Joanna Cherry’s idea of a Citizens’ Assembly nicked wholesale and some unrealistic nonsense about ‘cross-party conventions’. These words, like all the rest, came to nothing. It was just more spin, more game-playing. (The Assembly did take place but the remit turned out to have nothing to do with independence.)
But Sturgeon is nothing if not lucky – even though the credibility of her indyref claims were being stretched thinner and thinner and things were going from bad to worse in her domestic agenda, along came Boris Johnston. She must have gasped a sigh of relief – a new bogey man! She might be making a mess of things, but she wasn’t Boris.
By the time she ‘promised to intend to hold a referendum’ in the ‘first part of the next parliament’, her rhetorical ‘dance of the seven veils’ was getting to a point where it needed to lead to some kind of climax
The sophistry became more brazen – if the Brexit-morning promises were inexplicable, the promises that ‘Tory opposition would melt like snow off a dyke once we have a new mandate’ were knowingly untrue. For reasons which I can’t work out, a lot of her supporters were convinced she was campaigning for independence in that election when absolutely all the branding was about Brexit.
Sturgeon’s luck kept falling out of the sky like snowflakes. She should have lost her job over the Salmond affair but Covid arrived. She should have been absolutely pilloried for her poor initial response to Covid but the Johnstone team were managing to be even worse.
She dedicated the next year to… being on TV every day. It seemed shockingly cynical to me but you all seemed to find it ‘reassuring’ so what do I know. By the end she had survived the Salmond affair and had regained something like her peak popularity. But she still had to keep feeding her base, and now her space for escalation was shrinking.
By the time she ‘promised to intend to hold a referendum’ in the ‘first part of the next parliament’, there weren’t many modifiers left for her to shed for the purpose of escalation – her rhetorical ‘dance of the seven veils’ was getting to a point where it needed to lead to some kind of climax.
But by now her domestic agenda was an utter shambles and she had serious problems inside her party. Rebels had organised and won a majority of electable positions on the NEC to push a democratic reform agenda and therefore much effort had been expended manipulating and then just binning the party’s rules. Thousands of key activists left for Alba.
So endgame was approaching. She new, I knew, you knew, woodland animals knew that the wording of the Scotland Act almost certainly meant her promise to rerun the 2014 referendum without a Section 30 Order was going to be illegal. In fact much effort had been put into making sure that this illegality was not confirmed in advance so she could spin this tale a bit longer.
The endgame at least consisted of a plan. She would hold off for as long as possible and then introduce a referendum bill which would pass as slowly as possible, be challenged in the Supreme Court and be struck down (all of this providing great opportunities for grandstanding) and then she’d find some way of saying ‘one more mandate’ without using those words, hope for a good election result and then leave office on a high.
But having chosen a Lord Advocate on what people who know more about this than me believe to be the basis of who was most likely to approve her Gender Reform legislation, it seems never to have occurred to Sturgeon that she might be blocked from introducing a Referendum Bill. That would (and has) cut 18 months out of her careful choreography. When it happened it was a disaster for her.
She was totally unprepared for this turn of events. Utterly remarkably she was by this point making unequivocal statements about a referendum without even having had initial informal discussion about its legality. When I discovered this I realised it was all completely falling apart. I guarantee you she absolutely begged her Lord Advocate to refer it pro-actively to the Supreme Court (or it would all have been dead on the spot).
I had always told people that you could tell when her penultimate escalation had happened when she ‘named a date’ for the referendum (there is little to hold back after that). She did it along with the announcement of the Supreme Court referral and a ‘plebiscite election’. That was when it was clear this was now all a train wreck.
If there is someone who has had every opportunity possible yet proves incapable of doing their day job well (running a government), proves incapable of delivering their big strategic goals (holding a referendum, winning over No voters) and has a track record of making promises which have a tenuous relationship to reality, how long do you keep following?
Now we have the result of this, the result everyone knew we would get. Six years of mounting deceit hit the buffers this week. None of it was true. None of it was ever true. Those three untruths (‘referendum before Brexit’, ‘snow off a dyke’ and ‘2023 no ifs no buts’) led us precisely to where I told Ben it would when he broke the news to me on Brexit morning – failure, loss of credibility and a demotivated movement.
(There were two other untruths – ‘I will run a competent government’ and ‘which will convert cautious No voters to Yes’. And two more elements of strategy – tell voters ‘nothing will change with independence’ and demand no-one asks questions because ‘there is a complex and brilliant plan but it’s secret’. Collectively all of this is the totality of SNP strategy. Collectively and individually, every single bit of it has now comprehensively failed.)
So, having retraced our steps, can you identify the uniting factor behind all the forks in the path that led the independence movement to this point? Yup, it was all the result of listening to vague dog whistles and believing substance-free assertions.
We are where we are because we trusted Nicola Sturgeon to act in our interests and not hers. She made a big mistake six years ago, led supporters to believe things they shouldn’t have and then spun things out in increasingly elaborate ways, purely to avoid a reckoning.
But like it or not the reckoning is here for all of us. Because she is asking us to place our trust in her one more time. She tells us that she is going to ‘turn the General Election into a de facto referendum’. Should we follow her one more time? Should we hide our doubts behind saltires and forced grins one more time?
I urge you to recognise that would be a mistake. I encourage you to be aware that this too is a delaying move not a strategy. We already know they haven’t worked out what a ‘de facto referendum’ is (they’re having a conference to decide) and that is an unmistakeable sign that this isn’t clear, thought-through strategy.
In reality they’re making this up as they go along and crossing their fingers that it doesn’t turn out to be mad. It is much, much harder to turn an election into a single-issue ‘plebiscite’ than you might think. Can we overcome a franchise which cuts out a lot of our most supportive demographic groups? Can we shift polls more in a six-week campaign than we have in ten years?
Is the SNP capable of getting anywhere near the 55 per cent (or 2.2 million votes) the No side got in 2014? How do we deal with simultaneous UK news which won’t be treating what is a UK-wide election as a plebiscite? What does the SNP say at hustings and TV debates? Can it do this without a civic movement (which can’t do anything very effective in what is effectively a four-week campaign)?
But above all, ask yourself this; is there a result from that General Election which is going to lead to Rishi Sunak (or Keir Starmer) going ‘ah well, democracy and all that – be free Scotland and fly like a bird!’? Is topping up the pension entitlement of the SNP payroll our best hope? Is there any chance this can work?
Nope, nope, there is not. Unless something happens which is well beyond my ability to predict, the election will provide nothing more than ‘one more mandate’ and that will have precisely the same effect as the last lot of mandates. But discovering this will take up another two years we can’t afford to give up.
Sturgeon had everything – the power, the control, the money, the votes, the good will, the luck – and she messed it all up. She does not possess the ability to take the cause of independence forward. ‘Plebiscite election’ is nothing more than a cynical attempt to buy her just a bit more time until it becomes unmistakably clear that she really has failed, comprehensively failed.
Fundamentally, if there is someone who has had every opportunity possible yet proves incapable of doing their day job well (running a government), proves incapable of delivering their big strategic goals (holding a referendum, winning over No voters) and has a track record of making promises which have a tenuous relationship to reality, how long do you keep following?
None of this can’t be rescued. Nothing fundamental in our ability to win independence has changed. Only one road is permanently closed – all the others are still open to us. We can get this sorted. We can put the pieces back together again. We can make this work. But only once we stop following the people who took us in the wrong direction first.