A decade without a strategy, and another to come

by | 18 Sep 2023

The independence movement now appears to have many possible strategies to achieve its goal - but actually has none. The reason is because the most important part is missing from them all.

The independence movement has no strategy. The independence movement has lots of independence strategies. Both of these statements are true at the same time. How can that be? It all depends what you mean by ‘strategy’.

What I want to argue in this piece is that if you’re meaning strategy as in ‘here are a range of things we could do’ then you’re misusing the terminology. It is much better to phrase it like this; ‘here is a range of things we could do which, if we did them, would be substantially more likely to achieve the thing we we are trying to achieve than if we had done nothing’. ‘Better than nothing’ doesn’t count.

So we have a load of different pieces of work (with widely varying degrees of detail) which no-one I’ve ever met thinks have any chance of working. And none of them will work because they’re missing the most important part. So let’s take a look.

Some of these strategies are well-meaning, some are cynical and self-serving, some are just confused, some are not a lot more than a scream of rage. Very roughly they fall into three categories (with a lot of overlap) – legalistic, party-political or unilateralist. Let’s go through them.

The first is the legalistic model. This one is easiest to deal with, because it doesn’t really have any chance of working from the outset since it fails to take account of global realpolitik. Basically this route is based on prosecuting Scotland’s case for independence in an international court based on perceived contravention of constitutional documents, some many hundreds of years old.

Let’s set aside for a second that there isn’t really such a court and you can’t just take a case to it anyway and let’s look at the more important point, which is political. Simply put, no-one who we need to recognise us as an independent country (UN, US, China, EU, WTO, IMF World Bank) will do so on that basis even if we could secure a legal ruling.

Legal advice has been taken on the mechanisms for doing this and it is all but conclusive – there really aren’t any. But even if there were, it would fail, because no nation state (and I mean pretty well none) is going to permit the creation of a legal precedent that you can sue your way out of any nation state using international institutions. It really is that simple.

There is a slight subbranch of this strand which you might call ‘diplomatic’ where you work on and enlist sympathetic global players to support your bid for independence, but that is even less likely to work for the same above reasons. This feature – independence through diplomacy – quite often crops up in other ‘better than nothing’ strategies as well.

(The above does not mean that there may not be some value in educating the Scottish and English public about Scotland’s long history as an independent state and the background to the Treaty of Union. Nor that there is no value in promoting Scotland’s aspirations for independence with conventional and ‘people’s’ diplomacy. This may create potential allies in the future.)

If you can’t get the votes in any given parliament for any given action, your mandate means absolutely nothing, constitutionally speaking

The next branch of strategy is purely party political. In all the versions of this a political party or parties will represent the cause and be its human embodiment. Endorsing them means endorsing independence. This is reasonable in a parliamentary democracy, until you get to the ‘and how did that go?’ question, since we’ve been there already.

The thing all these strategies get wrong is the idea of ‘mandate’ – voting for a manifesto just means that you are choosing a candidate who is likely to try and push that manifesto through a parliamentary democracy because you prefer that manifesto to another one. That’s it. The rest is the bruising business of actual parliamentary democracy, and it has absolutely nothing to do with mandates. It’s about numbers.

As in if you can’t get the votes in any given parliament for any given action, your mandate means absolutely nothing, constitutionally speaking. Even where there are conventions (such as the House of Lords not blocking legislation that was in a manifesto), they are merely that; conventions. We’ve seen from Trump’s America what weight conventions carry in constitutional law. None.

So it’s about numbers, and this is the simple reality – there will never be the numbers in the Westminster Parliament because Scotland is too small, and the other parliament where it is possible to gain the numbers doesn’t have the power over the constitution to do anything with those numbers. This has been plain as the nose on your face for a decade.

This isn’t going to change. The parliamentary route isn’t there and it never was. Very, very few (if any) countries ever became independent because of things that happened in a parliament rather than because of things that happened outside a parliament.

It is barely worth going into this in any great detail for this reason, but let’s take a look anyway. There are loosely three versions of this which can be played out in any parliament you want, Scottish or British (which kind of proves my point). One is a mandate based on majority of seats won, one on majority of votes cast for a single party, and one for the total number of votes cast for any pro-indy party.

The more seemingly laughable of these is the one the SNP leadership is signed up to – a win, any win, no majority of the public needed. This is less daft than it sounds if you pay close attention, because the Yousaf/Flynn proposal doesn’t actually say that would lead to independence but to ‘negotiations’. They want you to think they mean ‘negotiations towards independence’ but they are basically talking about negotiations for a new Section 30 Order. That’s the reality.

Seeking negotiations for a Section 30 Order after a majority of seats won is a perfectly respectable concept – if it hadn’t been tried about five or six times already with no success. Because the gap between concept and strategy is in the numbers. We all know the numbers game means this strategy needs Westminster to do the independence movement a very big favour. That’s not going to happen.

Doing it on the basis of votes is different. What Yousaf/Flynn are proposing isn’t a de facto referendum, because if there is one thing everyone knows about a referendum it is that the majority view of those participating prevails, not tricks of the First Past the Post system. So doing it on the basis of votes actually would be a bit like a de facto referendum of sorts.

But pulling that off is really, really difficult for reasons I’ve tried to explain many times before. It is a bit easier if we didn’t all have to put our eggs in one basket, but the SNP are demanding that, so it won’t work, because the SNP aren’t very popular just now.

Then again, I’d probably give a 99 per cent likelihood that a 50-plus-one majority based on a ‘Scotland United’ ticket of a coalition of independence parties would fail to work too, because unionists have their own mandate (take your pick, either the rest of the UK Parliament or the 2014 referendum) so finding the political space to justify ignoring such a result isn’t really hard.

What is dispiriting is that the parliamentary strategies have a worrying feature – every one of them basically rewards the political party (or party-aligned organisation) that is proposing it with jobs and influence. Which is to say you should be very suspicious of them all. These are self-serving. These are party political strategies, not independence strategies.

Lists of procedures aren’t a strategy; strategy connects the factors which achieve success with environmental conditions which could lead to those factors and builds a bridge between them

Strangely, the third option is taken to be the most crazy of all but manages to be less constitutionally crazy than the official SNP leadership position. The third option is a unilateral declaration of independence. This is less crazy based on the fact that, unlike the others above, this has actually led to independent nation states in the past. The problem is the two giant barriers to that strategy.

The first of those is recognition. The countries which had done any kind of UDI were in an under-developed state. They could get by without immediate international recognition for a period of time whereas Scotland cannot. We can’t afford to be Kosovo, neither really part of anything else nor properly independent.

The other is that there would need to be some kind of legitimacy for a UDI, so unless you had a clear, undeniable public will to do it, it is a non-starter from the outset. You can’t do a UDI in a developed economy because a political elite quite fancies it, irrespective of democratic or constitutional politics.

So none of these are strategies and no version of any of these trailed in the last ten years were ever strategies – if you mean ‘substantially more likely to work than doing nothing’. And the problem for the movement is that we are about to get stuck in another ten years of the same situation unless we all understand why none of these are going to work.

The reason is simple; every one of these strategies has something entirely absent. You can call it ‘settled will’ or you can call it ‘voters’, but I’ve looked at every one of them and not one of them mentions citizens or how to win over a majority of them. On the few occasions where voters are mentioned it is an off-hand and meaningless ‘knock doors’.

I can’t tell you how farcical this is coming from my perspective as someone who made a professional career out of political strategy. To give you an analogy, this is like a recipe for a cheese toastie which doesn’t mention bread, or strategy for bread production which doesn’t mention flour, or a strategy for wheat growing that doesn’t mention water. In a modern developed democracy, you don’t become independent unless a clear majority of the people are offering their consent. It is really that simple.

None of these strategies can be called strategies because none of them will engage with this reality. They are all (without fail) lists of procedures. Lists of procedures aren’t a strategy. Strategy connects the factors which achieve success with environmental conditions which could lead to those factors and builds a bridge between them.

If your wheat doesn’t grow and its because there is no rain, you irrigate and water. If your yeast, water and salt mixture doesn’t turn into a loaf you go back and check the recipe, finding the missing bit and fill the gap. If you put your cheese in a grill and it doesn’t come out as a toastie you learn from your errors and you buy bread next time. Those are strategies. A 16-page briefing note on the benefits of toasties will achieve nothing.

I have been going on and on about this for ten years now; unless we start taking a serious interest in the voters who are not fundamentally opposed to independence but who haven’t yet been won over, we will fail. Unless we take seriously what they tell us they need from us and unless we deliver that, we deserve to fail.

I’m soon going to publish what I believe is a credible independence strategy. I’m doing it now not because I expect it to interrupt what is going on (which is the SNP desperately trying to find a reason for anyone to go on supporting the party) but because I hope that enough people will come to understand why we keep failing.

We keep failing because we don’t have a credible strategy. We don’t have a credible strategy because we keep mistaking a list of procedures for a strategy. We’ve failed for a decade for that reason. Until we learn that lesson we’ll fail for another decade. And another after that.

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