Reorientate Part 2: Street party in a blind alley

by | 30 Nov 2022

The independence movement has huffed and puffed for nearly a decade since the referendum, but has nothing real to show for it. This is the story of why that happened.

Yesterday I just ran over a very basic history lesson about how devolution was delivered. There is something I wanted to emphasise in part through omission – I didn’t mention the 1997 referendum. It didn’t greatly matter; by that point the only unknown was ‘how far over 70 per cent support are we going to get’. We had already won it.

This is what I’m trying to hammer home. Victory has got much, much more to do with preparation than with execution. If you’ve done the work and have the solid credibility of that work behind you. If you’ve built the bridges and won trust and respect. If you have dealt with the crap that always needs to be dealt with through careful negotiation. If you’ve done all that, the bit where you do the winning is straightforward.

To understand why the independence movement is so far up a blind alley it helps to compare and contrast the generation of 1979 with the generation of 2014. Before I do, can I preempt the inevitable criticism – the past is a foreign country. Politics never repeats exactly. The devolution era isn’t an instruction manual, it is a case study to draw lessons from. The lesson to learn is that winning is often about doing the things you don’t enjoy doing. It’s about the hard work.

After 2014 that’s what I fought for. I lost horribly. The approach that I was advocating has become known as ‘middle-out’ (in US politics anyway). Political parties are often hard to engage with and grassroots activists are often disparate. This leaves nothing connecting the top and the bottom. It also means that reaching outwards to other civic organisations becomes hard.

The idea of middle-out is to create a body of some sort that sits between politicians and activists, coordinating, linking, pushing when necessary, negotiating differences where necessary – whatever is needed. But it can also reach outwards, to other organisations, other individuals, other voters.

A political party will never be fully trusted by civic bodies because the interests of political parties change. It’s the nature of politics – they make unreliable partners. By sitting outside the cut-and-thrust of party politics a middle-out approach would make it much easier to build alliances. It is also much more capable of doing work quietly and discreetly – politicians don’t do quiet and discreet.

So a middle-out approach would have created a body with trusted, respected people who could have done the background work. It should have been reaching out and starting to build relationships with the trade unions, churches, business organisations, businesses themselves, academia, the voluntary sector, local authorities, campaign groups, the arts sector, the media.

It could have identified the weaknesses in the 2014 case and the questions wavering voter said were unanswered. It could have taken steps to begin to fill those gaps, precisely like the Constitutional Convention filled out the gaps in the 1979 case for devolution. It would have been in a good place to start to make international connections and to build trust there.

Once you’ve told people that all their views are valid, that it’s just one big kaleidoscope of creative energy out here in the indy movement, it gave validity to the actions that got us into trouble

Meanwhile it could have supported the grassroots, listening to what they needed (at the time the three big asks that I kept coming across were basically ‘some training, some answers and some direction’). The first thing I wanted was a new ‘constitutional convention’ – I proposed calling it the National Commission.

Like I say, I lost horribly. I pushed to reconvene the Scottish Independence Convention to create such a body. That’s where I came up against an alternative model for the ‘development’ of independence. That is better described as ‘top-down-bottom-up’. It’s proponents were adamant that ‘the elites’ were the problem and if the SNP leadership was left to lead, the grassroots could just do the rest.

In this version of the world having knowledge and experience counted against someone. It was the ‘purity’ of the grassroots, people untouched and unsullied by the compromises of small-p politics, which would take us to independence.

I lost to the idea that we were not to ask questions of the SNP leadership. If they spoke it was a sign they knew what they were doing. If they said nothing it was doubly a sign that they knew what they were doing. No questions were to be asked.

Our job (in this theory) was to harness the energy of the local campaigns that emerged during indyref. To do that all we needed was a phone app. Everything else would be constructive anarchy. Handmade banners were better than professionally printed posters and the public would be won over by us because of our authenticity.

I was trying to point out that it was, at that stage, nothing to do with either banners or posters. We weren’t even nearly ready to start on a communication phase because we had nothing new to communicate. But the problem was that what I was offering was work and it was dull and painstaking. What the top-down-bottom-uppers were offering was a never-ending party.

It promised that whatever you wanted to do was valid. Everything counted. Pick what you enjoy doing and do that. That’ll be your bit. It was made clear as a bell by top-down-bottom-uppers that it wasn’t our job to do the thinking, just the banner-making.

This approach basically became the anti-constitutional convention. Don’t do the thinking, don’t do the networking, don’t do the building, just be free and be creative and the sheer force of our creativity will sway the public. To say the SNP leadership was comfortable with this was an understatement.

And of course once you’ve told people that all their views are valid, that it’s just one big kaleidoscope of creative energy out here in the indy movement, it gave validity to the actions that got us into trouble. People started doing daft, counter-productive things, but we’d created a culture of anarchy and so everything was cheered, even where it was strategically inept.

If the top-down-bottom-up approach was winning all the battles in 2015 and 2016, once Sturgeon announced the ‘referendum’ on Brexit morning it was all over bar the shouting for us ‘middle-outers’. What point in careful building if every day is always less than 12 months away from a referendum? Only 324 sleeps until freedom…

Like I say, the SNP leadership loved top-down-bottom-up and were very happy to fuel it. When we finally got the SIC operating again in 2016 I was totally unprepared for the utter barrage of abuse we faced. ‘Who did we think we were?’ howled people closely associated with SNP HQ. ‘Where is your mandate?’ ‘We don’t need no elites telling us what to do!’.

The horrible reality is that after nearly a decade of huffing and puffing, money squandered and egos paraded, we are left with no legacy at all

Horrible things were said about us. The personal attacks I faced (for seeking to set up a kind of constitutional convention) were unpleasant to say the least. It all meant we had no chance of pursuing that path. No collective or collegiate approach to developing the case for independence was possible. But there was still one window – we also needed an effective communication body.

If political parties are bad for talking to civic organisations, they’re terrible for having conversations with people who need to be gently won over to a cause. We did manage (just) to get enough support to create a vehicle for engaging constructively with our target voters. That was a mountainous amount of work and it nearly burned me out for good, but we got it done.

We did lots of proper professional research and got a branding agency to design and advise us on how to approach voters based on that research. We really had a body which could have done the biggest task that needed done. So we prepared for launch.

Still we were trying to keep everyone together and be open about things. So we arranged for someone to meet Nicola Sturgeon two weeks before the launch to tell her all about it and to ask for her support. She said nice words. Then the night before the launch date that we told her about she launched Yes.scot, a shoddy, half-baked spoiler.

It was no more and no less than that. The National turned on us at the same time… and so we were finished. That body, Voices for Scotland, was all but destroyed. The top-down-bottom-uppers had succeeded completely in cutting out the middle. But they hadn’t actually achieved the bottom-up part. All it turned out to be was total top-down control. Everything else was razed to the ground.

So let’s compare and contrast. In that wasted decade we brought no business figures over to independence, did not build inside trade unions or churches or any other civic organisation. We barely have a new face among known, respected figures who have joined our movement. Not a single question outstanding from 2014 has been answered.

Or at least they have by Common Weal, the Scottish Currency Group, the Constitution Group and others, but these answers are not accepted by the SNP. Compare that to the ten years after the 1979 referendum by when the Claim of Right had been published and virtually every civic body in the country was on board.

The horrible reality is that after nearly a decade of huffing and puffing, money squandered and egos paraded, we are left with no legacy at all. There is barely anything you can point to and say ‘that has moved us forward decisively’. We achieved nothing.

The top-down-bottom-up fantasy was just that – a fantasy, a naïve wish that the world didn’t work the way the world actually works. Every time someone tried to do anything serious someone shouted ‘elitist!’ at them and questioned their legitimacy. A strange coalition of populists and controlling politicians took the independence movement and turned it into amateur hour.

Winning is easy when you’ve done the work. In 1979, when a group of people tried to assess the work that needed to be done they were allowed to do it and delivered a history-changing report supported by a history-changing coalition within a decade. In 2014 when a group people tried to do the same thing they were aggressively prevented. Nearly a decade later we sit here empty-handed wondering what happened.

I’m begging people to snap out of this. Without work nothing is built. Tomorrow I’ll finish this up with an outline of the work I think we need to get started on. With urgency.

The full series: Part OnePart Three

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