In arriving at my last in this series on the contexts which will shape 2023 I am very conscious that there is so much I’ve not covered (not least the state of the global economy and the growing disparity between extreme weather events and our global efforts to do anything to stop them getting worse). But I will finish by looking at what 2023 means for Scottish independence.
To explain why there is not an awful lot of optimism in what follows I want to use the analogy of loose change. Post-pandemic everything has been ‘tap your card’, so when I recently ended up with a pocket full of loose change and had to pay for something with it, it was almost like muscle memory, a dying skill of making up £1.89 (or whatever it was) using whatever coins I had available.
Think of the progress to independence in 2023 as being the point at which you’ve used up all your big coins and now you’re trying to make up the difference with five pence pieces and coppers. Nothing has really changed other than a slightly increased sense of desperation.
What I am describing here is not the movement, and it is not the actual chances of making progress to independence. What I am describing is the way the movement has been led since 2017 when the First Minister walked back on her rash promise to hold a referendum before Brexit negotiations were completed.
What was being scrambled together wasn’t money but time. Among the pocket lint, the SNP leadership found a way to put you on pause for six months (‘the SNP is going to have National Assemblies to sort out some issues’), and then eight months (‘we’ve commissioned the Growth Commission’) then seven months (‘we’re going to have a cross-party constitutional convention and a Citizens’ Assembly’).
None of those moved the cause onwards in any way but that wasn’t their purpose. By 2019 the promises were getting lower value, buying two months at the General Election by promising that a big SNP majority would lead to Westminster opposition ‘melting away’. Of course as they were scrambling around in their coppers a £10 note fell out the sky and landed in their hands – Covid.
That bought them about 18 months by promising to hold a referendum ‘when it was safe’. That was punted back into 2023 to buy another 18 months. The passage of a referendum bill was meant to buy them another nine months, a Supreme Court challenge probably another six months after that. But the Lord Advocate and Supreme Court snatched those away.
And now we really are down to coppers. The ‘General Election as a de facto referendum’ isn’t serious, it’s a Hail Mary they hope might buy them up to two years. That’s why the SNP’s ‘special conference’ is in March and not January – it puts things on pause for four months not two.
Even if Sunak takes a flyer at a General Election this year, even if the SNP follows through meaningfully on making it a single-issue election, even if they got a narrow majority of votes, we’ll end the year where we started it
You can tell this is pure delaying tactic on the basis that if you were serious about a General Election referendum plan you’d be aware that it could be called at any time. In a world where the economy picks up and Labour makes a mistake, a (theoretically) resurgent Tory Party could take a run at a Spring election. If the plan was serious there would be some urgency.
So it is with some genuine interest I will watch that conference, not because I think it means anything much about the progress to independence but because I’m genuinely curious as to what the next delaying tactic after that is going to be. I’m betting on ‘a series of working groups’ or some such, but they might surprise me.
No-one I’ve spoken to thinks a 51 per cent vote for pro-indy parties in that election is going to lead to independence. No-one I’ve spoken to is confident that we can pull of 51 per cent in a party political election. No-one I’ve spoken to would recognise a 49 per cent vote as a defeat for independence.
So even if Sunak takes a flyer at a General Election this year, even if the SNP follows through meaningfully on making it a single-issue election, even if they got a narrow majority of votes, we’ll end the year where we started it – humping and mumping and fuming about why all of our shortcuts keep leading nowhere.
Because (feel free to stop me if I’ve mentioned this before) the one thing we’re not doing is trying to win over undecided voters. They are no part of our plan, no focus. We seem convinced as a movement that we don’t need to talk to them or present them with anything that might be likely to change their minds. The Scottish Government publishes piss-poor ‘independence papers’ not for them but for you (another nine months…)
The next context is the facilitators-for-hire. I’m bruised and battered by being honest because from 2016 onwards I’ve been offering my (accurate) view that there was not going to be a referendum soon. People didn’t want to hear it, and I had a horrible time. But there are rather a lot of people who made rather a lot of money out of telling you what you wanted to hear, that a referendum was imminent.
They are propping up increasingly unbelievable promises not because they are true, not because it helps independence, but because it keeps their income protected. One group is delaying action for reasons of control, another is supporting them for financial reasons.
The final context (and the only one that offers hope) is you. In reality the SNP leadership isn’t pursuing delaying tactics so much as tactics to try and convince you that they are not delaying. It’s the arse-end of their five-year strategy to keep you in line by trying to look busy-busy.
And that in turn is because the only thing they’ve got left is loyalty. SNP loyalists I know have not become rebels quite yet but they sound very different now. It’s no longer ‘they have a genius plan that you just don’t know about’ to ‘look, this is our least bad bad idea’. Lose that loyalty and there is absolutely nothing sustaining the leadership.
In 2023 what is good for independence (opening up and broadening out again) and what is good for Nicola Sturgeon (closing down and controlling more as her grip slips further) are in direct opposition
All of this – all of it – is because of the madness of promising a referendum you couldn’t deliver and the desperate drive to maintain total control when that promise inevitably unravelled. The only way to do that was to prevent the independence movement from moving forward on its own. That’s why it’s all been about process not content.
The de facto referendum idea isn’t about independence, it’s about control. The special conference in March isn’t about independence, it’s about control. If I was wrong about this they would have happened in the other order (i.e. have a discussion about your strategic plan before you announce it, not afterwards). The conference will discuss nothing, it’ll be presented a fait acomplis and will be whipped and bullied into nodding in consent.
That’s pretty well it. An SNP leadership which has been stringing you on for half a decade or more with statements that fall short of being true. The phalanx of chancers getting jobs or selling you leaflets or paying their mortgage on the basis of reinforcing and selling you the same mistruths. The good, ordinary people in the movement who don’t know what to believe any more and so are giving over (just) enough benefit of the doubt to hold all this together.
I don’t think there is an easy way out of this under this leadership. It is precisely the First Minister who has required you all to focus on process (getting a mechanism for triggering independence negotiations, like a referendum) and not on substance (how you gain a majority in any referendum or other vote). Nothing is stopping us getting on with substantive things; only process enables perpetual delay.
It is also the SNP leadership which has been so hostile to the idea of an autonomous independence movement being permitted to engage in strategic debate. There are efforts taking place just now to bring the movement together and find a path forward. The SNP leadership now thrives on division and polarisation so I do not expect it will do anything to support movement unity.
And I don’t think we’ll see any progress towards a coherent, vote-winning case for independence because that would involve a leadership u-turn on its Growth Commission idiocy and it will not consent to any display of weakness as it tries to cling on.
Yet those are the three things that would actually make a difference in 2023 – getting a persuasive case for independence together, uniting the movement and taking the case to undecided voters in an effective way that changes minds.
Or to put it as simply as I can, in 2023 what is good for independence (opening up and broadening out again) and what is good for Nicola Sturgeon (closing down and controlling more as her grip slips further) are in direct opposition.
That’s why the most important context of all for 2023 is you, the rank and file indy supporter. Only once there are no longer enough people willing to stand patiently while the SNP leadership rummages around in its pocket for one more implausible explanation for prevarication will anything change.