I am not at all worried about the impact on Scottish independence of the events of the last few weeks. It might not look it, but this has been an important and necessary step. Neither the tasks at hand nor the timetable have changed in any way. To explain why, let me tell you a wee story.
Brexit morning was a big deal for my family, and it had nothing to do with Brexit. We had a birth daughter (best mistake we ever made) and decided to adopt our second (best decision we ever made). The pick-up of our son from the foster family was scheduled for the day after the Brexit referendum.
That means that I was standing in an Aldi buying flowers, chocolates and wine for the foster mum (we’re classy like that…) when my phone went. It was our then-head of policy Ben Wray to tell me that Nicola Sturgeon had announced a referendum. I told him this was not true, she’d be utterly mad to have done that and that this was media distortion.
So he read me out her precise words and I can still remember the precise words of my reply: “Dear christ, she’s fucked us all”. It was clear to me she simply couldn’t deliver what she had just said she would deliver and the full range of the implications of that reality took only a few seconds to consider.
From that moment, I knew that independence would require one important initial step – we’d all need to accept that this ‘shortcut’ approach was a mirage. There was no version of ‘get a referendum first and then somehow just win it’ which was going to work. We needed to realise this before we could move on.
It just didn’t occur to me for a second it would take nearly seven years. I assumed this would all fall flat in 2018. I didn’t realise you could get away with the same story about how a referendum was ’round the corner’ for another five years (although Covid did enable two or three of those years).
That is why the timetable for independence has not changed in the slightest because of the events of the last few weeks. People who think that independence is no longer imminent (as in within 12 months) are right – because it never was. There was always, always work to do.
People who think that independence is no longer imminent are right – because it never was
That’s where we need to take a sober look at where we really are. The truth is that nothing like enough work has been done since 2014. Or rather, lots and lots has been done but it has either been misdirected (all that rushing around preparing for a referendum which was never coming) or it was actively opposed by the SNP leadership.
What that means is that in the eight and a half years since the independence referendum we have not strengthened the case for independence. I know you think that ‘Brexit did the job for us’ but if you can take a calmer look now you will see that it hasn’t. Susceptible voters had already largely written off Westminster – it is detail on independence they’re asking for.
So rather than putting in the hours to strengthen the case we’ve instead wasted the hours believing that that would sort itself out ‘somehow’ once we got the promised referendum.
Likewise we do not have anything like the campaign infrastructure in the movement to be ready and capable of engaging systematically with winnable voters in a way that will influence them. If you look at how effective campaigns develop and position themselves in the 21st century and then you look at the current independence movement, the gaps are obvious.
We also don’t have enough active, engaged people in the movement just now. To get a sense of what I mean you need to think about the difference between say peak All Under One Banner march numbers and the numbers of people turning up to be active at local campaign events. We have plenty of people, but we’ve not ‘activated’ them by giving them something realistic, manageable and meaningful to do.
Instead we’ve focussed for a long time on one question – how to do the ‘last bit’. The last bit of this is to find a trigger-point which is capable of delivering the steps which make a country independent. While one group was waiting for a referendum, another group was trying to come up with a proxy referendum model and another was trying to find a legal route which avoided the need for a referendum altogether.
All of that means that we haven’t built our case for independence, haven’t built the campaign infrastructure of a successful campaign, haven’t broadened our activist base and don’t have an agreed coherent path forward. Plus we have simply not engaged with voters.
This may all seem like bad news to you. To me it certainly looks like an absolutely giant missed opportunity, a wasted decade we’re never going to get back. But as of April 2023 this is all good news.
Because if we’d tried to do all the things above and they hadn’t worked, then we’d be in some bother. If we didn’t have a really solid baseline support of 45 per cent for independence, then the picture would look different. If events were outrunning us and weakening our case, then we’d have problems.
Don’t be disheartened because everything is within our reach – we just need to start reaching out as one movement in a meaningful and purposeful way that has a chance of working
What you’re seeing isn’t a setback, it’s paralysis. We haven’t ‘opened the box to find it empty’, we’ve been staring at the box waiting for someone to open it for us. That means there is no reason to be pessimistic.
As most people reading this will know, most of my career was in political strategy and campaign development. I have never once knowingly led you on to believe something I didn’t believe was true. I believe that the fundamentals needed to win Scottish independence are exactly as they were. We have all the conditions we need to win. That isn’t the barrier.
No, we’ve been the barrier. Us ourselves. Sturgeon used independence to protect her position after the 2017 General Election losses and never stopped. She suppressed anything she couldn’t control. Lots of people really, really believed her and frankly parked their critical faculties, accepted things that, looking back, they must now realise never seemed true.
The movement has had too many people delighted to monetise the hope of an imminent referendum to pay their salaries or to sell you things. They’ve been delighted to keep this whole ruse going. Others have run off on well-meaning but counterproductive distractions. There are a good handful too many crackpot ideas given a good dollop more credibility than they should.
None of this was real. It was never real. It suited too many people to pretend it was real but it never was. What you are seeing today is the reality of where we have been all along. While it may hurt a little for those who are accepting this for the first time now, I’d encourage you to get over it.
In reality we’re in a pretty good place. The sheer chaos in the main political party of independence is clearly a problem but that too has been piling up for seven years now and had to resolve itself. And what we need to do next does not need a vote in parliament. All of the immediate tasks ahead have nothing to do with parliamentary politics. We can just get on with them now.
I have been developing a pretty detailed strategy for how to win independence for quite a while now. In fact I was sitting on it waiting for a moment when there was a new leadership in the SNP that was actually interested in engaging with the independence movement.
I had been really caught in two minds about whether to sit on it for a bit longer given the victory of the SNP’s continuity candidate, but I’ve been talking to quite a few people about this and I’m going to start writing it all down tomorrow for launch as soon as I can get it finished. I believe it to be a proper and achievable plan which offers a structure for the realistic delivery of Scottish independence.
I always believed that, once we were properly set up and were running the kind of effective modern campaign that works (which might take a year), shifting opinion to make independence an imminent possibility would take two or three years. I still do. That was always our working timetable and nothing has changed that.
There is just one condition – we need to start. We can’t sit on our hands or waste more time or hope someone has a plan. We need to make things move and to do that we need to put aside all the current petty differences and work together. That means sharing ideas, discussing and agreeing.
It is my sincere hope that the stark reality of the early months of 2023 is, finally, the moment when we can realise that the mirage was always a mirage and if we are going to get out of this place we need each other. I priced in all the current pain a long time ago. It may take some people a little while to process what is happening.
Just don’t be disheartened because everything is within our reach. We just need to start reaching out as one movement in a meaningful and purposeful way that has a chance of working. After so long, we have reached our chance to do that. So we cannot blow it. We just can’t.