We’re not ready for a Convention

by | 18 May 2023

The drive to rush an Independence Convention will fail unless we put the time in to doing the preparatory work properly. At the moment that is not happening, so we're not ready.

I know that my generation of men, the people I kicked around with in the places where I grew up, are not exactly flavour of the decade. But there is one aspect of that culture I miss – a strong bias towards doing work and a strong disregard for people who talk about the work they are going to do.

I was the only one of my friend group who left school and went to university. A number of the others did various kinds of apprenticeship. In that culture people didn’t like a ‘blawhard’, someone who was always talking about things they’ve not actually done yet. There was a great respect for people who shut up about their work until it was completed to the standard to which it should be completed.

Yes, lots of things have got better since then, but not that. This era of ‘social media influencers’ where ‘hustle’ is not a pejorative but a business plan is an era of talking about what you are going to do and trying to cash in on it before you do it.

(A few years ago Forbes Magazine profiled ’30 under 30′, the most promising new business figures. A bunch of them are now in jail. Between them they successfully raised $5.3 billion in equity capital – but between them they were responsible for fraud and corruption totalling £18.5 billion.)

This is why I do not support the rush to establish an Independence Convention. I know, that means that it seems to be only me and the SNP payroll which don’t have enthusiasm for this, but we do so for very different reasons. I want to explain mine.

I do not support the fast cobbling-together of a Convention because the preparatory work has not been done yet. I have explained in some detail how the Constitutional Convention which created the Scottish Parliament was established and it took about eight years of hard work before it was ready to launch.

Had those eight years of work not been done there is absolutely no question the Convention would have failed. The outreach alone to talk a range of key civic bodies round to this idea took years. For what it’s worth, the Convention was first proposed in a paper my mother wrote for the SNP in 1980. It was rejected, so the work had to be done by the civic Campaign for a Scottish Parliament.

When it finally arrived the Constitutional Convention was two things. It was a crucial negotiating forum, but it was also high politics. There were lots of hard negotiations, but they took place in working group meetings; when the full Convention met it was a show of strength, a demonstration of the ‘settled will’.

The Constitutional Convention wasn’t how the concept of the parliament was created and it wasn’t how the coalition was built, it was the output of that work

This was only possible because while there were hard negotiations that took place through the Convention, the hardest negotiations had taken place beforehand. The parties and organisations involved were all there to finalise the development of a clear, understood proposal the basic structure of which had already been agreed. It was the detail that remained.

It worked because it was done properly. It was taken seriously. No-one was promoting the Convention in public before it was clear everything was on the final lap. The Constitutional Convention wasn’t how the concept of the parliament was created and it wasn’t how the coalition was built, it was the output of that work.

So let me give you another case study for this; the creation of Rise as a political party after the 2014 referendum. When some of my friends started this they asked me to get involved. I advised against the move, for two reasons. The first was the timing – this was the SNP’s moment, there wasn’t time to establish the Rise brand and it was unlikely to work for those reasons.

But there was a second reason; this was happening party because the SSP was still in the middle of its civil war over all things Tommy Sheridan. My feeling was that Rise was trying to paper over this particular crack and that made it almost certainly fundamentally unstable. Without the work to mediate between warring parties, to get the foundations solid, the whole thing would eventually have fallen down.

This is the strong feeling I have yet again with this Independence Convention model. We need something like it, but we’ve not done the work to get there yet. A Convention is, by its nature, a public thing. But we’re still at each others’ throats. The last thing we need is to draw further public attention to that.

And the concept of this Convention hasn’t really been properly considered. I know a number of different conceptions of what it should be, each held by different people. Some people think its some kind of think tank. Some people think its a new Yes Scotland. Some people think it is a kind of UN-style proximity negotiation to create a ceasefire.

Yes, all three of these things are necessary – but it needs to be done properly and in order. Starting with ceasefire, or the rest will fail. I personally find the level of animosity between the SNP and Alba to be fucking idiotic. Both sides are convinced that the route to independence lies through destroying the other. Spoiler alert kids; it definitely isn’t.

Meanwhile mapping out who the Scottish Greens will and will not talk to is utterly exhausting. This is a party which recently voted to sever its links with those far-right Nazis in… the Green Party of England and Wales. The way they are going they will end up as 17 people living in a cave up in the glens somewhere, running daily military drills for the intifada to come.

Yesterday I was involved in a useful and constructive Zoom meeting with Alex Cole Hamilton. That took place a couple of days after he made a comment that, well, I definitely don’t agree with. Working with people you don’t agree with and doing so in a constructive and collegiate manner is at the heart of our civilisation.

If everyone is serious about this Convention (and they should be, or something like it), the first step should be to shut up about it

If everyone is serious about this Convention (and they should be, or something like it), the first step should be to shut up about it. Someone somewhere is going to have to make the first moves in what might be a gradual process of arranging some kind of tentative, behind-closed-doors ‘first dates’ between warring parties, almost certainly with a mediator.

Alba has to meet the SNP… somehow. The Greens may need a meeting with a civic body first to map out their red lines. From there, those involved will need to devise the next steps, whatever it takes to get towards that ceasefire.

This doesn’t stop other things from happening. There is much less animosity in the civic part of the movement. It can get together and do what it should be doing – developing early thoughts on a strategy. A Convention may very well be part of that, but I can think of alternative ways that might work better. We need to have the conversation first.

And if we do decide to create a Convention, it needs a really clear brief, a really well-defined purpose, one that everyone agrees with and everyone will engage with. That is going to take a bit of time and negotiation. You don’t hold a Convention to devise a Convention. And, with daggers drawn at the moment, you sure as hell don’t do it in public.

I make no apologies for a strong plug here for the Movement for Scottish Independence (MSI). It is the civic bit in nearly-ready form. It will be formally established in June and will be open to every civic organisation, anyone other than the political parties. (Everyone involved would have been happy to involve the parties, but until we no longer have to choose between which ones, we can’t.)

It is a direct mirror of the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament. That was the body (also civic) which did all the work I described above. It is the body that designed and set up the Constitutional Convention. It is the body which spent eight years gradually drawing in the trade unions, the churches, local government and yes, all the political parties (well, except the Tories and the SNP which was on a boycott…).

None of this needs to take eight years. Nominally (nominally) we all agree on the basics. We’re not starting from scratch. We could sort this by the end of the year if everyone was serious. Then we could begin setting up a Convention or whatever.

But if everyone really is serious then the SNP wouldn’t be trying to capture all the money (again), Alba would be trying to arrange back-channel contact with the SNP and talking less about it and the Greens wouldn’t be off in the pet with, well, the sun, the moon and all the stars.

I have genuinely fuck all regard for people who tell me what they’re going to do. I have a massive respect for people who do things first and let you draw your own conclusions about their work. The best way to lose a fight is to talk about it beforehand, and the best way to fuck up the independence movement is to think everything is about scoring points in the short term.

We can’t become a movement of blawhards. If we don’t do this right, we’ll fuck it up. Again.

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