Campaigning for independence is a roller coaster ride. Just at the moment when the British state is in meltdown, when the institutions of British democracy have never been weaker or more discredited, many within the independence movement are doubting whether the SNP will ever deliver an independence referendum. I believe those fears are misplaced. At this crucial point in Scottish and British history it is imperative that we hold our nerve.
Scotland voted to remain in the EU by a large majority. Over 62% of those who voted opted to remain in the EU. Opinion polls since the June 2016 referendum have shown that the proportion of Scotland’s voters who favour remaining in the EU has grown yet larger and could now even be approaching 70%. Over two thirds of people in this country now wish Scotland to stay a part of the EU. Many of those people voted No in 2014. They were not sold on the idea of Scottish independence, and many of them still harbour doubts.
Certainly, a large segment of those No-voting remainers in Scotland will never be persuaded to support independence, but another segment, possibly a larger one, could be, and together with existing Yes voters that potentially creates a strong majority for independence. However those former No voters are only going to switch to supporting independence once two conditions are met.
Firstly they will only switch to independence once there is no longer any possibility of the UK remaining within the EU. This is the condition that many independence supporters focus on, and so react with anger because they feel that the SNP is risking the best opportunity for independence for decades by campaigning against Brexit. There is considerable frustration within large parts of the independence movement that the SNP currently appears to be focussing its efforts on tackling Brexit, and doesn’t seem to show anything like the same enthusiasm for achieving independence.
But there’s another condition that needs to be met in order to persuade as many former No-voting remainers as possible to switch to support for independence. That’s to convince them that all feasible steps have been taken within the political framework of the UK in order to prevent Brexit happening. That is the only way in which the blame for Brexit can be laid fairly and squarely at the door of Westminster and the British political system and to demonstrate that the UK systematically fails Scotland. It’s only when all hope of Scotland’s EU preferences being met within the framework of the UK, and – crucially – have been extinguished by the Westminster Parliament itself, that the bloc of voters we need on our side will finally make the switch. They will be confronted with a choice between the EU or the UK, a choice which has been forced upon them by right wing English nationalist populists in the Conservative party. That’s going to make them choose independence.
However before that can happen those voters need to see that the UK has failed Scotland. They don’t just need to see it, they need to feel it, and they need to appreciate that the independence movement is with them, that it supports them, and that it’s not gloating or triumphalist. If those voters do not believe that the SNP is wholeheartedly on their side, and has been steadfast in its determination to avoid a no-deal Brexit, it’s going to be much more difficult to persuade them to trust in the case for independence once Brexit has happened and an independence referendum is underway.
Those of us who are already convinced of the case for independence often forget what it’s like to be uncertain, or to have doubts about independence but be open to persuasion. We are always going to vote Yes in the next referendum. We don’t need to be persuaded. We don’t need to be carefully approached like startled fawns. But there are not enough of us to bring about a certain victory in the second independence referendum. So that’s why the SNP strategy is aimed at carefully cultivating those soft Noes and undecideds. It’s not aimed at those of us who march on indy rallies, not at those of us who blog for indy, not at those of us who get into arguments with Tories on social media. It’s aimed at the startled fawns.
Remember, we are not the ones who are feeling betrayed and deceived by the Westminster establishment. Westminster’s deceit and betrayal is already priced in when you are a convinced supporter of independence. Soft Noes and undecideds are the ones who are undergoing a grieving process, a disabusing of their previous trust in British democracy. We need to be patient with them. We need to cultivate them. We need to make sure that they realise that we understand their fears and their doubts and that we have worked hard in order to allay them. Otherwise we will never persuade them. We’re only going to win independence if we take them with us.
So where does this leave us with respect to getting an independence referendum you ask? Well, there is nothing that the SNP or anyone else in Scotland can do to wrest a Section 30 order out of a recalcitrant Westminster. If the Tories or Labour at Westminster remain implacable in their refusal there are no legal steps that can be taken to force one out of them. However that does not mean that we are powerless. Here in Scotland we must work to ensure that we continue to build support for independence, and continue to exhaust – and most importantly be seen to exhaust – all paths to a Section 30 order within the traditional framework of British politics. And it is vital that we here in Scotland change the political landscape of Scotland by getting rid of as many anti-independence MPs as possible in the General Election that’s coming.
What those of us who support independence often forget is that not everyone in Scotland is as cynical about the British electoral and political system as we are. Many, if not most, of us support independence because we feel that the British political system is broken and is unfit for purpose. However those who are unsure about independence or who are soft Noes do not necessarily feel that same sense of disenchantment. They still trust in British politics. It’s only by demonstrating to those voters that we have exhausted all possible routes to a Section 30 order that we can persuade them to accept that alternatives are both necessary and feasible. That is the only way that we can ensure that there is a sufficient head of political steam within Scotland so that there will be majority support for alternative strategies such as a referendum without a Section 30 order or a plebiscite election. We’re not there yet.
Predicting what’s going to happen in British politics these days is a mug’s game. However for what it’s worth I suspect that in the General Election that is to come, it is more likely than not that the Conservatives will win a narrow majority in the rest of the UK. Scotland on the other hand will return a large majority of SNP MPs. The political divide between Scotland and the rest of the UK will loom large. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is precisely the kind of English nationalist populist who would take an axe to the Barnett Formula, and he’ll have no Scottish Tory MPs to act as a brake on his English nationalist instincts. In the process he will destroy the “fiscal transfer” argument which is the sole weapon remaining in the anti-independence armoury. He will take us out of the EU into a no-deal Brexit. Support for independence will soar, and under those political circumstances the refusal to agree to a Section 30 order will play very badly for him and will merely alienate Scottish voters even further. Indeed, a weak Johnson government might feel it’s better to cut its losses as far as Scotland is concerned, and agree to a Section 30 order in order to increase the Tory majority in Westminster.
It is only when Brexit has happened, when the SNP has been seen to exhaust absolutely every tactic that could have prevented it, when all possible avenues to a Section 30 order have been refused, only then will the Scottish Government be in a position to talk publicly about alternative strategies for independence and be certain that it can count on the support of a majority in Scotland. That can only happen if the SNP achieves a substantial victory in the General Election to come and fights that campaign on the basis of demanding that Scotland has the right to decide its own future – and then finds itself rebuffed by a Westminster government with no popular support in Scotland. In other words, the refusal of Westminster to agree to a Section 30 order is not an insuperable obstacle. It is merely a part of the process we have to go through.
The core of the SNP strategy is that Scotland can only achieve independence if it can get the support of the startled fawns. It’s natural to have doubts and fears. But remember that we are winning, and we will get to the top of the mountain. But we need to take the fawns with us.
My new book has just been published by Vagabond Voices. Containing the best articles from The National from 2016 to date. Weighing in at over 350 pages, this is the biggest and best anthology of Wee Gingerisms yet. This collection of pieces covers the increasingly demented Brexit years, and the continuing presence and strength of Scotland’s independence movement.
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