A tale of times gone by and how it’s remembered today.
First, a little bit of history.
Once upon a time, in the dim and distant past, the leaders of a political party were holding a meeting to try to develop their strategy for an upcoming election campaign. They knew they had a large number of supporters they could rely on, approaching 50% of the electorate, but the purpose of the meeting was to try to come up with ideas to increase their support base. They were seeking, not just winning the election, but an overwhelming victory, one that would finally show that they were the dominant political force in the country, without possible challenge from any of their opponents.
One of the leaders spoke up. “We know our most controversial policy is independence, Approximately 50% of the population support the idea and these are the 50% of the electorate who are already likely to support us. To encourage support from the rest of the electorate, we need to place more emphasis other policies; policies which we know they are more likely to agree with. I propose that our campaign focusses on policies that everyone will agree with, such as the expansion of childcare, healthcare and education. That will take media attention away from independence and reduce the risk of losing the votes of those who are really against it.”
A second leader spoke. “But as we are widely known as the party of independence, surely the media and our opponents will still tell the electorate that we are still really pushing for independence and those we want to convince still won’t take the risk of voting for us.”
Now a third leader spoke up. “Surely what we need to do is to state explicitly that a vote for us in this election is not a vote for independence. This won’t affect our core support, who’ll still know we’re the party of independence, but it will neuter the charge from the media and our opponents that our only policy is independence; that despite what we might say, we think of nothing else.
A murmur of approval went up from around the room. “Yeah, that could work”, said one. “Sounds like an idea”, said another. “Let’s go with that” was the consensus in the room and so the campaign strategy was born.
As the campaign progressed, policy papers were issued promising more money for this, an expansion of that, further development of the next thing, all seemingly well received by the electorate. The party leadership were happy. They congratulated each other for their decision to concentrate on everything except independence, justifying that many election leaflets ruled out victory in the election being a catalyst for a future independence campaign. Private opinion polling and focus groups showed that the strategy was being enthusiastically received by those they wanted to attract. They reckoned they were on course for the overwhelming victory they were seeking. Nothing could go wrong.
The day of the election arrived. The polls opened and voters flooded in. Well, flooded was perhaps an exaggeration as early results showed that turnout was lower than in the previous election. Still, it had been raining in many parts of the country.
“Don’t worry”, said the leaders to each other, “it will pick up later. The rain is forecast to stop in the afternoon. There is no need to be concerned.”
As the day progressed, however, turnout stayed stubbornly low, showing no real signs of picking up. Squads of activists were sent out get known supporters out to vote, but the feedback was mixed, even poor in some places, with many activists reporting that supporters were showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Some supporters were even saying they didn’t intend to vote.
Now the leaders started to get concerned. Instead of congratulating each other, they started blaming each other as they realised that if the turnouts remained at its current level, they might start losing seats, rather than winning them.
The polls closed, counting began and the results started to come in. Rather than the overwhelming victory they had expected, the results were bad and, as the night wore on, they just got worse. In the end, the party lost almost 40% of their seats to their opponents. It was a disaster, not the expected triumph. An analysis of the turnout figures showed that, although they picked up a few hundreds of additional votes from the people in the target groups, they lost half a million votes from their core support.
It took some time before the truth of the result sunk in. In the previous election, with independence as a main focus, their core supporters were excited by the possibility of independence in the near future, but with independence being taken out of this campaign, many of these voters just couldn’t see the point of making the effort when they believed their vote wouldn’t hasten the independence they wanted, the independence they no longer believed their vote would help bring about. There was even some talk that the party no longer had independence as their main priority, with the most dissolutioned supporters openly saying that independence was no longer a priority at all.
Of course, as most of you will already have realised, what I was describing was what could have been discussions held by the Scottish National Party in 2017, a campaign where any thought of independence was confined to the back burner, where the “I” word was almost never used, except to exclude it from the campaign, and where many candidates’ leaflets actually ruled out independence. “A vote for me is not a vote for independence” was an election slogan for many of the SNP’s candidates, too many, some said, and so it proved.
Though many unionist commentators tried to hail the result as a shift away from Scottish independence, the major change in the election result, compared to the 2015 result, came from the decision of over half a million SNP supporters to stay home, mainly caused by the SNP campaign failing to enthuse pro-independence voters.
This was a lesson to the SNP. They learned that they couldn’t treat independence supporters as certain voters, that they couldn’t take them for granted. They realised that, with no mention of independence in the campaign, the backing of independence supporters couldn’t be guaranteed.
Of course, once they realised what the problem was, they would never do it again, would they? There would be no sense repeating a strategy which had been shown to be such a spectacular failure. Once bitten?
Fast forward to 2021 and the Scottish Parliament election.
Many supporters were already disillusioned by Nicola Sturgeon’s speech on January 31st, 2020, when she cancelled all independence campaigning and preparations, though other actions, including work on GRA reform and the infamous Hate Crimes Bill, were to continue unhindered. To make matters worse, Westminster had no such qualms about continuing their work on Brexit (remember Scotland voted against it?), turning the UK into one of the most isolated countries in the world, perhaps short of North Korea (but there’s still time to achieve another ‘world-beating target’). Neither were Westminster at all concerned about continuing the work on stripping powers from the Scottish Government. The Internal Market Act was the icing on the cake. It provides Westminster with the power to overrule any legislation passed by Holyrood, or to put it more simply, the power to remove any and all differences between Scottish Government policy and UK Government policy. Unfortunately, as with so many things the UK Government do or say, the Scottish Government seem loath to take action, or even argue, against it.
As the election approached, both the new media and the dead tree media were full of comments from both SNP supporters and opponents about the content of the party’s manifesto, stressing the need to include a definite timetable for progress towards independence (supporters) or to exclude any mention of independence altogether (opponents). Many independence supporters were describing this election as the last chance saloon for their continued support of the party. Many were openly asking for the election to be made a plebiscite
The start of the campaign gave no cause for optimism. As election leaflets started to appear, the absence of the word independence became obvious. There was some mention of a referendum, more often than not a ‘legal referendum’ (was that an acceptance of the Section 30 route?) and often accompanied by the phrase ‘after the pandemic’ So far at least, no candidates are repeating the 2017 slogan, ‘a vote for me is not a vote for independence’, but I think that party leaders had decided that saying nothing and allowing voters to assume an intention was better that stating it. Perhaps they remembered that old quotation, It is better to remain silent and risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt, often attributed (misattributed?) to either Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain.
Then came the big day and the launch of the manifesto. As you would expect, it contains loads of promises and spending commitments which I won’t go into, but what does the manifesto say about independence?
- Scotland’s future should be decided by the people of Scotland.
- A draft referendum bill has been published which says an independence referendum should be held in the first half of the next parliament, once the Covid pandemic has passed.
- To be accepted both at home and abroad, the referendum must be accepted as legitimate and constitutional.
- If there is a majority for the independence bill after the election, the SNP will negotiate a transfer of power (section 30) to put a referendum beyond legal challenge and in the hands of the Scottish Government.
- There is no moral or democratic justification for Westminster refusing a transfer of power to hold a referendum.
- Should the Scottish Parliament pass a referendum bill and Westminster take legal action to overturn the decision, the Scottish Government will strenuously defend their position in court.
Was this just a cut and paste job from previous manifestos? It certainly seems so. There’s nothing there we haven’t heard before. However, I can think of one thing somehow missed compared with the 2016 manifesto. Can you remember what it is? Remember the promise to hold a referendum if the UK Government took Scotland out of the EU against our will.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing in this manifesto which promises such definite action, even if we might find it hard to accept any manifesto promises given what happened (or didn’t happen) before. Is it only me who sees a lack of clarity about when a referendum would actually take place or even a guarantee that a referendum will ever take place?
There are some issues inherent in the current Scottish Government viewpoint which need to be addressed.
- The end of the pandemic is undefined and the timing is subject to a judgement call by Nicola Sturgeon.
- The only legitimate referendum is one authorised by the parliament of the country we are seeking to leave.
- The Scottish Government appears to believe that Westminster won’t be able to sustain their refusal to agree a referendum.
- Should Westminster go to court to prevent a referendum, the Scottish Government will defend their position, but what happens if Westminster simply says NO and then does nothing.
- If Westminster refuses to sanction a transfer of power and the Scottish Government goes ahead anyway, what are the plans if unionist controlled councils simply refuse to become involved in referendum planning or if unionist voters refuse to take part.
So the initial signs are not good. It appears the SNP have not heeded the lessons of 2017. It appears they still think they can again campaign for votes in an election while trying to relegate independence to a supporting role. It appears the party of independence have once again shown themselves to be the party of devolution.
Just when all seemed lost and we were to be relegated to taking part in a boring election, with the only decision being whether to vote SNP or not to vote at all, over the hill came the cavalry, waving their blue flags and led by a weel kent face. The appearance of Alba on the scene has made a huge difference to the campaign. Suddenly, those disgusted by the failure of the SNP to advance the independence cause and their desire to concentrate on GRA reform and the (now) Hate Crimes Act had a party closer to their beliefs, a party that really supported independence, a party that supported women’s rights, a party that brought excitement back into the election campaign. Surprisingly, perhaps, the arrival of another independence party wasn’t welcomed by everyone. In particular, one led by Alex Salmond wasn’t welcomed by Nicola Sturgeon. Disappointingly, her comments about Alba always concentrate on her apparent belief that the jury in his trial were completely wrong to clear him. Because of this, she has said she won’t work with Alba if she is First Minister in the new parliament. She has in the past worked with all the Unionist parties. She has worked with the Greens, who don’t really support independence, who are standing against the SNP in 12 constituencies and who are now campaigning to get sex removed from babies birth certificates (apparently they want to call them they-bies). She has even hinted that a coalition with the Greens in the new parliament is possible. But uniquely among all parties likely to be part of the new parliament, she won’t work with the only other independence supporting party. Could it be she doesn’t want the competition?
In a reply to a question during the manifesto briefing, Nicola Sturgeon said that the SNP were re-elected as the party of government in Scotland because the Scottish people trusted them to do their best for Scotland and to deliver on their promises. Trust of the people was what got the party re-elected. I was one of those who placed my trust in Nicola Sturgeon to deliver independence in my lifetime. Well, Nicola, trust is one thing in increasingly short supply at the moment. When you became First Minister, a huge proportion of the Scottish people trusted you to continue the work started by Alex Salmond, to continue the fight for independence, to do whatever was necessary to bring Scottish independence closer. More than six years of inaction has seen that trust eroded, so much so that there are probably as many people in the independence movement now who don’t trust you to bring independence closer as those who do. And the don’t trust numbers are growing.
To quote from Nicola Sturgeon’s presentation of the manifesto, “holding an independence referendum campaign during a pandemic would be a dereliction of duty”. There are many of us, myself included, that think not taking any action to get independence, particularly at a time when the Westminster government are weak, is an even bigger dereliction of her duty to the Scottish people.
What do you think?