Firstly, a history lesson.
In the second half of the last century (doesn’t that seem such a long time ago) and the beginning of this one, Scotland voted Labour at every UK general election, because there was no alternative for those hoping for a left leaning government, the sort of government that would be good for ordinary working people. Labour used the fear of right-wing government as their main campaign argument. Vote Labour to stop the Tories was what they always said. However, more often than not, even when Scotland voted Labour in large numbers, they didn’t get the government they wanted because English voters had voted Conservative and, because of their much larger numbers, English voters pretty much always got what they wanted.
This was the situation in 2010. Scotland again voted to stop the Tories, giving Labour 41 seats. Again it was a waste of time, as the Tories, with the help of the LibDems, gained power again in the UK. However, this time there was going to be a difference.
In 1999, Scotland’s Parliament had been reconvened and after an eight year spell of relatively unsuccessful Labour control with some help from the LibDems (again), the SNP took charge in 2007, leading a minority government. Perhaps, Labour should have taken more notice of the Holyrood result, because it only got worse in 2011. An absolute majority for the SNP (this wasn’t supposed to be possible, the whole system was created to prevent it) led to the eventually unsuccessful independence referendum. But what followed the referendum was an enormous upsurge in popularity for the SNP and the huge increase in membership.
At the next UK election in 2015, Labour went with the same (tired?) strategy of vote for us to stop the Tories, but when the results were announced, the SNP took all but three of the Scottish seats, leaving only one each for Labour, Tories and LibDems. Thus, in the space of 5 years, a tiny amount of time for such a seismic shift, Labour had been reduced from half a century of dominance in Scotland to irrelevance, a drop of 97.5% in a single election, the biggest fall from grace in UK politics, possibly the biggest in world politics.
So what’s the point of this history lesson, which most of you will already know. What it illustrates is that in Scotland today, it’s possible for political changes to happen very quickly, when a dominant party with a tried and tested strategy which it repeatedly uses in its election campaigning, has a history of not delivering on it.
In Scotland today, the SNP are the dominant party, having won practically every election at every level since 2007, the only blots being the aforementioned 2010 UK election and, of course, the 2014 independence referendum, though the latter was a Yes loss, not just an SNP loss. The SNP are, of course, the party of independence, created for that very purpose in 1934. After a number of false dawns, their move from being just a minor part of the Scottish political scene to their current position began in 2007 as described above. Their campaigning in each election has always emphasised their commitment to the independence cause, such as last year’s:
“Let’s put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands, and escape from Brexit. Vote SNP on December 12th.”
But recently, despite the apparent level of commitment to independence in pre-election campaigning, many supporters have become increasingly disturbed that winning campaigns haven’t translated into party calls for a fresh independence referendum. In post election speeches, party leaders have emphasised the need for patience, saying that independence wouldn’t be won by rushing before they were ready.
Supporters have separated into two opposing camps, those who follow the party line that independence won’t be won by rushing and those who have concerns that delay, particularly delay until we’re completely out of the EU by the end of this year, could cost us the opportunity by allowing Westminster to change the rules to prevent a referendum (so it’s Delayers vs Rushers). Unfortunately, discussions between the two sides have often descended into increasingly bitter arguments, with accusations from the delayers that the other side are not real independence supporters and rushers claiming the party were spending too much time on Brexit to the virtual exclusion of independence, threatening to cancel their party membership and find another way to achieve independence.
But, for change to happen, there has to be an alternative. Labour’s downfall came about because there was another centre-left party (assuming you still think of Labour as centre-left) with a proven record of competence just waiting in the wings. So we would need an alternative and that alternative would have to be available pretty soon.
So how could change come about? It has been suggested that we need a new independence party, relegating the SNP to a government role only. However, those suggesting that should think how long it took for the SNP to become a real political force. Can we afford to wait 20 years, or even 80 years, for a new party to reach the dizzy heights currently occupied by the SNP. The same holds true for the suggestion of a list only independence party, which, in any case, would have to be created from scratch in 15 months and would only apply in the Holyrood election. The history of small independence-supporting parties in the list is not full of success. Even the Greens, a pretty well-known independence-supporting party, only won six seats in 2016.
So what should independence supporters do. My view is that we have no chance of gaining independence without a big political hitter. We need a large independence-supporting party in Holyrood to be the focus of any future campaign and, at the moment, there is no choice other than the SNP. Like many, I have reservations about the party’s current strategy and I have serious concerns that the dangers of delaying a referendum till next year, or even later, have not been sufficiently taken into account. However, until it becomes certain that the party no longer supports independence or there is a clear well-established alternative, I cannot, in all conscience, refuse to support the one party that can bring it about.
To all those SNP members who have quit the party or who are thinking of doing so, to all those Yessers who have said they will no longer support the SNP, think carefully whether what you’re doing is going to bring independence closer.