The State of the Yes Movement: A pre-election reflection

As I write this, we are reaching the end of campaigning season in preparation for the May elections in Scotland, and I can’t help but to already begin reflecting upon the kind of messaging that we were presented with from the major parties throughout.

We’ve seen the Tories unable to decide whether they “love” Scotland like a weird uncle bearing awful gifts, or like an unruly servant in need of a firm hand. We’ve seen Labour, predictably still unable to reconcile itself with the political shift that happened in 2014, calling for a “new politics” while purging itself from anyone actually willing to look said “new politics” in the eye. And we’ve seen the SNP embroiled in an internal scandal gone national between two of its heaviest hitting personalities, that could yet spell a “new normal” of having a right-wing pro-independence party in Scottish politics – depending on what happens to them after the election, given their abysmal standing in the polls.

Now don’t get me wrong: it’s not all bad. The SNP pledges for this election were actually rather good compared to previous years, showing the leadership at least recognises that they are in fact not invulnerable. But that’s not what the dynamic of this election is all about. Instead, it is largely about the one thing that Labour’s leadership would rather never speak of again: Scottish independence, and a referendum on whether it is Westminster, or Holyrood that is better at governing the country. The continuous polling of independence sentiment in Scotland largely reflects this dynamic, all the way down to a near one-to-one correspondence when comparing the projected list votes with the state of the Yes vote.

For the SNP this is a risky strategy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The Yes vote has seen big gains during the wild mismanagement that Johnson’s government has been partaking in for the past year, but it is quickly returning back to its previous steady state as we approach the point of needing to actually put our money where our mouths are. There can be no doubt that many will be carefully observing the reaction of the voters in the days after the 26th of April, when lockdown measures are due to be eased just under two weeks before polling day. Will it be a poll gain for Holyrood, or for Westminster? For Yes, or for No? The magic 8-ball says: ask again later.

I cannot be the only one troubled by this dynamic. It is worth remembering there was a time when the SNP was not the dominating power in Scottish politics, prior to the announcement of the 2014 independence referendum. Unhappiness with Scottish Labour’s complacency and entitlement may have been growing prior to then, but the SNP was by no means assured to be in government every Scottish election cycle – until the end of the referendum spelled certain doom for the panicked establishment in the 2015 elections.

While the Yes campaign saw its share of “Westminster vs Holyrood” messaging during the referendum campaigning period, it was by no means a one-note campaign. Other parties than the SNP also made impressive gains in both membership and support, with the largest beneficiary being the Greens, followed by (at the time at least) the Scottish Socialist Party. Both of these parties did not just campaign for independence, but rather for a vision of Scotland after independence. Socialism and sustainability were two very common and popular themes, and the referendum period itself ushered Scotland into what can only be described as a prolonged period of political revival. Support for the SNP in many spaces was, and still is, deeply conditional: they were the party that would help to push our country on the path to independence, so that the part of Scottish politics that has been strangled by the UK’s electoral system can finally emerge within the bounds of a new and different system unburdened with English politics. Once they have done their job, the wide spectrum alliance would end in favour of a democratic process to decide a new course for Scotland.

The political revival enabled by this stance has by now almost depleted its momentum. It could be renewed by a second independence referendum finally becoming a reality, but with the current state of the polls we are realistically presented with a “chicken or the egg” problem. While there remains a relatively large margin of undecided voters, the heaving and hoing of the polls is likely to lead nowhere fast. We could wait in the hope that Westminster finds the current situation unpalatable and finally accepts the continuous calls for another referendum, but this likely won’t lead to anywhere in particular either if no additional action is taken. The SNP, for all of the criticism they face for not being able to deliver another vote in a clear and direct way, are stuck between an independence movement rock and a Tory-led Westminster hard place, and will continue to be stuck until the independence polls show a clear and stable majority for Yes. And without a campaign for Yes based on a well laid out vision of what an independent Scotland could look like, it is extremely unlikely that this will happen on its own. Even unionists take note of this in the hopes of taking advantage of it while they prepare their (already rather shambolic) Union task force.

If there is one thing the emergence of this task force shows, it is the lack of substance present in the SNP’s “vision” for an independent Scotland. For all of the task force’s incompetence, it nominally exists to present a proposal for Scotland’s future in the UK and outmanoeuvre the SNP by forcing it to strain its cross-class alliances. The SNP leadership knows it cannot solve this problem without alienating sections of its supporters, even while it is tasked with governing the country within the Westminster context. That the party continue to successfully navigate this tricky political tightrope is applause worthy, and its political teflon in the wake of the Salmond scandal only serves to reinforce this further.

But where does this leave us grassroots campaigners? It leaves us, perhaps unsurprisingly, in need of a campaign. And maybe that is exactly what needs to happen next. The Radical Independence Campaign, recently suffering from an attempt at a forceful disband by an inactive minority, is now being carefully put back together by those who have been inspired by the ideas coming out of its grassroots back during the original referendum. The campaign did not simply trail the SNP during the previous referendum period, but rather forged its own path by targeting areas of Scotland traditionally abandoned by mainstream politics to great success.

Back then, the main independence campaign suffered from a lack of interest in those who were abandoned by the system and most ready for a change. Today one of the biggest problems of the mainstream independence cause is a lack of a convincing path forward for independence, and a troubling lack of vision for an independent Scotland itself. The Growth Commission Report can only be described as the SNP equivalent of the well known (and far more recent) statement from Joe Biden: “Nothing will fundamentally change”. Perhaps that is what a campaign like RIC can challenge today, and why it is so necessary for it to become a place for democratic and inclusive discussion and action. An incubator for a better vision of what an independent Scotland could look like that can finally push us through to the next checkpoint.

Cover Photo: Documenting Yes / Alex Aitchison

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