Kenny MacAskill offers a welcoming hand to those now seeing independence as a credible option
Boris Johnson’s rejection of a Section 30 Order was hardly unexpected and the First Minister never possessed a Plan B as some hoped. So where now for the independence left? In many ways, rather than being seen as a set-back, it should be considered as an opportunity. It allows for the campaign base to be built, the policy platform to be secured and – most of all – the necessary unity to be forged.
This is a unity that is necessary not just to achieve the goal of independence but to protect the Scottish people from the threat that’s looming from the ‘transformative agenda’ for post-Brexit Britain – a euphemism that all on the left know to be the privatisation of the social infrastructure built up over generations. Moreover, that unity does not require all to support independence. That’s a matter of personal choice but as alternative options appear unpalatable or unachievable its growing amongst many, even some diehards who renounce nationalism. For it’s about Scotland’s right to choose whatever that may be. As in Catalonia, it’s becoming as much about democracy as it is about identity. For that reason, the ‘nationalist left’ should welcome all comers, irrespective of the final position they take on independence.
For, as others have recently argued, no party has the monopoly on independence: the more the merrier whether entire parties, wings of them or simply individuals. Likewise, it’s not just about political parties but unions and civic Scotland. The cause is bigger than any individual group and wider than simply those who operate in the political sphere.
For that reason, the First Minister’s call for a constitutional convention is welcome and hopefully will be embraced by most on the left. It mustn’t though be restricted to the suits and usual suspects. A far wider not just audience but participation is needed. Moreover, it cannot simply be a central and one-off gathering of the ‘great and the good’. Instead, it needs to be an embryonic body that can bring together progressive opinion in Scotland, forge agreement and prepare both a way forward, as well as building defences to the threats we face.
Nationalists, rather than questioning motive or berating past positions, should simply welcome new allies and the shared agenda. It has also to be replicated locally, reflecting not just the strength of the ‘yes’ movement in 2014 but also the historic basis of the labour and trade union movement in Scotland. This must be a popular movement in defence of the people and ground up, not top down. It has also to be about protecting rights and services as much as discussing constitutional issues. Independence must be relevant to people’s daily life’s and not esoteric political theory.
A constitutional convention isn’t an alternative to or substitute for the Citizens’ Assembly. It is a separate institution focusing on people and their opinions on a wide range of issues. It’s to be supported as well as welcomed. It’s long overdue and will compliment other activities with an evidence base and, perhaps, even surprising views. A constitutional convention is a separate institution based on coordinating political strategy amongst the organised political forces that already exist (though beyond parties). It’s not either or but both that are required.
Political strategy is, therefore, required but so is practical action. Marching and flag waving are all good and well. But votes they don’t win and services they don’t protect. Work has to start in communities. Engaging with people, feeling their pain as austerity bites and offering hope to those simply enduring. It’s not glamorous and its mostly political ‘grunt’ work. But it needs done.
The greatest danger to our cause, whether independence or socialism, comes from defeatism and that’s why direct engagement not just marching through is needed. Folk need to know we care and that we’re acting to defend them. There’s a place for marches and demonstrations but fewer and bigger ones will have far greater effect and achieve more coverage.
It’s for the constitutional convention to prepare the strategy for going forward. But to paraphrase Canon Kenyon Wright, Boris Johnson may say ‘no’ but we are the people and we say ‘yes’. Parties supporting the right to choose require to be ready to move after the 2021 election.
The Tories can bluff and bluster but that cannot continue indefinitely. A decade of victories by independence parties may well see them acknowledge the inevitable. History is littered with British pledges of irredentism on constitutional matters that have always seen the sun set on the empire’s outpost. Scotland’s no different and, frankly, a growing number of English Tories now see it not just as inevitable but positively beneficial.
If that doesn’t happen then action needs taken to progress Scotland’s right to choose. Many believe, whatever the First Minister may think, that a consultative referendum is legally possible. There may well be judicial approval for it. But even if there isn’t then the organisation of one is also a democratic right. Test it legally and see and if not, then it’s Plan B. For, as Parnell said, no one can restrict the march of a nation. But to achieve that and then deliver it, unity and organisation are required – which is the role of the convention and why unions, councils and others need to be on board. So, defending locally but preparing nationally aren’t mutually exclusive but essential factors.
Kenny MacAskill is the SNP MP for East Lothian. Previously, he was a SNP MSP from 1999 to 2016. He is author of ‘Glasgow 1919: The Rise of Red Clydeside’ and ‘Jimmy Reid: A Scottish Political Journey’.