Calling the troops to the field of battle in a longer war

Jim Sillars thinks through the stages and issues in the struggle for independence

I start by not apologising for being pedantic. We have to plan to get an overwhelming majority in Holyrood to get a referendum on independence, and plan for the fact that even when we win it, we don’t get independence next day, and will still have much to do.

There are not one but five stages to achieving independence. These are: 1) building support; 2) getting a super majority MSPs into Holyrood next May with a mandate for a referendum; 3) levering a Section 30 (S30) order out of Westminster; 4) placing before the people the reasons for a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum; and 5) negotiations on a Scottish-UK treaty that brings independence. Stages 4 and 5 might seem a bit down the road, but stage 4 is crucial to winning a referendum, and stage 5 is crucial to much that will mould an independent Scotland for many years to come. The independence movement should be working on them now.

If the latest (August) polling at 55% for independence is to be believed, then we are doing well in stage 1. Is it sustainable and solid enough to build the vote higher? It would be prudent to doubt the polls, because they are taken in an unusual period when the Westminster governmental system is seen as grossly incompetent in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, and when Nicola Sturgeon’s presentation skills show the superiority of the Scottish education system that formed her, compared with the ‘ers,’ umns,’ and ‘ahs’ that Etonian Boris Johnson requires before he can choose a word or phrase that has meaning. (Please note the past tense about the Scottish education system.)

The problem with polls taken in mid-2020 asking if the interviewees will vote for independence is that they are under no pressure, because there is no decision, no vote now to be cast right now. It is, of course, heartening to find independence ahead in the polls, but we have to avoid the danger of believing they reflect reality in the surreal world that Covid-19 has created. But saying that, we have to be aware also of another aspect of the polls that is positive: an important influence in the battle between us and the Unionists (north and south) is about who is in the political ascendancy; and it is noticeable that these polls have seriously damaged the Unionists’ belief in their potential to hold off independence.

Before leaving the polls and stage 1, we should ask two questions: if true, is the support they indicate based on the performance of the SNP government? Or has the blundering incompetence of the Johnson government burst the myth that Scotland, for its salvation, has to shelter under the powerful umbrella of the UK? There is a difference between those two. If the latter, then it is independence per se, irrespective of how a nationalist government performs, that matters. We must hope it is the latter, because if it is the performance of the former, it would not be hard for a decent Labour opposition to demolish the SNP government’s reputation before next May’s elections.

It is that SNP governmental performance that worries me when considering how, in stage 2, we get that overwhelming majority next May. Richard Leonard, like John Swinney, is an eminently decent chap; but like John is not fit for purpose. Everyone in politics knows that to be the case, and as Labour in Scotland is still only a branch of British Labour, we should anticipate change will be imposed. Starmer will need to act, because without a resurgent Labour party in Scotland, he cannot win the next general election, and he cannot win four years hence if next May Labour is reduced to a rump, if it is lucky.

That leads to the most pertinent question in stage 2 – will the independence movement put all its eggs in the SNP basket next May? That would not be sensible. The SNP will put its main effort into defending its constituency seats, ‘hoping’ to pick up List seats which will be few if it succeeds in its primary effort.
That is where the idea of an independence alliance standing on the List, in strategically picked regions, becomes sensible. It should be able to get SNP voters’ second votes, pick up List seats and swell the number of MSPs with a referendum mandate. That, of course, requires the SNP to act as part of the broad movement, not from a narrow party position, and withdraw from those strategic List regions.

Is the SNP leadership big enough to acknowledge that it is now, unlike in the fallow years, only part of a movement, and has to take into account the views of others on how best to fight next May’s elections? If the objective of success is met in stage 2, then there is the question of plan B in stage 3 if Westminster says no to a S30. This is absorbing much time and debate, which I think will not be necessary if we get that overwhelming majority in Holyrood. There are clear signs that the London government knows it will not be able to sustain a ‘No’ in the face of that mandate. That is what makes the SNP reaction and decision on the independence alliance approach on a new List tactic so important. Nicola Sturgeon says independence is her priority. Let’s see if that is true.

Jim Sillars is a former Labour and SNP MP and is currently writing his memoirs.