HERE is the bad news: the national movement in Scotland is divided – on tactics and on what independence means. The good news is that this is normal. National movements – precisely because they are focused on one single, over-riding political goal – attract wide currents of opinion. Rarely have such united fronts been stable for terribly long.
For instance, the fight for Indian freedom from the hell of British rule was deeply divided on religion (between Hindu and Muslim), class (Gandhi’s Indian National Congress was decidedly an upper class affair wary of inciting peasant unrest) and on tactics (between Gandhi’s non-violence and the revolutionaries led by Bose). More recently, in Catalonia, there have been deep divisions between supporters of outright independence and those (in the immediate post-Franco years) who thought devolution was preferable to provoking a fresh wave of oppression from Madrid.
In fact, on a historical basis, Scotland stands out as having a fairly united national movement led by the Scottish National Party. The SNP emerged in 1934 as the result of a series of mergers of tiny pro-independence groups. Even then, the early years were dominated by internal tensions over direction: whether to seek national unity around a call for internal home rule (aka “devo max”) or go for outright separation. Only in the 1960s, with home rule a political dead duck, did the SNP start to gain traction.
Even then, divisions re-emerged. During the turbulent 1970s, the party in Scotland moved to the left and clashed repeatedly with the party’s more conservative MPs at Westminster. When the SNP lost nine of its 11 seats in 1979, civil war broke out between left and right, leading to the expulsion of the pro-civil disobedience 79 Group. Eventually, given the economic havoc wreaked by Thatcherism, the party healed its wounds. Indeed, the near-death experience of the 1970s created a fierce determination inside the SNP never again to appear divided.
What, then, has changed? During the period until the election of the first devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999, the SNP was a genuine grassroots movement rather than a conventional political party. You joined to fight for independence, not to seek a career. The few SNP MPs lived a lonely existence in London, shunned by the establishment parties.
I remember in 2007, when the SNP formed its first-ever government at Holyrood, a senior civil servant telling me how refreshing the new nationalist ministers were. For starters, unlike the outgoing Labour hacks, SNP ministers trained in the movement actually wanted to get things done.
Today, the SNP have been in government for 13 years. For 21 years, since Winnie Ewing famously declared the Scottish Parliament back in business, joining the party has become a career choice – not simply a lifetime commitment to knock on doors in the rain, attend endless meetings, remember to bring something for the inevitable raffle, and weep silently when some Labour nonentity won the election you had given your all for.
The SNP now command an absolute majority in the polls – astounding for a party in its 13th year of continuous government. Much of this popularity is down to the way the First Minister has handled the coronavirus crisis.
So why are independence supporters – as opposed to the general voter – so uneasy? Why has the movement’s much-vaunted self-discipline begun to break down? Why are there moves to launch several new, competing independence parties? Is this division the result of ambition, impatience, or legitimate frustration?
In one obvious sense, the new tension in the movement is a child of the SNP’s very success. Being in government for 13 years has bred several bad habits in the leadership team. Policy is formed by paid special advisers and senior civil servants, not the party’s grassroots.
THAT breeds alienation in the long haul, especially when conference resolutions are ignored. SNP ministers (and occasionally Westminster MPs) automatically assume they speak for the movement on policy, occasionally with breath-taking arrogance.
Meanwhile, protecting the party’s control of Holyrood has begun to dominate the historic mission to win independence. As a result, the SNP Government has grown more and more cautious.
Local government finance reform has long since been kicked into the long grass and councils reduced to appendages of St Andrew’s House. Vested interests are indulged in case the political boat is rocked, particularly when it comes to Big Oil and landed property.
Yes, I do understand that democratic government is the art of maintaining political balance and that the FM is good at it. But the national movement is about abolishing vested interests protected by Westminster, not pandering
to them. Also, the FM is both leader of a government (in the middle of the most dangerous social crisis since the Second World War) and the titular leader of a movement aimed at breaking up the British state. Inevitably, these twin responsibilities collide.
The FM chose unwisely when she abandoned the campaign for a second referendum in the wake of the 2017 snap General Election. This triggered the grassroots All Under One Banner demonstrations. The FM responded – in an obvious bid to keep control – by declaring there would be a referendum in 2020 and she would force Boris Johnson to agree one. Nobody believed this claim – especially Boris. As a result, had it not been for the Covid-19 crisis, the FM would be looking politically vulnerable just now.
What to do? Launching a new, pro-indy list party is in many ways a diversion. It does not deal with the urgent necessity of separating the leadership of the SNP Government from the leadership of the independence movement per se.
This requires the creation of a new Scottish National Convention or Congress, as a genuine united front body to spearhead the campaign for a second referendum. This would copy the Catalan National Assembly as an umbrella body representing grassroots indy groups, with its own campaign budget. Inside the SNP, there is a desperate need for radical political renewal. The SNP Government has drifted too much to the right. I know all the arguments for governing from the “centre”. But the Scottish political centre is far to the left of the free market model proffered in Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission report.
Besides, the economic crisis unleashed by Covid-19 has undermined the neoliberal, free market model for good, necessitating a major economic rethink by the SNP.
Already there are groupings inside the party heading in that direction: the new SNP Common Weal Group, SNP Socialists, and the SNP Trades Union Group. These have to co-operate to drive the SNP leftwards. New party or not, electing a majority SNP Government in 2021 that is headed even further to the right does not bode well for the goal of independence – or transforming Scotland when it is achieved.
The SNP dominate the polls today. Yet so do the Tories down south despite the UK Government’s serial incompetence in dealing with Covid-19. The current polling numbers, north and south of the Border, are a temporary aberration born of a public desire for security.
Inevitably, normal political service will resume next year. At which point the national movement needs to have turned outward from its present divisions – or face defeat. And the SNP has to be set on a new course.