A FEW weeks ago, in this paper, George Kerevan advocated the creation of “a new Scottish National Convention or congress, as a genuine united front body to spearhead the campaign for a second referendum”. I’d like to second that proposal and suggest those with cash, energy and contacts get on with the job by kick-starting discussions over the summer and across the country, so we have a plan to endorse and act upon by the autumn.
Why? George put it well: “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.”
And the key word there is “inevitably”.
It is inevitable that the interests of one political party and the wider Yes movement don’t always coincide. And if that party also runs the Scottish Government and the second largest opposition party at Westminster at a time of international crisis, it is indeed inevitable that advocating the disruptive case for independence will always come second to the “steady-as-she-goes” day job. So, this isn’t personal. Sure, almost everyone in the wider Yes movement has disagreed with SNP policy or strategy at some time. But given that we represent half the electorate, and come from every conceivable demographic and political tradition, that’s hardly surprising. Nor is a new official Yes campaign an attempt to usurp the unique, elected position of the FM. Au contraire, the presence of another vehicle in the independence race might reduce the overwhelming pressure on the SNP leader to be all things to all people, all of the time. I ken she might not see it that way … at first. For a woman who exerts considerable control over her own party and government, the idea of a freelance operation setting up shop in her political neighbourhood may appear threatening. It isn’t meant to be.
Of course, it would be naïve to think an official Yes Campaign (Convention, Congress or other title) would be immune from the personality clashes and straightforward differences of opinion that bedevil political parties. But a movement isn’t a political party, it isn’t about selecting or even endorsing candidates, it isn’t running a country and isn’t bound by the electoral cycle.
What a movement can do is hold the big debates the SNP are reluctant to have, harness energies that are currently scatter-gunning on to (some) non-viable projects and start discussion about the kind of post-Covid economy and society an independent Scotland could be heading towards. Essentially the movement could act like a big and semi-virtual version of the IdeasSpace Robin McAlpine (mostly) set up a few years ago on the other side of the Clyde from an overpriced and overcautious SNP conference. Its successful presence didn’t seem to throw the current SNP leadership off stride.
So, what’s to lose?
Trying to generate excitement and debate over a semi-locked-down summer may be difficult, but online meetings allow a far broader geographical reach of participants than usual. The task will be to set up a movement that encourages diversity without losing the critical mass and familiarity that must develop between protagonists to get any new enterprise off the ground.
READ MORE: History of Scottish independence: The Yes campaign and devolution
Above all, a new indy campaign, properly constituted, gives the media another pro-Yes voice, producers of BBC Question Time should be relieved to hear. But leaders will only be asked if the organisation has credibility – within the wider Yes movment first, and then wider civic society.
Leadership is something many lefties and feminists balk at – too often it’s an excuse for domination by one person with an uncontrollable ego and their bag carriers. But it’s also a necessity.
AND the danger of getting that crucial leadership choice wrong is the biggest single reason there hasn’t been an official Yes campaign since 2014. Who should run it, who gets to decide and how can one single body possibly speak for a wheen of independence supporting groups and individuals, without constantly seeking consent and approval? Learning from the difficulties faced by the Scottish Independence Convention, any new group must (like them) try to reflect the whole, wide Yes movement without developing such unwieldy structures that it’s hard to make decisions, get media airtime or anything done.
Learning from the SNP, though, a movement must not reproduce the “one-singer-one-song” style of leadership that’s caused so much frustration – even though the “top-down” template feels so natural in Scotland that any different model will be hard to argue for. Needless to say, the new movement must also feel like a welcoming place for members of all political parties and none. A very tall order.
So, perhaps the new Yes campaign should not try to do more than a few specific tasks – media rebuttal, policy development and dissemination events – in conjunction with groups that already do these things well. After all, local groups have survived without central support for a very long time – and are maybe all the stronger for that.
Indeed, in the absence of one centrally organised Yes campaign, a distributed Yes movement has been created almost organically, with campaigning functions delivered not by one national “high command” but an array of voluntary groups, whose areas of activity and expertise are informally acknowledged by the others. The Radical Independence Campaign organises extremely thought-provoking and open discussion events; The National is not just an ideas hub and paper but has funded a rebuttal unit; All Under One Banner organises marches and has moved into activist training (likewise Yes Registry); Business for Scotland articulates a business case and has moved into publishing campaigning material; Women for Independence organises women; the Scottish Independence Foundation has a war chest for indy-related projects, and so does Chris Weir; Independence Live livestreams events and has a radio station; Common Weal does policy development, and Yes groups do grassroots organisation.
I’ve long thought local Yes groups should form a national federation, to create a countervailing influence to any national Yes organisation which will inevitably attract professionals and marginalise the working-class voices in local groups. But even though regional Yes groups have evolved, the process hasn’t been easy and the idea of creating a “top” layer is evidently too daunting for folk trying to keep local activism going whilst also coping with lockdown, furlough and unemployment.
Most of these groups operate without a bean – but all are expanding numbers, ambition and reach and will naturally worry if a new kid in town starts sooking up all available resources.
Those are the difficulties that’ve stopped a standalone Yes campaign being set up so far. But they are not insurmountable. Perhaps over time it will be more obvious how a new Yes movement can operate with the existing indy stalwarts and without standing on toes.
We have a long and hopefully hot summer ahead. Time enough to consult and reach a consensus. So, let’s not rush this – but let’s do it.