What independence has to do to win
The National, 14 June 2022
The Scottish Government will make an important announcement on independence today; one long awaited by independence supporters. It has long been apparent that the 2014 offer needs not just updating but completely revising and that serious, substantive work needs to be done.
Fundamental to this is not just the usual suspects mentioned – currency, borders, finance, EU membership – but the issue of how independence embodies and champions democracy.
The independence offer is often portrayed by its supporters as personifying democracy in principle – Scotland’s right to decide, opposing Westminster – and not in reality in everyday life. In the past few months I have been thinking and writing about independence and how it presents its case for a new book coming out in the autumn.
For one, any Scottish Government White Paper cannot just be sprung on voters and independence supporters as it was in 2014. Then it just appeared from the civil service with no consultation or dialogue and we were left with a take it or leave it approach.
The reasoning given by the SNP then was that we were in the midst of an ongoing formal campaign and they had no other option. No such excuse is available now and any ‘tablet of stone’ dropped from on high will be because the SNP want to keep control as much as is possible of the offer and politics.
A better approach would be to make sure that independence was owned and created by a wider constituency. This could involve consultative forums, and road-testing messages and themes. And maybe even not relying on one single paper as in 2014, but on a series of separately themed papers as the UK Government did in their assessment of independence.
Related to this are the pathways of how Scotland becomes more democratic and participative. Scotland is a fairly centralised country under devolution and the SNP and people need reassurance that independence will not see a further concentration of power in a sovereign Parliament.
One way of reassuring people is by embracing popular processes of participation, while another is accepting that under independence the Scottish Parliament and Government will be limited in their power in relation to other public institutions such as local government and citizens. One way to do this could be a draft constitution.
For this to have traction there has to be an acknowledgement that the Scottish Parliament and existing arrangements do not do a very good job at democracy and holding power to account. Think of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, Glasgow School of Art and its serial mismanagement and too many of our public services: schools, health, police.
The previous White Paper took a benign view of the Scottish Parliament and its role in accountability – a stance that eight years on has even less credibility and looks strikingly complacent.
These observations are not optional add-ons but go to the centre of how politics and power is done and how the future Scotland is mapped out – questions which involve issues of trust and honesty.
We do have some wear and tear to deal with. Fifteen years of the SNP in office and seven years of Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister. The record of the SNP in office has begun to gather significant negatives, the political antenna and feel the party (as is always the case with incumbents) has begun to weaken, and all of this has an impact on independence.
Independence was always about more than the SNP, but they are fundamental to providing a bridge to the future. The SNP are pivotal to independence’s offer but this has to be about more than them – with independence owned, created and speaking to a wider Scotland.
Under the Sturgeon leadership there has been little sign of strategy on independence – and instead a continual ‘grand old Duke of York’ approach, of ‘marching the troops up to the top of the hill’ and ‘marching them down again’. This is not good politics and has a detrimental effect on independence supporters.
There has been no attempt to counsel the wider independence movement on any real aspects of the subject; to involve and inspire them, and to create a more widely owned, energised independence, or to fess up to and address the risks and threats inherent in independence which those unconvinced are worried about. And critically there has been no attempt to speak to and comprehend the Scotland that has yet to be convinced.
People who still support No come in all shades and types. Many like the idea of independence but worry about detail, of the SNP hoarding power, or Scotland and accountability – or some of those thorny questions constantly raised.
Many do not even think of themselves as ‘unionists’, just as many independence supporters do not see themselves as ‘nationalists’. We have to be careful not to label everyone No with one brush and dismiss them as ‘Yoons’. That is to caricature, denigrate and not understand the rich tapestry of reasons that have brought people to where they are.
Many are sceptical or wary of embracing the change and disruption that goes with independence and just think it is not worth the bother. This is where independence has to have the honesty to acknowledge that there will be some pain in the early years, but that it will be worth it for the gain. Many even see themselves as apolitical in that they just don’t want to think about such big issues unless they have to.
Hence the past eight years have seen a kind of phoney trench warfare – with neither Yes or No having the insight or confidence to make a strategic move to reset the debate. Such attempts might not work but neither has tried.
The UK has conspicuously failed to address the decaying, corrupt political system and has actually become much worse. The Yes side has not addressed the economic dimension, risk, and how power is held to account now and in an independent Scotland.
Yes only wins by embodying the Scotland of the future: by being generous, open and ecumenical. But for this to be convincing it has to be connected to a realistic path from the present to the future.
That can be aided by an independence politics that has a different Yes vision and processes, engages in constitution building, and greater democracy. It would be aware of vested interests and insider groups and how all power wants to accrue more and more authority to itself and hence has to be checked – including in Scotland.
An independence with the SNP at its centre, but where the SNP leadership has the confidence in itself to loosen control would be an enormous advance, and even liberation, for the cause. And it would be one much more likely to convince those yet unconvinced, to frame the debate, and to ultimately win independence.