On Saturday 11th March, 2017, I went along to a meeting of a campaigning group called ‘Yes Perth City’ at the Salutation Hotel. It was a very interesting hour.
The opening of this event was heralded by the opening of a large cardboard tube. From this was extracted a roll of glossy paper.
“This was purchased just the other day… in Germany!”
“It’s a map of Europe, after Brexit”
And the map, dated 2019, showed Scotland, coloured in; part of the EU. England, Wales and Northern Ireland, forming the residue of the United Kingdom, are excluded. This was viewed with glee by the chairman of the event; I am unclear as to whether others present shared my concern at this introduction.
The rest of the presentation was a routine description of organisational strength building, and evangelical outreach to 'No' voters who constitute, now as well as in 2014, 60% of the people in Perth and Kinross. Routine stuff; until that is, we got to the Q and A. Then things got livelier.
My first question concerned the message being communicated by the Yes campaign; how is it decided? With such matters as allegiance to the EU disputed by the former deputy leader of the SNP, Jim Sillars, several SNP MSPs and some 400,000 SNP supporters who voted for Brexit, this is clearly a matter open to debate. Where is the debate conducted? Where are the ideas worked out and the decisions made as to exactly what “Yes” means? I received no answer other than to point to the socialist group Common Weal as a generator of ideas. How those ideas are tested and by what means they become official “Yes” policy remains a mystery to me.
Next I asked how those Scots, the majority, who consider their identity to be both Scottish and British would have their sense of British-ness accommodated. How would a second independence campaign (so called indyref2) reach out to them and make them feel at home? No Answer again. Peter Bell of SNP Perth at this point was talking over me a fair bit and told me that identity did not matter, that people have all sorts of identities from a whole host of sources and that my question was therefore invalid. This is a surprising response, as I would have thought that, of all places, this meeting would contain people who know the value of national identity. It seemed that the top table did not wish to engage with the issue.
By this point, things were a little heated. My last question (I was told it was my last question) concerned the lack of a proposed Scottish Constitution. In a future Indyref2 the people of Scotland will need to choose between the British Constitution (which is written down, lest anyone claim otherwise) and …nothing. The constitution of a new, independent Scotland would only be written after we vote for it. This concerns me as it is a little like signing a cheque and allowing someone else to fill in the amount later. Now I think of it, it is a lot like that. How can the Scottish people decide without knowing what, exactly, they are voting for or against?
After a brief interlude of Peter Bell telling me that was not the right question and trying to explain what question I should have asked, we moved on to the rest of the panel. They were more helpful. I was told that Indyref2 would deal not so much with specific policies and detail but with “options and potentialities”. After a vote for independence there would be a negotiation with Westminster over the terms and then a constitutional convention to decide what sort of national government we would have. And then that government would last for 1000 years! Yes, I was actually told that, like the Third Reich, and the Kingdom of God (which utopian visionaries are always sure they can bring about), the new Scotland would last a thousand years!
Other questions from the floor followed, including one highlighting the need to talk to, not at, people in order to persuade 'No' voters.
At the end of the event, one of the pro-independence activists sitting next to me turned and said “well I’d like to have those questions answered too”. As I chatted with the activists at the end of the formal discussion I found them friendly and engaged and not at all reluctant to debate the issues. It seems that, in the rush to prepare the machinery of a second independence campaign, no one has really grappled with the big questions and that those running the campaign have no wish to start now. This may prove to be a fatal error for the Independence campaign in the event that Nicola Sturgeon actually does call a second referendum.
My overall impression of the majority of those attending this meeting was of a likeable bunch led by some very hard-headed individuals who may not, when all is revealed, have much in common with the vast majority of their countrymen. The lack of any questioning of the anti-British and pro-EU stance that constitutes the mainstream in nationalist politics north of the border is worrying. As I outline in the recent article, Redcoats and Red Herrings, this seems a policy a generation out of date. With the EU on the verge of failure, unpopular with people all across the continent; and with an ongoing migrant crisis generating national feeling from Hungary to Holland, why would Scotland choose this moment to swap the Union with the rest of the UK for the Brussels alternative?
The world is changing, and changing fast. The slowness of the thinking on display in our political circles is leaving an increasingly wide gap between the political debate and reality. Donald Trump came to power in America due to just such a failure in conventional politics. All across Europe movements are gathering strength to address (for good or ill) similar deficiencies in the political realm. The independence movement in Scotland is not part of this process, but a negation of it. Whatever happens in terms of the Scottish constitutional question, events; huge unstoppable events; will have the final say. Backwards looking Scottish politics will be swept along.
Despite the passage of a couple of years and many expressions of good intentions from Nicola Sturgeon and her team, I found no sign of any intellectual work having been done since the last independence referendum and no sign of any fresh strategy concerning nation building. What is being planned is really just a re-run of 2014 in the hope of a different result. And the reason why the result may be different? That is not Brexit, but rather the collapse of the Labour Party in Scotland. That is the calculation on display from the top table at Yes Perth City and, I suspect, in the higher echelons of the SNP.
And what of the questions I asked? These, and many other important questions, are to be put off until after getting to Yes.