The Referendum Murders (paperback)

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Sunday, 2 July 2017

Nicola's decision on indyref2: a defining moment for SNP, for independence - and for me

I am currently an SNP member. I do not speak for SNP nor for my SNP branch, nor for any YES group or organisation. I hold no office or role in any political party or YES group or organisation. I have no personal political career ambitions. I offer my views on Nicola's decision on indyref2, a defining moment for SNP, for independence - and for me - in this extended blog on that basis, as one Scottish voter.

In June 2016, I attended a YES group meeting hosted by my branch. There was a vigorous discussion about the way ahead for the independence project, campaigning, the implications of the May Holyrood election, the role of the Greens, and the perennial pantomime villains - the BBC and MSM!

I raised the question of the imminent EU Referendum on the 23rd of June, which was greeted by what I can only summarise as a collective shrug. This was understandable, since the consensus of the media, the commentariat and pollsters was that it was an unfortunate distraction, but there was going to be a NO vote, so why worry. I agreed that a NO vote seemed highly likely, but pointed out that one poll had shown a much closer-run outcome. If in fact it was a YES vote, the bulk of what we had just discussed would be almost irrelevant, since the implication of a Brexit decision by the electorate would be mind-blowing. Again, I received the collective shrug and the comment "Well, we'll cross that bridge if we come to it ..."

SNP HQ, despite the FM and senior party figures publicly campaigning for REMAIN on media, showed a marked disinterest in offering our branch any advice or polling day support on the EU Referendum, and the dedicated and hard-working group of core branch activists, pretty well exhausted after the 2015 general election campaign and the bruising year that followed it - culminating in the May Holyrood 2016 campaign - could have been forgiven for virtually ignoring it.

I did my stints at my local polling station, and as the morning passed, became increasingly worried as many of my neighbours and friends passed, making it abundantly and forcefully clear that they were about to cast a YES vote for Brexit. The rest we know. As the definitive results came in, I had mixed emotions - utter horror at what the UK electorate had done, offset by infinite relief that Scotland had voted a resounding NO, and the implications of that for independence.

I was clutching and re-reading the 2015 general election SNP Manifesto I had voted on just over a year previously - and its explicit page 23 commitment, clear and unambiguous.

I was very clear what that wording meant, having been present and heard Nicola at the 2015 Manifesto launch event in the Edinburgh International Climbing Centre, secure in the knowledge that the First Minister was a lawyer and would have reviewed the words with a legal eye and a legal understanding. The first paragraph seemed clear enough - that, as in 2014, the majority of my fellow citizens had to vote YES to independence in a Referendum called by the Scottish Government, and for that to happen there had to be a vigorous campaign before a referendum that persuaded a majority. However, the first part of the second paragraph introduced a tiny nagging doubt in my mind, given that the only possible ways of obtaining clear and sustained evidence of the preferred option of any electorate are elections, referendums or by sampling - i.e. opinion polling

However, since we were clearly not going to have a referendum on whether we should call a referendum, and no political party in its right mind would regard individual polls, or polls of polls as other than highly uncertain predictors of what an electorate might vote in a ballot - snapshots of volatile trends of opinion - the SNP and Green parties, sophisticated political thinkers, would rely on their own information from activists, data analysis and most significantly, on their campaigning strength and the quality of their arguments to shift electorate opinion towards YES during the pre-referendum campaign.

After all, Alex Salmond had called the first indy referendum when polls stood around 28%, and brought them at one point to 51% and finally the 45% result, in a partially flawed but hugely energetic committed campaign against seemingly insuperable odds, when every major UK party, media channel, the money men, big business, and global figures from the Pope through the President of the United States to the Queen of England (sic) were ranged against us on the NO side of the argument. 

But the second clause of the second paragraph clinched it for me, particularly since it used the magic qualifier 'or' instead of 'and'. We would not seek both "clear and sustained evidence" of a majority of the electorate (however obtained) and "significant and material change" in circumstances. We didn't require both conditions to be met, but only one of them - and if the UK accepted the will of the Brexiting electorate, the second condition had just been met

It seemed to me, in the early morning of 24th of June 2016, that the UK electorate had driven its own iceberg into Titanic UK, and if the incompetent crew of that ship, captained by an expedient captain of poor political judgement and faced with rebellion among his mutinous, UKIP-terrified crew, decided to follow through on the Brexit vote, the Scottish passengers should head for the lifeboats as fast as possible, using the SNP manifesto to launch themselves to comparative safety before the big ship, holed below the waterline, sank beneath the Brexit waves.

I was mercifully unaware at that point of the frustration of my hopes for a nuclear-free Scotland and Scotland in Europe that lay ahead, and perhaps for an independence referendum for many years to come - or even for a generation.


I needed a few weeks to collect my thought after June 24, and to evaluate the responses across the UK, Europe and indeed the world - and to a cloud that had started as no bigger than a man's hand on the UK's Atlantic horizon, but was now growing exponentially and alarmingly - the Trump Campaign. My first blog on the unfolding dynamics of Brexit appeared on Saturday July 16th - Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon, the Brexit negotiations and the #indyref2 option - and I was still in buoyant mode, reprising the situation as I saw it, offering support for Nicola's mandate, speculating about the way forward for the Scottish Government, and commenting on the then parlous state of the UK Labour Party.

I was confident that the First Minister would proceed on my understanding of the Manifesto commitment, the one I had confidently voted for in 2015 and again in May 2016. But a shadow had been cast across my certainty: the shadow of the YES voters - SNP members and possibly Holyrood and Westminster SNP politicians - who had voted for Brexit, plus the realisation that the 62% REMAIN vote was not only not composed solely of YES voters but of NO voters - and the fact that the percentage of YES supporters and SNP party members who had voted for Brexit was disturbingly high, as this blog extract stated -

But it is the mandate from the June EU Referendum electorate that presents the greatest challenge to Nicola’s formidable intellectual and political mind, since it comes from a REMAIN-supporting Scottish electorate comprising voters both in favour of and opposed to Scotland’s independence, many of whom voted REMAIN specifically to avoid a second independence referendum if they followed their Tory and Labour parties lines. An added complexity is that as many as one third of LEAVE voters supported the SNP and independence!

This was giving me real cause for concern, compounded by the dawning realisation that the First Minister and SNP Cabinet, with an infinitely wider perspective and wider and more comprehensive information sources than the perspective and sources of single voter like me could command, must have been aware of this for many months, and not just through the utterances of Jim Sillars et al. This began to explain the puzzling disparity between the assertively pro-REMAIN arguments in debates by Nicola and others, in a party always publicly pro-European and pro-EU for many years, and their evasiveness, lack of commitment to the EU Referendum campaign on the ground and on the lead-up to the June 23rd ballot.


By the 27th of October, I was getting worried - Federalism, Brexit talks – and #indyref2 - at Kenny MacAskill's enthusiasm for federalism, and at the Tory Government's increasingly hostile attitude to Scotland. I quoted Iain Macwhirter liberally -

"Scotland’s Parliament is effectively diminished and made a “creature of Westminster

UK is a multinational state with devolution of legislative authority. You can’t behave as if UK were ..monolithic unit it was in 20th century

”There's an ugly mood in England over Brexit as lack of any plan becomes apparent and UK Gov resorts to ..lowest common denominator of immigration.”

"I despair at this Brexit dialogue of the deaf…”

I referred to Tom Paulin's play All the Way to the Empire Room which always produces blank looks from SNP MSPS and MPs when I bring it up (SNP politicians wouldn't recognise literature or culture if it bit them in the arse) and I offered a coda - 

I then remained silent, blogwise, until 17th of January, following advice from YES friends that Nicola's initiative had to be played out at least until Theresa's May's response - the "Nicola has to be seen to try!" approach. I never had much doubt what a British PM's response would be to proposals, which, had they been accepted, would have driven a stake through the heart of the Union - but I waited.

Much of it was a reprise of the earlier blog - I had little new to say - but I expressed my rationale for a speedy #indyref2  -

I believe we have never been better placed to fight a successful independence campaign

- in UK Parliamentary and Holyrood terms
- with an experienced and battle- hardened YES
- with media (two newspapers)
- with a major looming issue and threat in Brexit
- and with an extreme right-wing and incompetent Tory Government caught up in desperate attempts to resource a chaotic negotiating strategy, and with wide European goodwill towards us.

As for polls, as in indyref1 - where we started from an infinitely lower base - it's our job to change them, and only a campaign after a starting gun has been fired - #indyref2 - and a named ballot date will do that.

Waiting for some illusory ideal time which will never exist is like waiting for Godot, and risks the fear of failure mood blunting the will to win. We are after all, an independence movement, and independence movements are not characterised by timidity or fear of failure. Let's do it!

Essentially, the above extract still reflects my position, and the view that an independence strategy must be determined by pollsters telling us when it's the right time is risible, and the mantra that we must only call an independence referendum and name a ballot date "when we're sure we can win" is at one and the same time ludicrous and contemptible.

By definition, there can be no such time, and if ever that is in doubt consider this - Jeremy Corbyn, who came to leaderships of the Labour Party on the back of a mass movement, Momentum, faced the most sustained, orchestrated barrage of denigration that any political leader has faced in recent times - from his own party, from the Tory Government, from other parties, from the media and from the financial and business communities.  He entered the 2017 general election campaign with the virtually unanimous verdict that he couldn't possible win, with a 20% poll deficit. As Prof. John Curtice, psephologist extraordinaire said on television "No one has ever reversed a poll deficit of 20%!"

Well, he almost did - and he could have formed a Rainbow Coalition government if Scottish Tory voters, deluded Scottish Labour voters and an unknown number of YES defectors hadn't betrayed that hope.

The following day, I was on my favourite theme - the utter bollox talked by media - and most politicians - on negotiation - Theresa May’s 12 EU/Brexit negotiating objectives – except 75% aren’t …

By the 12th of February, I was getting seriously worried about where Nicola might be going with the whole Brexit/Indyref2 thing - Nicola’s four big decisions - maybe the most fateful ones of her career… I offered my analysis, i.e. I was unwisely was presuming, as a voter, to offer the First Minister advice!

I was concerned about the fact that, as I saw it - and still see it - Nicola had been progressively rowing back from an independent Scotland as a full member of the European Union, was focusing almost exclusively on Brexit and her white paper proposals on the Single Market, and the possibility of a Scottish place at the Brexit negotiations, now becoming vanishingly unlikely. Nicola's clear wish and intent to operate as First Minister of all Scots, YES or NO, and of Scotland - admirable in theory - was driving her deeper into her 2015 Manifesto launch stance - after the 2014 defeat - "We lost!", the 2015 election was not about independence, but about working constructively within the Westminster system, etc. Uncharitably, this could be characterised as - We lost, so let's roll over on our backs, wag our Scottish tails, accept what's coming to us and think of England! 

Despite the fact that the SNP effectively seems to have rowed back – and back again – from its 2016 manifesto commitment not to allow Scotland to be dragged out of EU against its will, and has been progressively diluting that commitment to instead settling for some kind of single market deal from a prime minister manifestly disinclined to offer Scotland anything that would signal its status as a nation and one not subject to the arbitrary whims of a sovereign Westminster#indyref2 gives the SNP the opportunity to restate its commitment to EU and its intent to seek to remain in the EU after independence is secured.

I tried to focus on the situation after independence, and how SNP could allay the fears of the YES Brexiters over how an independent Scotland would view EU membership, and posted links to two recent broadcasts.

Theresa May's snap general election result then overturned the applecart yet again. I offered my initial thoughts, then some later thoughts, trying to be positive about the depressing result - we won, but suffered serious Westminster losses - and tried to get my head round Corbyn's relative renaissance.

The Scottish Parliament’s  vote to call #indyref2 at a time of Nicola's choosing - or not - remains. Corbyn must decide on his view of Scotland. We are essentially thrown back to Nicola's strategic position at 2015 manifesto launch - and in this election. It's about Brexit, not indy.

So I waited, Scotland waited and UK waited for Nicola's response to the will of the Scottish people on June the 8th. I said I wasn't despondent, but I was apprehensive. When she announced her decision in the Scottish Parliament - se clip at start of this blog - my worst fears were realised. Where am I now in my thinking? I can only offer this -


Compared to many independence supporters I know, especially the committed men and women of my SNP branch, I am a Johnny-come-lately to independence - my active involvement covers a decade, from my 2007 Holyrood election vote till now. Compared to the vast majority of SNP members and supporters, I am an old man of indy - in every sense of the word! But here's my view, condensed as best I can, of the independence project and the last fascinating, furious, often frustrating and always unpredictable decade.

My beliefs about independence are best expressed in this statement, developed by me during the 2014 campaign - 

I am eligible to vote in a referendum on Scotland's independence, and I subscribe to the following two core principles and three core objectives -

Independence is the fact or process of independence – it is the state of not being dependent, or the process of ending a state of dependency

Independence is the natural state of free individuals and free peoples

I want a nuclear-free Scotland – free of nuclear weapons and bases
I want a Scotland with full fiscal and tax raising powers
I want a Scotland with full control of its foreign policy, defence capability and the decision to commit its defence forces

Having laid that a priori baseline, here is my related thinking.

An independence project requires two things - energetic proponents of the case for independence with the capacity to shift a nation's thinking and inspire a mass movement - and a driving force to achieve the independence objective. Since independence involves removing dependence on the existing state , the choice of methods to achieve that objective are in essence confined to three options - 

persuade the existing state to relinquish control voluntarily

use the democratic process, if one exists

a unilateral declaration of independence

Since the first is almost never a realistic option, the second choice is often the preferred route. The last option can be the initial route, or result from the failure of pursuit of one or both of the first two options. The ideal UDI is a velvet revolution, free of violence, but however it occurs, it require a group willing to seize power, with or without the consent of the people, or in the context of expanding an existing power base. 

Scotland is firmly committed to the democratic route and that requires a political party operating within the existing power structure - the British State and Westminster. That political party has been and is the Scottish National Party.

The Scottish National Party was founded a year before I was born.  I have been aware of it since childhood, and have observed its development over all of my life.(WIKIPEDIAFounded in 1934 with the merger of the National Party of Scotland and the Scottish Party, the party has had continuous parliamentary representation since Winnie Ewing won the 1967 Hamilton by-election)

Through much of that time, the received understanding - received by Westminster because it was seen as vanishingly unlikely - was that if ever Scotland elected a majority of SNP MPs to Westminster, that would be accepted as de facto evidence of a wish of the Scottish people for independence, and it would be granted.  At any point that the possibility of that actually happening occurred, the British State promptly went into initial panic, rapidly followed by pre-emptive strike mode. (See notably Diomhair and its fascinating, indispensable and often dryly-humorous treatment of the history, in the inimitable style of the Gaels.) The Scottish Parliament resulted from one such panic, in the profoundly mistaken belief that devolution would "kill independence stone dead".

With one MP ((Robert McIntyre 1945) - no real worries. But Winnie Ewing's 1967 win and the subsequent successes in local election did worry the UK Labour Government enough to set up the Kilbrandon Commission and worried the Tory opposition enough for Ted Heath to commit to a Scottish Assembly if he became Prime Minister.

At the General Election 1970, Winnie lost her seat, but Donald Stewart won in the Western Isles. Margo brought the total up to two in a by-election, then in Feb 1974 general election, SNP was up to 7 seats, and later in another general election in October 1974, the then fabulous figure of 11. Now the Brit. Establishment and Tory and Labour parties really were worried. But despite the discovery of oil in the 1970s, SNP's fortunes declined - Westminster and the Brit. Establishment, helped by the winter of discontent and Callaghan's cack-handed Labour Government, saw the threat of Scotland's oil all too clearly, and Maggie swept to power (helped, some say, by the hubris of the SNP Westminster MPs).

All that followed, through to the Blair landslide, led to the Scottish Parliament and the new Nationalist era. A period of comparative complacency set in in Scotland and Westminster, but unsettled by the global shock of 9-11, then Blair's Iraq War in 2003.

Then the unthinkable happened, and the d'Hondt system failed to maintain the unionist Lab/Lib coalitions of mediocrity. Alex Salmond confidently set up an SNP minority government after SNP became the largest Holyrood party in 2007, reiterating his commitment to call a referendum within the next Parliament, with a complete absence of weasel words about waiting for opinion pollsters to tell him when to call it, and without demanding the certainty of winning in advance.

(It sure as hell impressed one old Scot of 71 to abandon his lifelong commitment to the Labour party - and to abandon his plans for a quiet retirement walking his two Westies, playing his sax and doing some creative writing - for a decade of online activism as an SNP party member!)

But somewhere along the line between 2007 and the post-2014 Referendum Resurgence and 2015 landslide, this assumption that a majority of Scottish MPs elected from one or more independence-committed parties meant de facto independence slipped away, not only from the lexicon of UK and Westminster, but from the mantras of the SNP. Somewhere along the line of gradualism, pragmatism, the comforts of government and power and office, and the luxury of no longer being a party of protest but being the safely established government in Scotland with a huge membership, celebrity in abundance, and no shortage of SNP bums on cosy media studio sofas, independence has taken a poor second place to working within the Westminster system.

As for the issue of nuclear weapons of mass destruction (always the primary over-arching independence issue for me), it is now rarely referred to, other than token references, almost always in the context of the cost argument, or by the unionist opposition as WMD as job creation scheme, and is left by the SNP to one committed CND MSP, Bill Kidd.

The SNP's central role in the independence project is undeniable, a success hard-won over eight decades from 1934 to 2014. Without it, there would have been no 2014 Referendum. But its landslide success in 2011 and the referendum campaign was significantly due to the emergence of an unparallelled mass movement, the YES campaign, and its dramatic impact on the outcome of that referendum, taking the polls at one point to 51% and ultimately close to victory at 45%.

Its post-referendum dramatic surge in membership and its astonishing electoral landslide in the 2015 general election was even more significantly due almost totally to YES and its impact on the electorate and grassroots SNP activists - a mass movement the SNP HQ and Cabinet had failed to understand during the referendum campaign, the complex dynamics of which it still fails to understand today.

The SNP leadership was handed a series of golden independence gifts by the Scottish electorate - an electorate and dedicated constituency activists energised by the YES mass movement and the membership surge that any independence party in history would have given its soul for -

three terms in devolved government

a mass increase in membership

the 2011 and 2015 landslide electoral victories, the second of which was unprecedented in Scottish and UK political history

It would be an exaggeration to say it has squandered these gifts, but true to say it hasn't capitalised on them or use them boldly, radically or effectively, instead becoming defined by caution, timidity, imagined consolidation and fear of failure in a second referendum. The belated emergence of some backbone in securing  Scottish Parliament approval for enabling legislation to call a second independence referendum was thrown into confusion by Theresa May's snap election - an election campaign Party HQ was woefully unprepared for, resulting in a limp and directionless campaign, offering little or no guidance and central support or clarity of policy on key issues to dedicated activists.

The central contradiction for the SNP is that, as a party of independence in devolved government, it has to find the critical balance between what must be its over-arching goal, independence, and displaying competence in devolved government temporarily within the UK/Westminster system that it is trying to escape from. If that balance slips to far towards the independence goal, sacrificing competence in government, it risks electoral losses: if it slip too far towards settling comfortably into discharging its governing responsibilities within the existing devolution constraints and Westminster, it risk being seen as being absorbed by that UK system and its undemocratic power structures, acceding to them and thus alienating its core independence support.

In short, without independence as its main, immediate driving goal and priority, pursued against deadlines, the SNP becomes just another Scottish-based UK party, but one with no electoral base or presence in rUK, and as such, will be judged by the Scottish electorate on that basis.  If it tips the balance towards that accommodation with UK rule, as it is now doing after Nicola's decision on #indyref2, then it must find another name for itself, for it is no longer the party of Scotland as a nation once again, but just another supine minor party in a disintegrating, incompetent Union.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party has entered its post-electoral failure-as-success phase, mirroring SNP's after the 2014 referendum, basking in the the media spotlight, enjoying its Glastonbury celebrity success and showing, unlike SNP, its understanding of the mass movement that put it there and its contempt for opinion polls as a driver of electoral strategy. Scottish Labour, or at least its non-doctrinaire unionist component, watches, takes note - and reflects on the lessons to be learned.

As thing stand today, according to a Survation poll, voting intentions if a general election occurs soon are Tory 41% and Corbyn's Labour 40%. Another modest shift of SNP votes from Scottish Labours voters might just put Corbyn in Number 10.

As for me, I'm still an SNP supporter, and still hope my analysis is wrong. If I vote for them when a vote comes along - maybe sooner than 2021 Holyrood, with another UK general election soon - it will not be as an independence party, but as the Scottish Westminster party best equipped to carry forward Scotland's interests within the UK system. I now realistically don't expect to see Scottish independence in my lifetime and I now see the only the possibility of Scottish independence through English independence, which may well come sooner.