Robin McAlpine: It's all getting a bit Culloden – let's pick our moment wisely

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says the independence movement must thoroughly examine the merits of the case for holding indyref 2 in 2018

DOES anyone else feel that there is a tone to parts of the debate about independence just now which is all a bit too Culloden? I certainly do and its making me a bit jumpy.

So, if you're not up to speed with season two of Outlander, the highlanders ended up being crushed on Culloden Moor because too much of the Jacobite movement did too much following and not enough asking of questions.

Is Culloden Moor the best place to fight a large English army? Is 16 April 1746 definitely the best day to have the fight? Are we prepared enough? Are we taking sufficiently seriously the physical state of our army, the power of the English muskets, cannons and cavalry, the conditions on the ground on the day?

If you were to make a calm assessment of the moment when we are at our strongest and our opponents are at their weakest, would you pick 2018?

And are we sure – really, really sure – that all we need is one more romantic and heroic charge by brave, claymore-swinging lads, rushing headlong into flying lead and galloping horses?

Fundamentally, is really believing in the rightness of a cause the same as having a proper battle plan? Is Charles Stewart's divinity all we need?

By all accounts, autumn 2018 seems to be coalescing as the 'likely' date of the next independence referendum (though no-one will say a word on the record). But why? If you were to make a calm assessment of the moment when we are at our strongest and our opponents are at their weakest, would you pick 2018?

You can debate whether our opponents are weaker during Brexit negotiations or after outcomes are made public. My money is on the latter.

But I just don't think you can argue that 2018 is the optimal moment for our troops. I remain close to many of the local groups across Scotland and almost universally they feel that things are chaotic, unorganised and that they personally are not yet prepared.

I remain close to many of the local groups across Scotland and almost universally they feel that things are chaotic, unorganised and that they personally are not yet prepared.

For a 2018 battle we need the troops marching in formation a few months from now. My assessment (which is shared by many of the people who actually ran local campaigns last time) is that it might just about be possible if we started immediately and worked really hard – but it would be skin of the teeth stuff.

Everyone is perfectly well aware that the case for Scottish independence has not moved forward at all since 2014 – there is barely a question asked of us that we're better able to answer now than we were then.

And in the realms of serious, modern political campaigning, our strategy and structure is weak. This can be fixed fairly quickly, but not overnight.

Now there are those who will be quick to label me a Doubting Thomas. Indeed, if you are up to date with your Outlander-watching you'll know that it is always easier to acquiesce with power than to question it. Wave your dirk around, shout about how there is only one true king and complicated questions about an outbreak of dysentery among our soldiers melt into thin air.

Everyone is perfectly well aware that the case for Scottish independence has not moved forward at all since 2014 – there is barely a question asked of us that we're better able to answer now than we were then.

The following are things that influential people in the independence movement have recently written:

"I am somewhat concerned about the intense concentration on ever more fine-grained demographic detail. I have to ask, what's the point?" 

"I am only really interested in looking at opinion polls once the campaign starts in earnest." 

"The next Yes campaign should play smart and remain studiously vague about life after independence." 

"I would give everything I have or ever will have, including my life, to see a Stuart back on the throne."

(OK, the last one was Dougal MacKenzie from Outlander.)

Meanwhile, in what feels a bit like a parallel universe, when speaking at a conference in Berlin I had dinner with people who'd worked on the second Obama campaign. I quizzed the poor souls relentlessly on best practice.

To say we're miles behind is an understatement. Taking an interest in fine-grained demographics? Paying attention to opinion polls? Learning from the real-world feedback you get from people on the doorsteps? That's how you win campaigns.

To say we're miles behind is an understatement. Taking an interest in fine-grained demographics? Paying attention to opinion polls? Learning from the real-world feedback you get from people on the doorsteps? That's how you win campaigns.

I'll go further. If you don't know what use opinion polling or demographic research is, you'd be better to spend a little more time learning and a little less time tweeting.

Most worryingly Iain Macwhirter, an excellent commentator who I've admired for years, wrote a nerve-jangling column at the weekend in which he suggests that the lesson from the Vote Leave campaign is to focus on bland, emotional statements and offer no serious content. In this version of the campaign we all just need to give people a personal IOU from 'Nicola' that she promises she'll provide us with some kind of currency when the time comes.

There are two big problems. First, he's just flat-out wrong about a Leave campaign that spent the vast majority of its budget on data analysis and its digital targeting strategy – in fact, they claim that data analysis and demographic targeting represented 98 per cent of their total spend.

(To get an idea this extraordinarily long but seriously informative blog by Leave campaign gaffer Dominic Cummings is invaluable, but you can get some of the jist of it here)

I'll go further. If you don't know what use opinion polling or demographic research is, you'd be better to spend a little more time learning and a little less time tweeting.

The second is that the only kind of person who could possibly think that we can take a 'no details – just trust Nicola' line in the next campaign is someone who never knocked a door. Every campaign is different. This one needs grown-up answers to genuine questions, to treat voters with respect.

The more sure you are about something, the more you should look for corroborating and counterfactual evidence, just in case you're fooling yourself.

So I know people who are absolutely convinced that Theresa May refusing to grant a referendum in 2018 (an all but certain outcome) will open floodgates of rage on the streets of Scotland. Strangely, this opinion doesn't change in the face of repeated opinion poll results which show that most people want to see the outcome of Brexit negotiations first.

(And why shouldn't they? As a democratic purist I am wholly opposed to giving Theresa May the high ground by demanding she allow us to ask people to vote on two futures, but at a time when they're only allowed to know what one of those futures is. She would not only be constitutionally able to block such a referendum, to my mind she would be both morally and democratically right to do so.)

The only real reason I've heard for October 2018 is that it is the only way to maintain continuity membership of the EU. Now let me be as clear as I can here – Scotland will have little difficulty gaining entry to the EU if it wants it. There will be none of that 'back of the queue' nonsense.

The more sure you are about something, the more you should look for corroborating and counterfactual evidence, just in case you're fooling yourself.

But it will be 'entry', not continuity. No-one is just going to Tipex out 'UK' from all EU treaties and scribble 'Scotland' on top. We can't even begin negotiations until we're an independent nation state, which will be at least two years from the date of a Yes vote – by which time we'll be well out of Europe.

I've spoken to authorities on EU constitutional matters and not one of them has taken seriously any model which sees Scotland not having to apply for membership as an independent country. Every single statement from any kind of EU official has supported that position.

So why are we pretending that we 'must' hold a referendum in 2018? Let's not tie ourselves to an arbitrary timetable.

Is the EU the battleground on which we want to make our last stand? Do we want to do it in 2018 when we've had next to no time to prepare the ground properly in advance? Can we answer legitimate questions without waffle? Are we looking properly at barely-moving poll ratings?

Are we listening to the experience of the ground troops who fought the last campaign? Are we listening to the views and priorities of soft No voters? Are we listening to anyone? About anything?

I don't want to wait forever for a new referendum. But I do want proper answers to questions before we announce a date, not after. I want a proper ground campaign in place before we commit to the battle, not after.

Or do we just know for sure, just because we do?

Ten or 15 years ago the SNP had a justifiable reputation for being a lean and effective campaigning machine. It still dines out on that reputation, but it is not even nearly true any more. The debacle which is the SNP's preparations for the local government elections should send shivers down your spine if you really think we're 18 months away from a vote on independence.

I don't want to wait forever for a new referendum. But I do want proper answers to questions before we announce a date, not after. I want a proper ground campaign in place before we commit to the battle, not after. I want detailed assessments made of strengths and weaknesses in our messaging campaign long before we decide to charge.

One extra year (2019) puts us on the right side of democracy, gives us time to get our act together and gives us a full year (2018) to run what is probably an utterly necessary pre-campaign to soften up opinion, have a dry run and measure what is working best.

With apologies to Sam Heughan, there are days when I feel very Jamie Fraser, watching as we march closer and closer to Culloden Moor, listening to the cries of 'follow the one true king into a battle it is our divine right to win'.

I don't want another referendum – I want to win another referendum. Charging unprepared into musket fire isn't the way to do it.

Picture courtesy of Kyoshi Masamune

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