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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Comments

RadioJammor

Thu, 02/16/2017 - 14:08

I don't agree that the case for independence has not moved forward - it has, in my view - but not in a coherent or cogent way, because these arguments have been piecemeal, chipping away at the case made to remain in the UK - and that's because there hasn't been an actual campaign to rally around.

But otherwise, I agree. We need decent prep which means more time.

Some of us may have been keeping our muskets clean and our powder dry, whilst firing off some pot shots to keep our eye in, but we need to train more and strategise more, and share the arguments that we have made, to counter particularly the fiscal argument, which I think we can make now far better than we did in 2014. That can turn some. Money talks.

We also need to deal with the MSM in a much smarter way. It was all too easy for them to label Indy supporters as a nasty rabble, due to the behaviour of a few, and due to the exuberance of the campaign which was then used against us, when we know the truth that the worst offenders were from the Unionist side. But MSM is still in control of perceptions for those who don't venture too far from their TV for news and views. We need to mind that.

I'd also like to offer some reading on the subject of "effective protest". https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/02/how-to-beat-trump/5...

As for weak points, we need a strategy to deal with the currency issue, if not a currency itself. We also need to get to older voters, particularly those who may be concerned about pensions, and to appeal to them about the nation they are bequeathing to their families.

Bunbury

Thu, 02/16/2017 - 15:08

When East Germany (DDR) was unified with West Germany (FDR) they simply tippexed out 'West.'

Northman

Thu, 02/16/2017 - 15:40

I keep wondering about another aspect of this. Is a referendum the right mechanism? We all saw how unsatisfactory both recent referenda were, encouraging over-simplification of every argument and (especially in the Brexit one) leaving many important issues unexplored, let alone resolved. That applied whichever side you were on. Indeed, anything but a cursory glance at the Scottish Government White Paper reveals it to have been a prescription for a confederation-with-gunboats, not independence, but of course it didn't suit either the yes or no campaigns to admit that. Honest, on either side, it wasn't.

I wonder if we might have a more rounded and informed debate if the Scottish Government called a general election and encouraged a transparent examination of every policy area, warts and all. Even if done superbly, such an approach is never going to pacify the Mail and Express, but it might well resonate with more responsible media and the public. If an SNP/Green/?Labour for Independence coalition gained a parliamentary majority on the basis of an unmistakeable commitment to independence, that should be that. Indeed, decades ago, in an age before referenda, that was pretty much the approach the SNP seemed to propose.

It wouldn't need Theresa May's permission, either.

peterabell

Thu, 02/16/2017 - 18:16

Whose wisdom?

Dontsign

Thu, 02/16/2017 - 18:19

Ssshhhhhhh!!!1 D-: If you ask people to stop and consider if there is a best time to have an indyref, they might start to consider where exactly the benefit would be in putting up a border with our largest market, putting further austerity in place to meet the Copenhagen Criteria, and how the 400k SNP voters who voted leave might react to a brexit based indyref2 that starts from an even weaker economic position.

Stop with the heresy, don't ask the people to question - just trust in Nicola.

rytenuff

Thu, 02/16/2017 - 18:36

If you have managed to convince even one of the "Here's to us wha's like us" brigade I'll eat one of their tartan bunnets.

peterabell

Thu, 02/16/2017 - 18:40

Whose wisdom? The campaign hasn't even started and already we have the 'experts' telling us we're doing it wrong.

It's an easy game to play. Because, no matter how you organise and run a campaign there will always be things that go wrong. Or don't go as well as was hoped. Saying in advance that it's being done wrong is facile for the simple reason that anybody who says thus is inevitably going to be proved correct. It's a bit like predicting the winner of a one horse race.

It's not difficult to look clever when you can't be wrong.

As for the notion that thereis such a thing as the perfect campaign in which all questions are answered and all issues foreseen, I'll leave you to guess what I think of that.

It is not the detail that's important but the solid foundation on which the campaign is built. Start with the big ideas and the broad strokes and maintain the flexibility and maneuverability to deal with whatever us thrown at you.

Nobody needs to know what will be the price of a first class stamp in 2030. They only need to know that there will be a mail service. Rather than pondering such minutiae, we should be challenging those who claim that we won't have a postal service in independent Scotland.

Arthur Blue's picture

Arthur Blue

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 10:03

Well … yes ….up to a point. 2018 would be a rush, and we still don't know what the UK post-Brexit will be like, though it's a fair bet that it won't be what the Leavers are proclaiming. It's also fairly clear that whatever relationship Scotland decides to seek with the EU, our negotiating attitude will be friendly and not fundamentally negative as has been the case with Westminster ( for some time ). The situation is still evolving, and it will continue to evolve, so in fact there may be no ideal time to go for it.
In this case I would tend to wait and see, while using the interval to make preparations, but we must recognise that something may happen which makes a quick decision inevitable. Such as serious breakdown of Mrs May's negotiations with the EU ( a trade war ), or an attempt to cut down Holyrood's status as our parliament. Meanwhile, Ms Sturgeon's government just getting on with the day job in a satisfactory manner is in fact part of the preparation.

florian albert

Thu, 02/16/2017 - 22:41

'the case for Scottish independence has not moved forward at all since 2014'

Although Robin McAlpine is more honest than most pro-independence campaigners in his willingness to challenge the lack of thinking since 2014, he stops short of looking at why the SNP has failed to examine why it lost then.
The obvious explanation is that the SNP is aware that confronting difficult issues such as the currency would draw attention to the very real possibility that Independent Scotland would immediately encounter economic turbulence.

Apricale

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 09:20

It's a well thought-through article. However I do worry about waiting until we are post Brexit. The Government, the media, everyone, will be pushing a sort of 'we're all in this together now' message; The Queen, The Country, the BBC, The Great British Bake-Off, The Grenadier Guards,This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England (or Britain). Given the conservatism of much of the 'No' vote, I think that call might be sufficiently seductive to ensure that Scotland stays in the Union. It's like some Labour voters invoking Atlee and Nye Bevan - not necessarily relevant to today's world, but it does give you something to hold on to. Post March 2019 and the chance will have gone. Immediately beforehand, there is some hope. Ripeness is all.

Arthur Blue's picture

Arthur Blue

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 10:07

That was a movement in the other direction.

Arthur Blue's picture

Arthur Blue

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 10:08

They were combining … not separating.

Arthur Blue's picture

Arthur Blue

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 10:12

Trying to get my comment … not that it's particularly perceptive … under Bunbury's, to which it relates, but the damned website won't let me. Won't let me delete either.

Jack Kennedy

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 12:29

Why Culloden? why not the battle of Stirling Bridge. Yes, learn lessons from the past but learn them from IndyRef 2014. Where did we fail in 2014, what do we need to improve. Many people champing at the bit to get moving on IndyRef2 and delaying could be a mistake. Our biggest mistake was not convincing the over 60s voter, we allowed the opposition to lie and frighten them. A strategy for this single demographic could be an independence winner.

Alisdair McKay

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 12:44

The timing of the next battle is not ours to determine, so why fret about it? What we can do something about is that as a campaign we have spent the last two years talking amongst ourselves, lecturing and circulating research to existing Yes voters, watching political events unfold about which we have no control and whinging about Westminster. Yet as a campaign we have done nothing to gain and build the trust of No voters that the case for Scotland standing on it's own two feet has integrity, by presenting it, through their letterboxes and on the streets, the answers to the simple questions that have been presented by the on going 'Stronger in the UK', why should the GERS not be taken at face value, why does the 4 to 1 ratio UK to EU trade not mean that we have to stay in the UK, how many of the 90 countries who have become independent since 1900 want to revert, how much more favourable are Scotland's prospects that many of theirs, why has Norway got one of the richest pension scheme whilst Scotland struggles? So long as we keep leaving these easy open goals un-scored, instead of using them to establish a reputation credibility and integrity in preparation for the campaigning material later, whilst the negative story keeps getting told, yes a Culloden esque sensation is probably quite valid. It will be much harder to gain peoples trust once a campaign proper starts in the face of a negative campaign which does not have to prove anything, it only has to create sufficient doubt and stir up a sufficient stooshie to put people of for the case to be lost. It's up to us.

Bunbury

Sat, 02/18/2017 - 12:21

I know, Arthur. My point: German re-unificaction was unprecedented, vis-a-vis EU regulations, just as Scotland becoming independent from the Uk is unprecedented vis-a-vis said regulations.

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