Robin McAlpine: Indy Scotland: we're making mistakes, so we must learn

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says the independence movement must wake up

I'VE been wondering when to write this. Not everyone is going to like it; some may think it's unhelpful – disloyal even. But I'm going to argue that not talking about things is leading to serious mistakes.

We're a few days away from the third anniversary of losing the independence referendum. It is telling that there appears to be much less appetite for either celebration or commemoration this year. So I think now might be the time to bite the bullet.

As of September 2017 the Scottish independence movement should be the dominant political movement in the UK. We should be within a couple of years of a convincing victory in an independence referendum.

We're a few days away from the third anniversary of losing the independence referendum. It is telling that there appears to be much less appetite for either celebration or commemoration this year.

Why do I propose this? Because virtually every card we've been dealt (from events outside our control) since the independence referendum has been a winner – with one exception.

And it's the exception that proves the rule. The only external factor which has really counted against us is the collapse in the price of oil. I will admit that I expected the oil slump to have a worse impact on the polls than it did.

In standard political theory, an apparent collapse in revenue making a deficit look worryingly high should be devastating. It is exactly the kind of thing that is supposed to make voters 'cling on to their mummy and daddy'.

So there should have been a clear, noticeable drop in support for independence. I was prepared for it – and it didn't happen.

I have been told that this has thrown unionist strategists into a degree of panic, because they thought what I thought – though with bells on. If (apparently) collapsing public finances aren't enough to deter people from independence, what will? What happens when they get better?

The British state is in utter crisis; for the first time in my life the British establishment has no idea what it is or what it's for.

It should have been a disaster. That it isn't should be taken as a sign; among Scotland's population, the will to believe in independence is strong.

Everything else that has happened has been a gift. The British state is in utter crisis; for the first time in my life the British establishment has no idea what it is or what it's for. It believes – above all – in its wisdom and restraint. Or rather, it did.

The UK political system is in utter turmoil. If I'd written an article in the run up to indyref warning that Britain was at risk of facing a choice between Jeremy Corbyn and someone called Jacob Rees-Mogg, both leading parties in full civil war mode, unionist commentators would have called me a crazy conspiracy theorist.

One senior SNP figure told me a while ago that he believed the SNP leadership had acquired some kind of protection spell. "Whenever we become more mediocre, Scottish Labour manages to be worse. Without fail."

We've had a post-indyref boost in enthusiasm and support, the miraculous 2015 General Election – with sweeping SNP gains based mainly on the post-indyref momentum. In the post-indyref landscape independence inherited parliamentary majorities everywhere.

Think about all these cards. Think about how we might have played them. Imagine September 2017 if we'd played them well.

We also inherited time. Time is a precious but tricky commodity in politics. It can give you space to grow and flourish, but can just as easily give you the prolonged exposure which leads to erosion.

But in this case, for us it was an asset. The unionists genuinely don't have an "and then...". As in "first, vote No, and then...". They have no shared vision, within each party never mind between them. They say "federalism" as if it's a magic trick, as if we're stupid.

The more they say it in Scotland without backing it up with something which has a passing resemblance to substance, and with people across the rest of the UK also saying it with conviction, the more useless the word becomes.

In the current circumstances, the time ahead should really only be eroding unionism – unless Brexit goes really brilliantly, of course.

Independence, though, was really in need of time. Almost everyone now accepts that we were quite a lot of work short of a really compelling case last time. People say "it was currency", but that's just shorthand for a general lack of preparedness.

By now, we'd be close to being ready to prepare a really effective campaign based on a solid, hole-free prospectus.

As I've written many times, there wasn't much we could do about it in 2014 because of the circumstances. What we needed was a little bit of time without the glare of a public campaign shining on us so we could get the preparation done. We were given that.

There's more in the "propitious circumstances" column – but you'll get the jist.

Think about all these cards. Think about how we might have played them. Imagine September 2017 if we'd played them well.

As of spring 2015 we would have begun a substantial but unobtrusive process of learning what didn't go well enough in indyref one and looking at where more work was needed to complete a compelling case. We would have pressed on with that work.

By now, we'd be close to being ready to prepare a really effective campaign based on a solid, hole-free prospectus.

Rather than being left to march in frustration, the grassroots would have been supported to organise and train and prepare. Infrastructure would have been put in place.

Rather than being left to march in frustration, the grassroots would have been supported to organise and train and prepare. Infrastructure would have been put in place.

An exciting domestic agenda would be lifting people up, giving them a sense of momentum – and giving soft No voters a reason to feel hope.

Brexit would have been an absolute gift. We'd have turned it into a question of the mental state of the British system, its fitness for purpose, its basic trustworthiness. Sure, we'd have talked about the EU, but the purpose of talking about the EU would have been less to evangelise than to use it to contrast and compare with the state of Britain.

We'd have sat back, kept reasonably quiet and done everything we possibly could to shine a spotlight on the chaos and confusion that reigns in London. We'd have mentioned – from time to time – that independence may be our only option. We'd have promised that, post-Brexit, a second chance for Scots to choose might well need to be on the cards.

The word 'referendum' wouldn't have passed our lips, because we'd have done some basic public attitudes research and discovered that it was the very last word people wanted to hear in 2016.

An exciting domestic agenda would be lifting people up, giving them a sense of momentum – and giving soft No voters a reason to feel hope.

We'd also have done a sufficient amount of basic opinion research to have picked up that "rejoining the EU" was not a strong enough motivator on its own for independence, and was losing as many votes as it gained, so we would have softened that message.

This would have moved the independence campaign outside of politics, where we'd have run a 'direct marketing' campaign to send a constant series of messages, simple and heavy on visuals, which were gradually teasing a strong case for independence. Not too visible, but continuous and well-planned.

Had this been done, the 2017 General Election would not have been a setback – what would the Tory message have been if they couldn't say "vote for us to stop a referendum"? We'd probably have seen a modest but steady rise in support for independence – it would be sitting this side of 50 per cent by now.

In fact, we'd be sitting on a rock-solid platform to be considering a real, decisive run at a referendum in 2019 or 2020. (I still don't think we'd have got Westminster to go along with a referendum willingly, but if polls were consistently above 50 per cent, it would have been a matter of time.)

This third anniversary of the first indyref would be an excited celebration of anticipation, not a wake.

Brexit would have been an absolute gift. We'd have turned it into a question of the mental state of the British system, its fitness for purpose, its basic trustworthiness.

None of this is what happened. The domestic programme was listless. We bet the house on the rampant popularity of the EU without taking more than a couple of hours to think it through. We decided the best bet was to say "referendum" (remember, Britain's least popular word) as many times as we possibly could.

We closed our eyes and somehow hoped that currency questions and all that would just go away. We left the grassroots isolated. We put in place no infrastructure. We learned nothing about 2014. We've shown no interest in exploring how soft No voters feel.

We simply didn't talk about the meaning of an independent Scotland – beyond it being a mechanism for regaining that precious EU membership. We let it all be about process.

The result was probably inevitable and entirely predictable. We were trapped in a timescale we could never deliver. So we had to perform a very public, very humiliating climb down. Out there, quite a lot of people seem to think we've admitted defeat.

And that's why in September 2017 an awful lot of us feel despondent at a moment when we should be jubilant. I'm not sure I can think of an example of when I've seen such a brilliant hand of cards played so badly.

None of this is what happened. The domestic programme was listless. We bet the house on the rampant popularity of the EU without taking more than a couple of hours to think it through.

I know that a lot of people in all parts of the independence movement (particularly those more long in the tooth) had serious concerns about this from the get go. But the hand was played; there was little to do but stay quiet out of loyalty.

And loyalty in pursuit of a cause is a good thing. But loyalty can also be really counterproductive if it prevents you learning.

If you don't accept you've made mistakes, you don't learn. If you don't assess your preparedness honestly, you're unlikely to be properly prepared. If you don't ask questions you may not want to hear the answer to, you won't hear some of the things you need to hear.

Ask yourself honestly – since 2014 have we asked what mistakes we made? Have we learned? Do we know how prepared or otherwise we are? Are there difficult truths we need to hear which we've not yet listened to?

Now I am the first to accept that this has been an exceptional period with close to non-stop elections to fight – and in a very hostile media environment. That was always going to be draining. But battles come when they come. You fight them when they're there, and you win or you lose. Mitigating circumstances are footnotes in history books.

We closed our eyes and somehow hoped that currency questions and all that would just go away. We left the grassroots isolated. We put in place no infrastructure. We learned nothing about 2014.

At this stage I want to be clear; the last thing I want is the kind of finger-pointing blame-game which has defined post-indyref unionism. We don't have to identify and condemn individuals or organisations. We need no gratuitous "told you so" or "it's all your fault".

But – and I can't put this starkly enough – we can't afford more mistakes of this magnitude. Somewhere away from the gaze of a partisan media, we need to find out if there are consistent factors driving these mistakes. If there are, we need to tackle them.

Because, despite the despondency which has set in of late, stop and think where we actually are.

The British state is still in meltdown. The British media is still a terrifying institution, driving us over the edge of cliffs for kicks. The British political system is still fracturing and fragmenting everywhere. The public still doubts whether there is any wisdom left in power.

It is not yet time to talk much about the outcomes of the in-depth public opinion research the Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) has been doing, but it has left me absolutely confident that there is no fundamental barrier to a substantial independence vote in the next few years.

We simply didn't talk about the meaning of an independent Scotland – beyond it being a mechanism for regaining that precious EU membership. We let it all be about process.

And it has left me pretty certain that the 'Safety and Stability of the British Establishment' (trademarked) is not going to get unionists through another campaign.

In fact, if somehow you block out the events of the last 18 months from your memory and simply look at where we are, you'd be feeling optimistic again. That is because, despite what's happened, there remains every reason to feel optimistic.

But but but. Because there is an enormous caveat to all this. Another serious misstep, another screw-up, another dose of bad judgement and it could actually be over for a decade or more.

If we can't learn, collectively, how to do this right, we'll do it wrong. If we do it wrong, the impact of time will be erosion, not growth. And if we pretend everything is fine when it's not, we won't win – or if we do it'll be despite us rather than because of us.

I have fairly detailed private views on what happened and why. In fact, the untold story of the independence movement in 2017 is that lots and lots of people have detailed views. And from my experience they're not dissimilar.

Wake up, indy movement – we're perched in a narrow space between defeat and victory, but we're navigating with our eyes closed.

But private views are of no consequence. Unless we can reach a consensual collective view, we're stuck down this rabbit hole.

Wake up, indy movement – we're perched in a narrow space between defeat and victory, but we're navigating with our eyes closed. Whether we slump towards failure or rise towards success feels, right now, like it involves a large degree of luck.

It can't be luck. It has to be by design. But that will only be possible if we move forward with our eyes wide open.

Picture courtesy of Kyoshi Masamune

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