Robin McAlpine: Winners make decisions, losers wait for things to happen

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says there are three possible options for the independence movement. 

I know it will surprise many of you but I don't want to spend the rest of my life writing about constitutional politics. I've always been in this for social outcomes and constitutional politics alone does not deliver these.

So I want to write about policy and change. But it's been a difficult summer and I just thought people could do with some positive views on independence matters. Nevertheless I intended last week's column to be the last I wrote on the subject for a while.

But I think there is one last piece of confusion kicking about just now and I don't think there should be. The confusion is on what the independence movement's options are from here.

There's nothing to be confused about. There are three remaining options. Each requires a slightly different approach, though the big tasks are consistent for all of them. At least two of them require action to begin right now. One doesn't.

I write this only to seek to stress that the time to make broad decisions about this is now; postponing a decision is effectively rejecting one of the options. Best to say that out loud. It is also making one of the options less viable but not impossible.

What people are saying is that they don't want a referendum this year or next. Neither do I.

So we just need to look at this, digest it (I'm still thinking about and assessing all these options) and decide. Easy really…
 

Option 20

I suspect you'll have picked up that the unionists are determined that we listen to what people are telling us – and that they're telling us they don't want another referendum.

And the unionists are right; people do not want another referendum. Except there's a crucial distinction that the unionists are being less forthright about, which is that there is a specific timescale to this rejection of referendums.

In detailed and extensive focus group work for the Scottish Independence Convention, what people are saying is that they don't want a referendum this year or next. Neither do I. Neither should you. We always needed to wait until Brexit negotiations were completed – anything else would have been democratically unjust.

In fact, people are saying that they might not be all that keen on a referendum in the early part of 2019, or even at all in 2019. However, even the most 'No' of soft 'No' voters is saying that if they feel that Brexit is going badly or that they can be convinced independence would be better, they're not only willing but actively happy to be given the choice again.

That's almost three years from now; an age in current politics. From the impending UK debt crisis to the possible UK role in “totally destroying” North Korea to a bad Brexit, there are no shortage of things that make 2020 not only possible but seriously viable.

Another thing that is clear as a highland spring is that people not only want but are absolutely demanding a proper plan next time.

Again, Universal Spokesperson for All No Voters Ruth Davidson says they want this to go away for a generation/forever. Strangely, that's not what No voters are telling us in a controlled, academically-rigorous environment.

Holding a referendum in 2020 is a real possibility. It is miles away from a foregone conclusion we could get it, and whether we'd win it or not is still up in the air. But the reason unionists are desperate you think it’s off the table is because they're worried. They should be.

If we want to take this option there are things we should do now. I've been over some of these quite a few times. It is seriously possible that 2020 could be a real low-point for SNP support.

This will depend on how government performs between now and then (things would be more worrying if Ruth Davidson was as good as they say or if Scottish Labour had a potential leader who could go on radio and sound, well, not inept).

A little pessimism is probably warranted. So for Option 20 we'd need a way to decouple an independence campaign from any single political party's fortunes.

Whatever we do, another thing that is clear as a highland spring is that people not only want but are absolutely demanding a proper plan next time. It must explain how a new state is going to be set up and what it will be like to live in it from day one. If we don't provide this, we deserve to lose.

We need the Scottish Government to focus on delivering things which people can see, feel and really use in their own lives.

And it’s not something we can afford to knock up in a closed room over a day or two. So if we want to be in a viable position to fight in 2020, we need that work well underway very soon indeed.

We also need to shift public opinion, very slowly, very carefully, but very consistently. Westminster isn't going to give us another referendum without a gun at its head. Our only gun is public support, so we need polls to be over 50 per cent (and closer to 60) well before the dawn of 2020.

Finally, we need the Scottish Government to focus on delivering things which people can see, feel and really use in their own lives. It's difficult to overstate how useless announcements, press releases and media lines are right now.

The response is unequivocal: “Heard it before. Show us or shut up.”

These are the things we need to do for 2020.

Option 22

I wrote a book last year which outlined a strategy involving using the 2021 Scottish election as a 'trigger' for a referendum. This is the only other 'gun' we can put to Westminster's head.

The rate of decline of SNP voting intention and the general lack of forward momentum from the Greens suggests no overall independence majority.

The theory goes that through some mechanism or another you turn that Scottish Election into a kind of surrogate referendum-on-a-referendum. You could do this by making it 'SNP front and centre – but based on a primary single platform position of a 2022 referendum on independence'.

The same could be done by having a coalition of parties and independents fighting on a shared platform (you might want to maximise votes by looking region-by-region at the list and working out how best to get pro-independence candidates in).

Or you could suspend party branding for one election and get people to stand on a non-party '2022 referendum' ticket.

The last of these won't happen so probably best just to disregard it. But the other two are possible, if risky. It is time indy supporters paid more attention to the polls. Barring something entirely unexpected (and probably quite dramatic), the chances of the SNP having an overall majority all by themselves is close to zero.

But the rate of decline of SNP voting intention and the general lack of forward momentum from the Greens suggests no overall independence majority. (Poll ratings for the Greens are up at the expense of the SNP, but voter awareness doesn't seem to me to be rising, suggesting it is a function of the SNP failing to inspire rather than the Greens managing it).

And if the SNP agrees to a planned pact with others designed to 'game' the voting system, it will be a simply enormous shift in the attitude of the leadership. I'm not banking on it.

It is time the SNP stopped suggesting that tying the two inextricably together is good for independence. 

But there's a bigger problem with this strategy, which is that you can't necessarily turn an election into a referendum just because you want to.

Let's say we go down the first route ('SNP to the end'). You can say to all Yes supporters “vote wholeheartedly for the government even if you have qualms about this policy or that”. But you can't make them.

Where we stand now, if one in 20 Yes voters were sufficiently unhappy with even one thing the Scottish Government has done (perhaps over the EU, or docking doggies' tails, or Named Person, or compulsory testing of their children at school, or a general sense of complacency or whatever) and decide that they just need to express discontent, we lose.

Support for independence is solid; support for the SNP is not. It is time the SNP stopped suggesting that tying the two inextricably together is good for independence. Good for a struggling SNP possibly...

If the Option 22 is what we go for, the Scottish Government has a bit over three years to turn perceptions round. Or we need to come up with a tactical plan. Or we need to drive support and enthusiasm for independence from outside the party system and cross our fingers.

This is a perfectly possible option, but it is fraught with problems and should not be taken for granted. “Let's think about it later” is an unconvincing response.

Option 25+

If we attempt Option 22 and it fails (as the most recent polls say it would), there is no option left until the end of that parliamentary term in 2025. That leaves us squarely in the “it'll take a generation” approach of waiting until then.

However, that's so far over the horizon that there is virtually nothing meaningful that can be said about it. Just say to yourself “mibby one day” and get back on with your life.

And that's all folks…

It is a funny movement for self-determination that isn't determined to determine things for itself.

If there's a fourth option, I can't see it. Which means there could well be other options but they don't yet exist (perhaps Scottish Labour will change its constitutional position... perhaps the UK economy will entirely implode...).

So that's it. I could keep writing about the constitution forever, but where would that get us? In truth we're all hand-wringing, hoping 'someone' will do something. But 'someone' isn't. So we're starting to tell ourselves that now isn't quite the time or that patience is the key or that 'something will come up'.

All I can say is that it is a funny movement for self-determination that isn't determined to determine things for itself. I'm not that keen on macho-sounding quotes and I know we're all supposed to be good losers. But fuck that – good losers really are just losers.

At the risk of sounding like some awful motivational speaker, winners make decisions, losers wait for things to happen. And good decisions come from thinking clearly and talking together.

If there's something else to be said about this, I'm not sure what it is.

Picture courtesy of Maria Navarro Sorolla

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