Robin McAlpine: The independence movement's biggest battle is against denial

Common Weal director Robin McAlpine argues that no progress will be made towards Scottish independence until its supporters recognise the reality facing them

IT IS NOW 15 years since a George W Bush strategist scrawled 'we make our own reality' on a whiteboard. That philosophy – when you're powerful enough, you no longer need to be constrained by 'the reality-based community' – now appears to drive the SNP leadership.

For Bush's team, it was weapons of mass destruction; for the SNP leadership, it’s a referendum in 2020. In both cases there are entirely self-serving reasons for the pretence.

The problem is that it is always a matter of time before reality comes calling. We can see that in today's Middle East; we will soon see that the 2020 independence referendum is every bit as 'real' as those weapons of mass destruction.

But the SNP leadership (and its various enablers) are vigorously clinging on to the reality they have manufactured in which the referendum is round the corner and the Growth Commission wouldn't represent a cut in Tory spending levels (it does – see below).

Facts don't matter. Arithmetic doesn't matter. What matters is that enough people believe it for long enough to stave off an internal rebellion and that the grievance hits in time for the Scottish elections, where it will be used to achieve total power. A new reality will be manufactured at that point.

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Too much of the movement is in denial about this. Until that changes, there will be no momentum for progress. I'm finalising a strategy paper which I think sets out a coherent route to winning an independence referendum, but it will just get sucked into the SNP leadership alternative reality hole.

I'm not starting the New Year pessimistic – it has been as plain as the nose on your face for years now that this was going to be where we ended up. That it's dawning on people now (if my correspondence is anything to go by) just shows how much denial there has been.

Eventually things will change because all things change. Those who make a good income out the status quo will keep fighting to protect it, but in the end reality will come for them too.

There is no question in my mind there is a clear path to independence. It is just really frustrating that yet another six months look like they are going to be wasted before there is widespread recognition that we're not on it.

Here, in my opinion, is the size and shape of our denial.

There is no '45 per cent strategy' and never will be

I can't quite make out why we were so self-satisfied over a General Election in which independence-supporting parties won 45 per cent of the vote. Pop the corks and feel the euphoria – we've achieved five years of total stasis. Do you want to come to the photocopier room and look at the size of my mandate?

I don't think I've repeated any point more times in my life but any chance of getting independence in a mutually-agreed way, by persuading the public that Westminster is being anti-democratic or by convincing other nation-states to recognise a Scotland which has declared unilateral independence, is 100 per cent dependant on a majority of Scots supporting independence.

Every version of success begins with majority support; every single version of minority-support-based strategy is absolutely guaranteed to fail. Not as in 'probably' - as in zero chance.

So one more time – either we campaign based on a positive case for independence, stop talking about referendums for a bit and actually win over a majority of Scots, or we're utterly and completely wasting our time.

Party is being put before cause

I suspect you too will be familiar with the mantra that 'only the SNP is a vehicle for independence' – but it's a very self-serving perspective. At the moment only an SNP-Green coalition is able to deliver a formal legislative request for a Section 30 Order. From there, the actual campaign could be delivered in many ways.

There is 'reality-based community' data which shows that the voters we most need to win over are least persuaded by political parties, which strongly suggests the SNP shouldn't lead. But for the same self-serving reasons, that reality will continue to be denied.

If you don't believe me, a wee thought experiment: as a political strategist, the most obvious advance we could make would be if 5,000 indy supporters join Scottish Labour and 2,000 join the Scottish Lib Dems.

That, at a stroke, would change the independence policy of both parties and the argument would be fundamentally over – we'd be back to 'everyone but the Tories', which in Scotland is a strong working consensus.

If it was prioritising the interests of independence, the SNP would celebrate such a suggestion and welcome Labour's U-turn. If it was solely interested in maintaining the generous salaries so many now make out of the cause of independence the SNP would strenuously attack anyone who made that suggestion.

So what do you think? Self interest or self sacrifice?

The official case for independence is a disaster

I had a telling email exchange before Christmas. A correspondent of mine wrote: “Don't worry so much Robin, no-one takes the Growth Commission seriously outside the movement”.

This is a very worrying but very widespread misreading of reality. In fact absolutely everyone (media, opposition, the public) takes the Growth Commission seriously EXCEPT us. Why would they not? They've been told in no uncertain terms this is the case for independence. Only activists are in denial about this.

Be clear – a 2020 referendum would be a referendum on the Growth Commission and we're the only people who seem not to realise and accept this.

And there is now solid evidence about the impact this will have. When (finally) a journalist asks coherent questions about the Growth Commission, the inability to answer any of them results in a drop in support for independence.

Let me repeat that; after the Andrew Neil interview support for independence dropped. And it wasn't just Sturgeon's poor performance – Andrew Wilson had, I think, three days to formulate what Sturgeon should have said and came up with this.

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It is time to face reality. Do you want to gamble the entire cause of independence on the basis of these answers (which basically sum up as 'it's too complicated for you to understand')?

Of course, SNP HQ is relentlessly pushing the argument that there is a sentence saying 'no austerity'. But that's just selectively quoting the weapons inspectors to imply they mean the opposite of what they actually mean.

Arithmetic is quite a good way to deal with fantasy, so let's quickly do some. The Growth Commission demands that public spending must rise no faster than one per cent below GDP growth. In 2018 GDP grew by 1.4 per cent, so public spending could only rise at 0.4 per cent. But in that year public expenditure actually rose by 2.92 per cent. So the Growth Commission would have cut Tory spending levels in Scotland by 2.5 per cent in real terms.

In 2019 it is projected that final GDP growth will have been 1.2 per cent, but public spending will increase by 2.5 per cent, so that's a 2.3 per cent cut on Tory spending levels. In fact, in the last two years alone the Growth Commission would have cut nearly five per cent or £4 billion from Tory spending levels. (This effect will get much worse when Boris Johnson's infrastructure spending comes online.)

But hey, that's just arithmetic – the SNP has its own reality.

No-one owes us anything

At Christmas, a close family friend quizzed me on why some young RIC activists were campaigning for Labour in Scotland. I'm afraid I found the question to be loaded with entitlement – it's not like no-one warned in advance that 'you can lurch to the right, but you'll need to face up to the consequences'.

I fear the 'dissent police' don't realise just how many people they have driven out the movement. I bump into people all the time who say variations of 'it's not like 2014 when you were allowed your own opinions'. I mean, getting indy-hero Alasdair Gray to vote Labour is a remarkable achievement of the Sturgeon era.

Taking our lead from the top, too many of us behave like we have a god-given right to the compliance of others. We have lost humility; did you really believe you could just 'Twitter shame' young activists to deliver Growth Commission leaflets round the housing schemes?

We're due nothing; we earn it or we lose it. We're telling socialists they must first support austerity. We're telling the peace movement that they must first back Nato (and Sturgeon's rigorous adherence to the Nato line). We tell environmentalists that they must first support the unlimited expansion of oil and gas.

The SNP seems now to be based mostly on control, on 'this is your lot – suck it up and smile or something worse will happen'. But back here in the reality-based community there are consequences – and few people are smiling.

SNP HQ is low quality

Many of you seem to have a much stronger stomach for rampant ego and enforced hero worship than me. I'm not and never have been a fan of 'hail the great leader' political strategy; it made me queasy when it was 20 ft pictures of Tony Blair and it makes me queasy when it's 20 ft pictures of Nicola Sturgeon.

I'm far from alone in my distaste for the current overwhelming focus on one personality, but there seem to be enough people willing to believe that a solid victory against three barely electable alternatives retrospectively proves the quality of the campaign.

In reality it was one more in a string of poorly devised and poorly executed campaigns. I mean, name me another political party in modern political history which has run five consecutive campaigns on the same slogan?

Show me another campaign with such woefully poor message discipline (don't like that soundbite – here's another). Tell me who else spontaneously starts promoting the opposition's policy (Devo Max) without any consideration or preparation with days to go before the vote.

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I could go on and on, but in the end this is a campaign which managed to lose support for independence over its course and that's what you need to focus on. We won't be fighting Jeremy Corbyn in indyref, we'll be fighting the Scottish establishment.

In that context, I simply do not believe there is anything approaching sufficient quality in SNP HQ to be able to win an independence referendum alone (and I think it's pretty clear now that the next independence referendum is going to be an 'in house' affair).

Nor do I believe that Nicola Sturgeon and her husband (who control everything) have between them the skills to deliver independence. That needn't matter if one or other of them had ever demonstrated the capacity to work effectively with others.

I suspect the cunning plan is to get us into court to fight a long fight on Section 30 Orders we have no chance of winning, parking the issue and building up frustration they hope to redirect into more jobs at Holyrood for them.

That tactic I believe them capable of delivering; breaking the independence log jam I believe to be outside their skill set.

Continuity is futile

I repeat that I'm working on my best contribution to the debate on what we could do from here and I'm optimistic in the long term. Many of the cards we'll need to play are in our hands.

But ending the pretence that a bit more of what we're doing (vote SNP and then shut up while they do anything apart from campaign for independence) might to lead to a breakthrough is the first battle we must win.

Until we realise we can't win this until we talk about the future, that we can't win this by relentlessly punishing dissent, that we can't win this from 45 per cent, that sycophancy isn't a strategy, that the Growth Commission is a suicide note, that the movement has shrunk and must be rebuilt, that the ability to control is not the same as real ability – until we accept these things I can't see how we make progress.

But the chill breeze of reality will blow through our house sooner or later, it will blow the dust away and we'll be forced to look at things as they really are. It can't happen soon enough.

Picture: CommonSpace

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