Divided they stand: The pursuit of Scottish independence
The launch of the Yes Scotland campaign saw some unlikely travelling companions hit the road together in pursuit of independence
PETER de Vink leaned forward and tapped his pro-independence comrade on the shoulder. Colin Fox turned and greeted his ally. For the first time, the right-wing, tax-cutting Conservative and the far-left, public ownership-supporting Socialist were on the same side.
Appropriately enough for such a fantasy encounter, the venue was a cinema. They were seated on Friday morning in the darkness of the soulless Cineworld multiplex off Edinburgh’s Western Approach Road, alongside 400 or so other independence supporters, all awaiting the start of the day’s entertainment.
There, in the dark, a coming-of-age ceremony of sorts was taking place. The cause of independence has always been under the sole care of the SNP. Over the last five years, since the party won power at Holyrood, it has, like a much-loved only child, been wrapped up and protected, spared from any cuts and bruises along the way. Last year’s election success has meant some quick growing up has been required. And, there in the cinema on Friday, the SNP gathered to wave it off on its journey into the world.
The launch of the Yes Scotland campaign marks the start of the two-and-a-half year campaign prior to the expected October 2014 date of the referendum. While the campaign is run by SNP activists and has the party’s muscle and organisational weight behind it, the campaign launched on Friday was not an SNP one. Rather, in order to show evidence of a broad church, it saw people from across the political spectrum united in their backing for the big idea. However, a church that contains both Fox and de Vink is a recipe for chaos.
“We got on like a house on fire,” insists de Vink, the 71-year-old corporate financier, and New Club member, of his new chum. “They [the Scottish Socialists] are enormously well-intentioned people. They are just misguided.”
De Vink had been removed from the Conservative Party candidates list earlier this year after noting his support for independence. He promptly went on to win a seat as an independent on Midlothian Council – earning Fox’s respect.
“The guy was a Tory and yet he managed to get elected in places like Easthouses and Mayfield,” says the SSP leader, referring to two of former pit villages in Midlothian.
De Vink told Fox he’d held an event in the Mayfield Miners Club and got hundreds to turn up. Fox hit back, saying the last time he was there, he’d brought along Arthur Scargill and got 700 people to come along.
Such odd couplings are what Alex Salmond was hoping for. The aim of the first stage of his campaign for independence was to find common cause. That “core principle”, as he enunciated it in the cinematic gloom on Friday, was to state that decisions about Scotland’s future should be taken by the people “who care most about Scotland, that is, by the people of Scotland”.
Without apparent irony, the First Minister claimed his opponents were “rich” – failing to note that sitting in the front row were pro-independence Colin and Chris Weir, the Euromillions lottery winners who have handed the SNP £1m in campaigning cash.
Consequently, Salmond said, with such a determined foe, the pro-independence cause would need to find supporters from all over Scotland. The fact that de Vink and Fox were along, each denoting the far limits of that spectrum, paid testament to his success so far.
And yet, notes Fox, there is a problem with that, too. “I think perhaps it’s a strength and an Achilles’ heel,” he says, of Salmond’s broad church. “There’s no point trying to gloss over that Peter and I don’t share many views about the economy. That can create political incoherence.”
It may be the right politics to show independence is a cause that unites both Fox and de Vink. But, as Fox says, might it not also lead to a muddle? Vote yes, the broad nationalist church said. But yes to what?
With Salmond having left the auditorium without taking questions, members of the Scottish press pack were growing restless with the lack of detail on offer after events had wrapped up.
The campaign team, assisted by former BBC Scotland news and current affairs chief Blair Jenkins, attempted to explain that the press were perhaps looking in the wrong place. The launch, they said, had been simply about setting out the big “principle” upon which the campaign would be fought – to hand power to people living here. The Friday launch was also not one about precise policy detail, but about kicking off a campaign aimed, bluntly, at getting people’s votes and support.
One of the organisers sought to compare this new campaign with the one that brought about devolution in 1997. Then, Salmond and Donald Dewar had put aside their differences to campaign for a “yes-yes” vote. Everyone knew that after the campaign, Salmond would say farewell to Dewar and continue with his goal of securing more powers and independence.
This time round, the disparate groups involved would be doing the same. The SNP government plans to publish a white paper in 2013 which will be the blueprint upon which people can assess a form of independence, But, once fought, the political causes would go their own way.
And, if independence happens, it would then be for voters in elections after independence to decide the direction of the new country through the tried-and-tested method of the ballot box. “We could be run by UKIP,” said one of the SNP aides in an attempt to explain his point – although presumably not that seriously.
As former SNP MSP Duncan Hamilton explains on page 15, the point of Friday was to demonstrate that the entire campaign believes that independence is sine qua non. Hamilton argues that it is “healthy” that, within that campaign, divergent views on policy should be held. Organisers say that, apart from Salmond, they did not know what the speakers were planning to say on Friday – this was not an on-message event.
“The point is not to limit what independence means, but rather to win independence and thereafter offer the widest possible choice to the people of Scotland,” notes Hamilton.
But this is not how some of those independence supporters who turned up on Friday from outside the SNP see it. Independence is not, for them, sine qua non, but purely a means to an end.
Green party leader Patrick Harvie, accorded equal status at the launch to Salmond, began his speech by stating bluntly: “Greens are not nationalists”. He was backing independence, he said, because he believed it would provide the best path towards pursuing Green policies. Salmond’s vision, he said earlier in the week, had an element of “middle-of-the-road blandness”. Harvie had gone on to ask why it was that the SNP insisted on keeping Scotland’s people as subjects, after independence, to the monarchy.
Over at the SSP, Fox, not surprisingly, concurs. “Alex Salmond’s strategy is ca’ canny. I think that is unpersuasive. Looking at the polls, if it’s easy as she goes, then you lose. You have got to stir things up.”
He added: “I think Salmond has miscalculated. He thinks sticking with the monarchy and saying things will be the same is the way to go. What are we saying here? That the same financiers who ran the City of London are going to run Scotland? That will just bring on the same inequalities.”
He went on: “The luvvies and the celebrities have their place, but when it comes down to it I don’t think the endorsement of whoever is going to make much difference. Brian Cox [the Dundee-born Hollywood actor who was among those speaking on Friday] doesn’t pay the gas bill.”
The hard sums and the economic case for independence will all trickle out over the next few months, the SNP declared. Already on the Yes Scotland website, the core economic arguments are being rehearsed – most notably analysis to dampen the deeply-held belief, damaging to the pro-independence cause, that Scotland is subsidised by the rest of the UK.
As for criticism that the launch was dominated far too much by those on the Left, organisers argue that it is precisely voters on the Left, especially the “soft-Nat” Labour voters who switched to the SNP in their thousands last year, who hold the key to the 2014 referendum. The new website is designed to allow groups to set up, around certain interests. Along with “women” and “business”, another is “Labour movement”. With Tory and Lib Dem voters known to be far more solidly supportive of the union, the campaign’s appeal to Scotland’s core Labour voters will be vital in getting them over the 50 per cent.
Sitting in the cinema last week (where, notably, he was not asked to speak), de Vink listened as Cox harangued the “appalling” Margaret Thatcher. De Vink had been on TV a few nights earlier praising her success.
“I felt on occasions that some of the things they said gave me a little bit of discomfort,” he agreed. But then, he said, that jarring political note was quashed by the passion of the event. “I have to say I was overwhelmed by what happened. It was the best choreographed event I have seen for a very long time. Mrs Weir [the lottery winner] was brushing off the tears.”
For de Vink, the emotion of the case for independence is enough to trump any discordant political feelings. The cause of independence is what unites. The tribal arguments and policy disputes between parties are all encompassed beneath that.
For people like Fox, however, harder facts about the political consequences of independence are required. Alistair Darling, he noted, had responded to the launch of the Yes Scotland campaign by focusing entirely on the economic benefits of Scotland remaining in the UK. The pro-independence campaign will only win, he argues, if it can match Darling’s argument on the economy, by showing that people will be better off – not by principled democratic arguments about which people are best placed to run the country.
Meanwhile, in the pro-union camp, there is a quiet confidence after last week that the launch failed to meet expectations, nor provided people outside the cinema with a clear picture of what independence offers.
“People are entitled to know what independence is going to offer,” says one key figure in the camp. “Alex Salmond has been able to be all things to all men up until now. But if he doesn’t set out what the point of it is, then it’s a pig in a poke.” Within the cinema, anything looks possible. Back in the real world, however, the campaign for independence has still got a lot of work to do.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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