Scottish independence supporters who attack the SNP’s strategy might reflect on where they would be now without the party, writes Euan McColm.
One of the great achievements of the SNP was the way that, during the 2014 independence referendum campaign, it managed to bring together various factions into one happy band.
It was not Cat Ladies for Scotland or the Angry Fat Dads Collective that made the big decisions
The Yes Scotland campaign saw Scottish nationalists, Greens, and radical socialists form an impressively united front.
That comradeship helped the pro-independence movement come within touching distance of its goal.
And even more impressive than the creation of that unlikely campaigning coalition was the way in which the nationalists managed to keep the band together after defeat at the ballot box.
Failure for Yes Scotland didn’t lead to the sort of recrimination and blame that almost always engulf losing campaigns. Instead, having come close(ish), with 45 per cent of the vote to Better Together’s 55, discipline remained intact: one last heave, went the mantra. One last heave and victory would be theirs.
For a while, that looked like a perfectly reasonable analysis. The SNP emerged from the referendum campaign as the dominant force in Scottish politics. Victory in 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in the 2015 general election told a story of a party with unstoppable momentum. The loss of the SNP’s Holyrood majority in 2016 was an inconvenient bump in the road but First Minister Nicola Sturgeon remained convinced that she could deliver the victory her predecessor, Alex Salmond, could not.
The loss of hundreds of thousands of voters in June’s general election saw 21 SNP MPs toppled. Not only was victory in another referendum now far from inevitable, there would be no second vote (for the foreseeable future).
This collision with reality has exposed tensions in the SNP. A number of Sturgeon’s parliamentary colleagues believe she was wrong, in spring, to propose holding indyref2 either late next year or early in 2019.
Those tensions have now spread through the wider Yes movement where, after years of happy co-operation, dissent has begun to show.
Recently, there have been attacks from the Green MSP Ross Greer on the pro-independence newspaper, The National. According to Greer, the publication – noted for its often outrageous front pages – does more harm than good to the independence movement. The pro-independence online publication, the CommonSpace, meanwhile, is under fire from some in the Yes movement for having the audacity to publish a piece in which a campaigner questioned the wisdom of supporting a nationalist blogger in his attempt to sue Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale for defamation.
And to top it all off, influential Yes campaigners and commentators have begun daring to question the SNP. It’s time, goes one popular line, for the multi-party Scottish Independence Convention – chaired by the actor Elaine C Smith – to be given the leading role in the battle to break up the United Kingdom.
Patience for this kind of thing is wearing thin in SNP headquarters. Correctly, I think, senior SNP figures reason that the party did more than any other group to deliver 45 per cent of the vote in 2014. Some dissenting voices in the Yes movement may suggest that some strategic error or other by the SNP cost them victory, but the truth, as party officials see it, is that it was the party’s campaigning brilliance that took Scottish nationalists so close to victory.
There was always something comically self-indulgent about parts of the Yes movement. I remember, for example, outrage from the Women for Independence group after the failure of the press to cover an event to which they had not been invited. I recall, fondly, National Collective, a group of self-styled “creatives” which believed that the path to independence would be lined with wish trees and that just one more poem might tip the balance in their favour.
While these and other groups certainly did much to paint a picture of a movement that was diverse and energetic, the brains of the Yes campaign remained – by and large – SNP ones. It was the SNP, not Cat Ladies for Scotland or the Angry Fat Dads Collective that made the big decisions.
Thus, Salmond and Sturgeon would turn their attention to an issue – the NHS, for example, which was on the brink of destruction and could only be saved by a new constitutional arrangement – and all those “grassroots” organisations would fall in behind them; Women for Independence would explain that only a Yes vote would preserve the health service, National Collective would release a poem.
The Yes campaign has had a rough few months. A second independence referendum will not now be held under the timetable proposed by Sturgeon: should she attempt to call another constitutional vote, the Westminster government will happily block her plans, safe in the knowledge that they’re acting in accordance with the wishes of a majority of Scottish voters.
So it’s easy to see why some in the independence movement might be getting edgy. But they should, if they want to maintain any kind of momentum in the pro-independence juggernaut, resist the temptation to push for greater authority in the Yes campaign for members of “grassroots” groups or the independence convention.
As one SNP strategist put it to me, these are “people who’ve never won a damned thing in their lives… without the SNP, they’d be nowhere”.
Of course, Sturgeon will display greater diplomacy in her dealings with fellow travellers on the constitutional road, but the point stands. She and her party colleagues – with some ruthlessly efficient campaigning – took Yes further than anyone (except, perhaps, Alex Salmond, who had prepared himself for victory) expected.
Unionist politicians watching spats and disagreements in the Yes movement spill over into the public arena will find it all very familiar, indeed. At different times, recrimination has been the seed of considerable damage to Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats. They know that this stuff doesn’t end well.
Campaigners for Scottish independence owe what success they have enjoyed to the SNP and if they don’t get back in line, they will live to regret it.