Gregor Gall: SNP must fight for more great social rights

Alex Salmond can boost his breakaway bid by detailing how good things could be for Scots, writes Gregor Gall

EARLY 2013 brought the rather disheartening news for the Yes Scotland campaign that the level of support for independence has dropped consistently below 30 per cent over the past quarter, according to TNS BRMB polling. There was no genuine succour because opposition to independence has dropped slightly when support for the Union remains a hefty 20 percentage points above that for independence.

The failure to create momentum in the right direction is all the more profound given the Edinburgh Agreement was signed in mid-October by David Cameron and Alex Salmond.

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It was then followed by the SNP’s conference. A canny campaign would have been able to use these events not just to fire up the Yes campaign, but to increase the legitimacy for – and credibility of – the case for independence.

So it’s an opportune moment to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the independence campaign in order to see if it can create the needed momentum to win the 2014 referendum.

The starting point must be the statement of key independence strategist Stephen Noon that Yes Scotland’s launch on 25 May 2012 “will see the start of the biggest community-based campaign in Scotland’s history”. A mere three weeks later, Yes Scotland’s Fiona MacGregor definitively proclaimed: “Yes Scotland is the biggest community-led campaign this country has ever seen.”

And then on New Year’s Day this year, a spokeswoman for the campaign reiterated the now in-house dogma by saying: “We’ve always said Yes Scotland would be the biggest grassroots community campaign Scotland has ever seen.” Despite the slight change in tense, the triumph of assertion over empirical substance is troubling because it goes well beyond reasonable but seasoned aspiration.

Those with even a half-decent memory will recall that not only was the anti-poll tax campaign much, much bigger and community-based, but it was also a genuine social movement and a powerful one at that. Some may venture that even the Scottish anti-war campaign of 2003 onwards was also hugely significant.

The problem for Yes Scotland here is not just one of fanciful, pre-emptive evaluation, but also wrong-headed perspective. If the referendum is to be won, then it is not just a campaign that is needed but a social movement (that does not yet exist).

This movement needs to be one which is not only embedded in communities and workplaces but also resonates with citizens’ material (economic and social) grievances so that it becomes a mass phenomenon as the anti-poll tax revolt did. Looking to Catalonia and its 1.5 million pro-independence demonstration last September would be a start.

Arguing as Yes Scotland does that “it is fundamentally better for all of us if decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by the people who care most about Scotland – that is by the people of Scotland. It is the people who live here who will do the best job of making our nation a fairer, greener and more successful place” is insufficient to set the metaphorical heather alight.

So let’s look now at how Yes Scotland is developing as a campaigning organisation. More than 100 local groups have been established. Its regional launches have attracted several hundred citizens each, boding well for these activists becoming the cog that turns a bigger wheel of supporters and sympathisers. Moreover, they have been given the autonomy to decide what particular aspects to campaign on as well as how to do this.

In practice, whether they can use this latitude to convince will depend upon their political nous to choose the right issues. Fuel poverty and caps on price rises would provide more mileage than nationhood and national self-determination.

But it will also be dependent on whether the target of 10,000 ambassadors (ie activists) are recruited, and soon. By early June last year, just a few days after its launch, Yes Scotland claimed it had 4,000 – although it was then noted at the end of the year that it had just over 3,000.

So far, it has gained only a fraction of the target one million signatures to its declaration it has set itself. By St Andrew’s Day last year, it had 143,000 signatories. These early signatories were the easy pickings – the low hanging fruit. It will prove much harder to now pull in the other 800,000 needed. Even though Yes Scotland is doing better in these organisational aspects than Better Together, this matters little as it has a far steeper hill to climb.

The domination of the Yes Scotland campaign by the SNP is both a strength and a weakness. The SNP can bring its 25,000 members to bear, use its highly sophisticated database of voter behaviour and its social media expertise. But the downside of this is that it makes the other partners in Yes Scotland (like the Greens and Scottish Socialist Party) look like minnows there for the window-dressing effect.

There is no doubt that the SNP is taking the Yes Scotland campaign seriously. It has drafted in the doughty Nicola Sturgeon to take responsibility for overseeing it. But she will have to do considerably more hard-hitting campaigning than making speeches to small audiences and starting her own independence blog.

As a more socially democratic-inclined politician than Salmond, she needs to convince that the main reason for voting for independence is to guarantee citizens a better standard of living.

She must assert that there should be a constitutional right to free education and a home in post-independent Scotland, as Salmond has, and Sturgeon needs to quantify what these and other social rights would be. A living wage rather than a minimum wage would be one example. Living student grants rather than just no student fees would be another.

This is where the battle for independence will be lost – or won.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire ([email protected])