SNP must adapt its independence strategy to make it fit for the new global age – Stewart McDonald

As conflicts around the world like those in Israel and Ukraine, climate change and the cost-of-living crisis create a sense of foreboding, the SNP should ditch its plans for a ‘de facto’ referendum and focus on delivering sound government

There are some crimes which almost defy comprehension. I could not begin this column without first acknowledging the horror we witnessed last week: children and Holocaust survivors murdered in their homes by terrorists in the deadliest day for the Jewish community since the Holocaust, peace-loving and hopeful young people slaughtered as they danced and laughed together, entire kibbutzim forced to flee from what survivors described as a modern-day pogrom. There is not and can never be any justification for what took place last week in Israel.

I express my sympathy and solidarity and repeat here my unequivocal support for the Jewish community, in Scotland and Israel, and for Israel’s right to exist and defend itself against terrorism. While the temptation for revenge and reprisal may be at the forefront of the Israeli government’s mind, we must insist they abide by international law and work with the UN to secure humanitarian access to the innocent people of Gaza. Too much innocent blood has already been shed, and the civilian population of Gaza, which includes our own First Minister’s loved ones, must not be collectively punished in a violent siege by the Israeli military.

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I hope you will forgive any sense of bathos as I turn to the subject of this week’s column: my party’s conference in Aberdeen. But the unprecedented horror of the events in the Middle East, like the illegal invasion of Ukraine, sends a clear signal that we are living in a world more unstable, more fractured, and more contested than at any point in my lifetime. We are living in what Professor Adam Tooze, of Columbia University in New York, described as the “polycrisis”, a world in which distinct, successive political and economic shocks steadily chip away at our individual and collective ability to weather them.

You might have felt this when watching the news from the Middle East this week, when counting the impact of inflation on your food shopping, or when reading about heatwaves sweeping the world this summer. Much like watching the seawater go out, you know the waves will inevitably come crashing in. It is the feeling, shared by so many people across this country, that things may be bad now but the worst is yet to come.

Politicians who understand the confluence of global and domestic crises can see clearly we are in an age defined by insecurity. The UK isn’t sitting that out. The feeling of despair and decline in people’s own personal circumstances and the country at large understandably leads to a feeling of resignation and limping on to the inevitable crises to come. Government’s job is to steer the country forward and turn a page to better times.

Politics is nothing without a positive vision of the future. But to have a vision that hits the sweet spot, we in the SNP need to take a step back from the twists, turns and dramas of what we’ve gone through this year and look at the national and global macro-level picture, to articulate the sentiments felt by people across the country, and set out a vision for a prosperous, secure, and resilient Scotland that is rooted in the reality of now. That is central to getting the hearing we need from the electorate, and it is something the SNP has excelled at before. My party’s central mission of securing Scotland’s independence is, by its very nature, underpinned by an explicit vision of the kind of country we could and should be.

Independence will rightly remain the SNP’s North Star. But against the backdrop of a world and country in flux, my party’s leadership must resist the temptation to invoke a de facto referendum as a means to try to unite the party at conference and in the hope it will get us through one election. This is no time for short-termism.

Last summer, the then First Minister announced her intention to hold an independence referendum on October 19 this year. That, the eagle-eyed among you will notice, is next Thursday. It is simply not fair to our members to keep marching them up and down the hill, instead of having an honest and frank conversation – among all of us – about what the path to an independent Scotland looks like against the current political and economic backdrop. And we should do that in a way that doesn’t misread our own party’s history, doesn’t misread what SNP voters are telling us and, most importantly of all, doesn’t misread the mood of the country at large. Settling on an immediate de-facto referendum – irrespective of how you want to count success – would ignore all these things, and show little understanding of how economic, social, and political assumptions are being up-ended, including in Scotland. This isn’t about downgrading or back-peddling on independence, but embarking on a bold, ambitious, and strategic reset that has an emphasis on competent delivery in government, and developing a modernised case for independence that we can build a new generation of voters behind.

Despite much of the gloom above, we must always be a positive and hopeful force in politics. From the pages of the Financial Times to the Oval Office, and the streets of Scotland, the orthodoxies that defined the past 40 years are being contested across the Western world. We are in the early days of a technological revolution that will transform the way that government and society will conduct business. This rapidly changing world, though challenging, is redolent with opportunity for Scotland, and we will win, not by shying away from change but by shaping it. A renewed case for independence must be fit for the modern world, and to be the change-makers Scotland needs today, we mustn’t lose that finely tuned ear for what the voters are telling us. Party unity is important to political success. Sound government and strategic ambition will secure it.

Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South



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