Why unionists must build grassroots insurgency against Scottish Establishment – John McLellan

Angus Robertson and Joanna Cherry's fight to win the SNP nomination for Edinburgh Central is being seen as a battle between Sturgeon loyalists and those who want an independence referendum whether Westminster agrees or not (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)Angus Robertson and Joanna Cherry's fight to win the SNP nomination for Edinburgh Central is being seen as a battle between Sturgeon loyalists and those who want an independence referendum whether Westminster agrees or not (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Angus Robertson and Joanna Cherry's fight to win the SNP nomination for Edinburgh Central is being seen as a battle between Sturgeon loyalists and those who want an independence referendum whether Westminster agrees or not (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
The problem with the unionist Better Together campaign ahead of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was that it was run by the Labour party, writes John McLellan.

Most of us have experienced the perils of electronic communication; hit reply when you meant to press forward, reply all when you only meant to reply to one and thinking you have the right email address which turns out to be someone else.

Edinburgh Council Conservative group leader Iain Whyte is very definitely not Iain Whyte, office manager for SNP MSP Paul Wheelhouse, but into his inbox came details of discussions within the SNP about the Scottish economy if ever independence was achieved and promoting the views of nationalist economist Dr Tim Rideout, a prominent proponent of a new Scottish currency.

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It described the SNP’s Growth Commission recommendation to retain Sterling in the first instance as a “neo-liberal conforming banking model”, and suggested the East Lothian SNP should support a motion at the next national conference to establish a Government-owned Scottish Reserve Bank within the first term of an independent parliament.

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If it was that simple the Growth Commission chair Andrew Wilson, one of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s closest advisers, would have recommended it, but the practicalities and the reality that changing currency would be fatal to any campaign are obviously of no concern to some nationalists. Such moves to build grass-roots support for the Rideout alternative expose another fault line in the independence movement which, judging by recent articles and social media activity, is becoming critical.

A month ago the pro-independence blogger Stuart Campbell published a lengthy article which described Ms Sturgeon as “The Betrayer” and accused the SNP giving the appearance of wanting a second referendum but doing all it could to prevent it. “Everyone knows it isn’t going to happen. Any SNP politician you ask will tell you privately that it isn’t going to happen. Any claim to the contrary is a bare-faced lie,” he wrote.

He went further: “As a political party rather than a cause, then, independence is undeniably a massive threat to the SNP. So the last thing it needs right now, for a whole boatload of reasons, is another referendum any time soon.”

Independence supporters are listening, to the extent that long-standing SNP voters are dismayed by what they see as relative newcomers making impatient demands for a vote which they can’t guarantee to win and would kill the dream if they lost. You don’t have to look far in SNP ranks to find hard left-wingers for whom independence represents a short-cut and a chance to rock the British establishment and whose primary motivation is hatred of the Conservatives.

“Never in my 35ish years as an SNP voter and yesser have I seen this level of problems in the party and movement,” tweeted one, and it’s reached the stage where there are now wild allegations that the Vote Now faction is being driven by MI5 infiltrators. “It’s more than just self-harm by party members, it has to be driven by infiltrators,” said another. So Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil is actually a British sleeper? I don’t think so.

The division is being played out in Edinburgh Central, with ex-deputy leader Angus Robertson once again taking to the pages of the Evening News to emphasise his bid for the SNP nomination to fight the Holyrood seat in 2021 was not the start of a leadership campaign but to provide Ms Sturgeon with a trusted lieutenant. But in so doing he has made it even more of a fight between Sturgeon loyalists and supporters of Joanna Cherry who promises to abandon her Edinburgh South-West Westminster constituency if elected.

Given the SNP’s consistently strong election performances since 2015, it is extraordinary that the leader has had to come out more than once in recent weeks to emphasise her commitment to the job while the rumour mill about her future churns on relentlessly.

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Meanwhile Ms Cherry is trumping the leadership by proposing court action to test the legality or otherwise of a referendum without Westminster approval, which is the drive people like Stuart Campbell want to see.

Apart from the obvious delight in seeing the SNP fighting like ferrets in a sack, what can the unionist camp take from all of this? Getting the right email addresses for one thing, but another is the potential power of a campaign which is not a political party.

All Under One Banner has put pressure on the SNP leadership, but a Union movement does not require UK supporters to take to the streets waving Union flags. For all the thousands who marched in support of the EU compared to the motley handful at Leave events, look what happened.

Taking the message away from a political party breaks the direct association with day-to-day policy and also avoids the cumbersome machinery of approval which comes with party politics.

One weakness of Better Together in 2013-14 was Labour control which put everything through its filter. Now Scottish Labour is a busted flush, a new unionist movement does not have to worry about what Richard Leonard or Jackie Baillie might think, or, for that matter, Boris Johnson, Jackson Carlaw or Willie Rennie.

Unlike Better Together a broad pro-UK campaign should not rely on hard economic argument alone; what matters is effectiveness.

It is already late in the day for such an organisation but not too late, and the beginnings of something important were on show at last weekend’s These Islands conference in Newcastle organised by unionist blogger and economist Kevin Hague.

Armed to the teeth with data as it is, These Islands can form the statistical basis of a campaign, but the numbers are not enough. There are other groups; Scotland Matters, Scotland in Union, Scottish Business UK (in which Kevin Hague is also involved) to name three, so the resources are there.

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It might seem counter-intuitive, but another advantage is that as the SNP’s grip on Scottish institutions tighten a unionist campaign can become an insurgency which challenges the Scottish establishment, but that won’t work if its association is with the Conservative establishment in London.

The examples from home and abroad are there to follow but the key is forgetting party political structures or goals, and that means no role for old silverbacks like Gordon Brown.

As Stuart Campbell points out, the SNP is only the best means of delivering independence but, as arguments over currency illustrate, after independence it will go the same way as Sinn Fein after Irish independence in 1922 and split.

Unionism’s differences are there for all to see, but only now are those of nationalism being fully exposed.



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