The danger Now Scotland poses is to the SNP - Euan McColm

When it comes to the political art of astroturfing, few parties can measure up to the SNP. The Nationalists are masters at creating what appear to be genuine grassroots organisations which, when viewed up close, turn out to be designed and directed by party officials.
Nicola Sturgeon has been clear in her approach to a referendumNicola Sturgeon has been clear in her approach to a referendum
Nicola Sturgeon has been clear in her approach to a referendum

Remember all those groups that came together under the Yes Scotland banner during the 2014 referendum campaign? By and large, they were run by SNP members taking orders from SNP strategists. Yes Scotland itself was largely funded and partially staffed by the Nationalists.

But cynical though the creation of the illusion of an unstoppable campaign that rose from the streets and housing schemes of Scotland might have been, there is no denying the effectiveness of the plan.

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As the referendum campaign rolled on, increasing numbers of people signed up to Yes Scotland, volunteering to deliver leaflets and host fund-raisers and so on. The organisation may have begun as a piece of astroturfing but by the time referendum day came round, it had started to look and smell like a genuine grassroots organisation. It had certainly attracted enough members from outside the political class to make the argument for its authenticity plausible.

There was, however, a downside for the SNP in the successful growing of Yes Scotland: those who volunteered or offered their support began to get ideas above their station. They began to believe the political rhetoric that said they were playing a crucial part in the battle for independence. In short, they started to think they knew what they were talking about.

This was hugely frustrating for SNP strategists, those smart men and women who, in consultation with a chosen few Yes Scotland executives, were behind the operation. They didn’t need activists doing their own thing, they needed them to do as they were told, to turn up for photocalls and rallies, and to let the small team at the top do the thinking.

Last week saw the launch of a new organisation which aims to play a leading role in the achievement of Scottish independence: Now Scotland. It is the offspring of All Under One Banner, the group that insists on organising tiresome pro-independence marches which, pre-lockdown, would clog up the streets of Scotland’s cities while the rest of us were trying to go about our business.

Now Scotland describes itself as a “grassroots, non-party campaign” which champions independence “now – not later”. The organisation’s inaugural committee is a veritable “who’s that?” of Scottish public life, a rag-bag of second-rate politicians and campaigners whose achievements I am unable, on the grounds of their non-existence, to list.

Pro-Union campaigners have nothing to fear from this new organisation. Rather, if it is going to cause trouble for anyone, it will be First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon.

Sturgeon has long made her position on how independence might be achieved perfectly clear. She believes that a legally-established referendum will require the UK government’s co-operation. Without the Prime Minister’s agreement, using Section 30 of the Scotland Act to say that the Scottish Government can run a referendum, none will take place.

Nationalists may insist that a majority for the SNP and its sub-division, the Scottish Green Party, in May’s Holyrood election will provide a cast-iron mandate for another referendum but it is perfectly clear that Prime Minister Boris Johnson does not share this view. He has said he will not use a Section 30 order to give the SNP what it wants and this, I think, is one of those rare occasions where the PM is not lying.

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And so some Nationalists want to see an alternative strategy, a Plan B for independence. There is considerable support among the impatient for the Scottish Government to go ahead and organise a referendum without the agreement of the PM. If he thought it illegal, he could challenge this in the courts, they say.

There’s more than a little magical thinking in that one. Why would the PM give the SNP their day in court? Instead, Unionist parties would boycott an illegal referendum and its result would be meaningless.

Sturgeon knows that going down the road towards an illegal referendum would be disastrous.

But others don’t have such clear heads. Now Scotland, with its demand for independence sooner rather than later, will I’m sure gain the support of many in Scotland who favour a more radical approach. And when I write radical, I mean stupid and destructive.

Wiser pro-independence campaigners will look at how the SNP moved from the fringes of Scottish politics to a position of dominance and then delivered a referendum. This was a long and slow process that involved the careful reassurance of people in Scotland that the SNP could be trusted to act with prudence in government. The Nationalists did not take control of Scotland by being radical and edgy but by being cautious and steady.

There exists a middle Scotland and it is not, I think, ready to buy its apples from Now Scotland’s cart.

So when Sturgeon does not deliver the referendum Now Scotland demands, what will it do? Will it agitate for the SNP leader to be replaced by someone who will gamble on an illegal referendum? If it does and it succeeds, it may find those cautious voters who trust Sturgeon are less likely to put their faith in a new firebrand first minister.

Now Scotland is a product of the SNP’s success. It is founded and directed by people who are part of a movement that owes its strength entirely to the strategy of the SNP.

If Now Scotland’s founders think they know better than Nicola Sturgeon, they are in for a rude awakening. Right now, they stand only to damage the cause they support.



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