Differentiating the case for independence from the SNP’s manifesto, and what did the general election tell us anyway?
When will the referendum be? It’s not off the table and if I am reading the statement delivered yesterday correctly, Nicola Sturgeon has signalled that it’ll be in this Scottish parliamentary term. So that’s some point before May 2021. It’s unlikely to be May 2021, because that’s when the Holyrood elections are, so I’m guessing any time up to Autumn 2020.
That’s good. It gives us time.
What we need to do first is learn some lessons.
I’m going to get to the SNP and their role shortly, but first I want to look at the general election of June 2017, not for the SNP’s role, but for that of the Tories.
Was there a pro-Unionist vote or not?
We have been told that the rise in the Scottish Tory fortunes (and to some degree those of the smaller parties, Scottish Labour and Scottish Lib Dems) was because of a vote for the Union. But was it? Are we sure about that?
Look at the actual message. The Tories sold two simple messages – 1. no to a “divisive second referendum on independence”, and 2. They’re the Ruth Davidson party.
Let’s take them one at a time. The first message is not them making a case for the Union. Nor is it simply a case against independence. It’s a case against another referendum.
Why? Why did they go for that angle? My guess is that they’d done voter research and discovered that there was considerable voter fatigue. People in Scotland had had an independence referendum in 2014, a UK general election in 2015, Scottish Parliament elections in 2016, an EU referendum in 2016, local council elections in May 2017 and now a UK general election in June 2017. I think the message the researchers were getting back was that many people had had enough.
What the Scottish Tories then had to do was hang their argument on that peg. And they did it with single-mindedness and skill. (I think it was a strategy they had in place long before May called the June general election, because they used it in the May local elections, too. Which no doubt helped them continue to drive the message home in June).
Look at the wording on the leaflets:
“Another divisive referendum campaign”
“Rather than listen to people who don’t want her referendum…”
“An unwanted, divisive second referendum”.
“The only way to bring the SNP back down to size and say no to their referendum is by voting Scottish Conservative”.
This message clearly struck home for many people, some of them former SNP voters. But let’s be precise about what the message was: it was a message opposing another referendum.
Jim Sillars has been saying this for a while now, and often getting no thanks for his pains. I don’t agree with Jim about everything, but I do think he’s right about this. However, it’s worth pointing out that I’m only making an educated guess, just as Sillars is. (Robin McAlpine made some useful points about voter research here: CommonSpace. He also has something to say about the inadvisability of trying to sell the idea of a referendum per se: don’t). But we can find out if it’s a good educated guess fairly easily.
Most people are not anoraks
Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think referendums are “divisive”, nor do I think debate is “divisive”. I enjoyed the 2014 indyref. I found it an exciting and positive time. But I’m a political anorak (and let’s face it, if you’re reading this far down the page on my blog, so are you); most people are not. For many people, four election campaigns, two referendum campaigns, and a handful of different electoral systems all within a three-year period is more than enough. The thought of another is probably pretty off-putting. And the Tories skillfully tapped into that.
The second Tory message I’m less interested in. It seems that they found that a certain target group tends to like Ruth Davidson. I don’t personally get what it is they’re responding to, but I’m not interested in getting into a discussion of her personality. I do think it’s inadvisable for any organisation to hook their wagon to a star in the longer term, though. But that’s an issue for them
Differentiating between the movement and its largest party
Now the SNP. During the last indyref, we had the somewhat mixed blessing of the White Paper. For understandable reasons, it was a prospectus not so much for independence, but for the programme of an SNP government post-independence. This is because they were being asked those questions. But there’s actually a difference between independence and the manifesto of the SNP post-independence. The independence movement needs to put the former, and the SNP can put the latter. We need people to be able to distinguish the two things. If the electorate judge the merits of the case for independence on whether or not they approve of the SNP, then we will lose the referendum again. Remember, by Autumn 2020, the SNP will have been in government for 13 years.
What the pro indy movement needs to do is set out why independence is a good thing. It needs to be able to make that case whether or not the SNP is the first government. Remember, people were asked to vote for Brexit regardless of which parties would form post-Brexit UK governments. This does not stop the SNP from setting out its stall. But if people start to think that the only reason to have independence is to let the SNP (or any other party) implement its policies, then we’re in trouble. The SNP needs to be a party, and the pro indy movement needs to be a movement. The SNP will, of course, be a major part of that, but we do need the electorate to be able to differentiate between the SNP and the indy movement. And some SNP loyalists will need to learn to realise that not everyone in the indy movement agrees with the SNP on everything, and that this is OK.
Being clear about the task for the movement
I think Robin McAlpine is right that the White Paper was too sprawling, but more importantly that much of it “barely related to the actual process of independence” (1). He says that “Restricting ourselves only to the institutions and infrastructure required of a new country but which is not currently in place in Scotland, we should build a coherent, thought-through plan” (2).
Correct. That’s where we are now, and that’s what needs to be done. Individual parties can do their own thing, but the indy movement as a whole needs to be able to make a clear case for why independence is desirable, and to be able to present a coherent plan for the process of becoming independent.
(1) McAlpine, R, (2016) Determination: how Scotland can become independent by 2021, Glasgow: CommonPrint (p27)