George Kerevan looks at a week of growing tensions between the pro-independence grassroots and the SNP leadership.
When the history books are written, it might be that the second week in November 2020 proved significant for the struggle for Scottish self-determination. Three key events have occurred – virtually lost to the mainstream media – which could alter the balance of forces between the independence movement and an increasingly conservative, bureaucratic SNP leadership.
– First, on Saturday 14 November, the grassroots All Under One Banner (AUOB) group organised a national assembly attended by over 500 leading movement activists, which took the first steps in setting up an independence campaign autonomous from the SNP.
– Second, on Monday 16 November, came the publication of the agenda for the SNP National Conference, which had been gerrymandered outrageously to reject from the order paper some 138 branch resolutions plus all grassroots amendments to the official six leadership motions. In particular, the leadership blocked a public debate on referendum strategy, a Scottish currency, and an independent Scotland ratifying the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This has provoked outrage among ordinary members.
– Third, the publication on 17 November of a paper from the SNP Westminster group of its submission to the UK Government integrated review of foreign policy and defence. Amid the verbiage there is a clear shift towards multilateralism, a disingenuous softening of the party’s commitment to unilaterally ratifying the UN Treaty on Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons, and a call for Lossiemouth to be the hub for combined Scottish, UK and US P-8 maritime bombers. Again, this has caused deep concern among veteran anti-nuclear campaigners inside the SNP.
A NEW GRASSROOTS ORGANISATION
The tentative name for the new grassroots campaign body set up at the AUOB assembly is YesAlba. It will be a membership organisation along the lines of the Welsh YesCymru. Details of the structure, decision-making process and campaign projects will be discussed at another internet assembly scheduled for Sunday 22 November.
YesAlba represents the first serious external challenge to the hegemony of the SNP parliamentary leadership circle. AUOB emerged spontaneously in 2017 after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon summarily shut down the SNP’s campaign for a second independence referendum in the wake of the party’s losses in the June Westminster general election. Though the SNP won a clear majority of seats in Scotland, it lost nearly half a million (mostly working class) votes compared to the 2015 election.
This suggested popular disenchantment with the SNP’s growing parliamentary conservatism, vacuous political messaging (so not to frighten the Scottish middle classes); and often slavish devotion to EU institutions (which the party leadership uses as an incessant excuse not to take interventionist steps in the industrial economy).
Into this political vacuum stepped AUOB, an ad hoc group of working class activists largely outside SNP membership. They launched a series of local and national marches designed to build public support for independence, maintain grassroots morale, and put pressure on the SNP leadership to revive the demand for a second independence referendum. These marches struck a chord with frustrated SNP members many of whom had already abandoned internal activity (such as it was) for reanimating non-party, local Yes groups and undertaking local campaigning activity unbidden by the SNP hierarchy. The AUOB campaign culminated in October 2019 with a march of some 200,000 people in Edinburgh.
It was only a matter of time before the frustrations of grassroots independence campaigners led to calls for autonomous organisation. This process was quickened by the SNP leadership’s endorsement of the so-called Growth Commission Report in 2019, which advocated keeping Sterling without monetary control, and generally embraced a pro-market economic strategy. At the same time, the growing dominance of conservative figures in the SNP’s Westminster group led to the party adopting an increasingly pro-NATO, pro-multilateralist security and foreign policy.
Combined, these tendencies have split the independence movement on class lines between its working class, activist base and right-wing leadership. Meanwhile, the SNP top brass has sought to court business and upper middle class elements of the traditional Scottish Unionist establishment. To do so it has downplayed any overt confrontation with the British state or any initiatives it cannot control. It has moved heaven and earth to contain and manipulate debate at the forthcoming national conference on 28-30 November.
Technically and constitutionally, SNP policy is made by its annual conference. But policy motions first have to get on the conference agenda. And conference agenda is decided by the new Conference Committee.. Deputy SNP leader Kirstin Oswald will chair the annual conference, so her word is law under the SNP constitution. A political centrist, Oswald is also a leadership loyalist who works closely with Alyn Smith, the former MEP and now the party’s uber conservative, pro-EU Westminster foreign affairs spokesperson. Smith is also convener of the SNP’s policy development committee, a nebulous body that ensures nothing is done to interfere with the right of the First Minister and her husband (SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell) to dictate the party line.
This year the leadership has overdone the censorship. Normally the SNP conference is a motherhood and apple pie affair designed to dampen any political hostages to fortune. Occasionally things get out of hand, as at the 2019 spring conference in Edinburgh, when delegates ignored the script and passed an amendment mandating the SNP government in an independent Scotland to introduce a separate Scottish currency “as soon as practicable”, instead of keeping the pound. The leadership had not seen this revolt coming. Which is why this year the leadership have gone overboard to eliminate any chance of a repeat.
Multiple branch motions mandating the leadership and Scottish government to prepare the machinery to implement a fast currency conversion (i.e. a reserve bank) were summarily binned, as were like amendments to the official, anodyne motion on the economy. A motion from dissident MP Angus MacNeil to debate what the party should do next if the Tory government rejects another referendum (including holding the referendum anyway) was also vetoed. MP Joanna Cherry then submitted a softer amendment in the hope of opening space for a conference debate on tactics, but this too was deemed beyond the pale. Ditto motions on banning grouse shooting (might upset agribusiness) and ratifying the UN Treaty on Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons (would give the anti-NATO wing of the party a public window).
The gerrymandering of the conference agenda is quite the most blatant I can ever remember. Social media is alive with frustrated members and branches venting their anger. There is talk of remitting back the agenda (which would collapse the conference and so is highly unlikely); remitting back each motion in turn; putting the direct negative as a way of opening up debate; or passing a motion of no confidence in conference organisers. Some members have declared they will boycott the conference, others that they will simply resign the party.
Meanwhile, the first determined attempts have been organised by dissident members to capture seats on important party bodies, especially the National Executive. SNP supporters of the left wing think tank Common Weal have signed a common policy platform. A host of well-known activists are challenging for key posts, including Morgwn Davies for National Secretary and Rory Steel for the Conference Committee. This has provoked the ire of Alyn Smith, who penned a snippy article for The National decrying the use of election slates as an attempt to split the party. Clearly Smith does not understand that if he and the leadership cabal try to outlaw debate then the membership will react accordingly to defend party democracy. Besides, if the leadership closes down inner party debate then that debate simply takes place elsewhere, as it did at the AUOB assembly, even involving SNP MPs such as Angus MacNeil and Kenny MacAskill.
We will have to see the SNP conference take place before we can register the true depth of internal dissent. The leadership have the added advantage of running the conference online, and so control the mute button. But expect the fallout to be yet more support for organisation autonomous of the party, such as YesAlba.
WHERE NEXT FOR THE INDY MOVEMENT?
The advent of YesAlba is only one sign of the emergence of a grassroots, working class independence movement outside of the parliamentary arena. We can expect more people to be radicalised by an anti-Tory SNP victory in May, given the likelihood that the post-Brexit, Coved-wrecked UK economy will be in deep trouble by then. Unfortunately, the SNP leadership has no plans for how to react should Boris & Co. reject a second referendum.
Is YesAlba ready to act as a popular, working class rallying point? We are at an early stage as yet but some issues need clarification. First and foremost, YesAlba needs to be a classic united front, coordinating and uniting a mass movement active on the streets and on social media. It should not try to be a substitute political party with a defined political programme. Equally, it is not there simply to put pressure on the SNP at Holyrood or Westminster. Rather it is to prevent the mass movement being roped to the parliamentary timetable and conservatism of the SNP leadership. YesAlba (or whatever it is eventually called) must be the agency that gives the essentially working class independence movement its independence to act.
And that includes marching to demand a referendum if Westminster refuses one. It includes (if necessary) preparing, training for and initiating civil disobedience to force London to recognise the democratic right of the Scottish people to self-determination. It includes organising street by street, block by block to disseminate pro-indy arguments and to mobilise for demonstrations, regardless to the wishes of the SNP leadership. That does not mean YesAlba should exclude SNP members or representatives – they are, after all, still the largest single part of the movement. But YesAlba should be a movement from below, organised from below and controlled from below.
That raises the obvious question regarding how the new organisation should be democratically controlled. The answer is not difficult in this internet age. Any and all major decisions should be taken by polling the entire membership online. Representative leadership bodies should be as big and as wide as possible and re-elected often. Delegates should be subject to recall by local, area and regional bodies. The bulk of decisions will be about when to march, where to march – not political policy. By all means YesAlba should facilitate conferences, festivals, and free “universities” to let the movement and its constituent parts talk their “heids off” about politics, economics, currency, climate change, culture and what a new Scotland might look like. But YesAlba should not impose a line or it will instantly fragment the movement.
It goes without saying that YesAlba should not be “captured” by any one political party or tendency, or it will fail in its mission as a united front. Equally, YesAlba should embrace rather than supplant existing organisations in the movement. How therefore should YesAlba relate to existing left-wing organisations? One immediate question relates to the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) which was so prominent in the 2014 referendum. RIC is now much smaller and with a modest (though passionate and locally active) membership. It is up to RIC members but the scale and potential of YesAlba suggests RIC activists should be involved. In fact, YesAlba as a united front body is no threat to RIC’s mission as a left-wing campaign within the wider indy movement.
The gerrymandering of the SNP conference agenda cannot be allowed to pass without some reaction by the rank and file membership, else the SNP leadership will have won a victory and activists will become demoralised. Even if a challenge is defeated it would be better to fight and lose than slink away.
The emergence of YesAlba must be followed by action. At least 10,000 members must be signed up as soon as possible and preparations made for a spring campaign. The movement has broken free of parliamentary shackles. It has to do something with that freedom.