Nicola Sturgeon’s belated turn to social movement politics is insincere and opportunist. Appeals to the ‘Yes Movement’ are an attempt to digest what remains of 2014, argues David Jamieson.
There is a well-travelled saying that opinion polls are deployed not merely to reflect but to shape public opinion. Whatever one thinks of this claim in general, it is certainly true of a recent poll, trumpeted in nationalist circles, showing 52 percent (don’t knows excluded) now back ‘Yes’ in a Scottish independence referendum. The way this poll has been presented, for example by The National, is not merely skewed but downright dishonest.
The poll, from Redfield and Wilton Strategies is called ‘Scotland Independence Referendum Voting Intention’. The answers given by those polled are Yes, No and Don’t Know, to the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country”.
Of course there isn’t going to be a referendum. Everyone agrees on that now. No question is going to be put to the Scottish people to which Yes and No are answers. The next stop, according to SNP leaders, is an SNP General Election campaign – a de facto referendum declared unilaterally by Sturgeon and rejected by Westminster, in which a majority of votes cast for the SNP will provide the basis for independence negotiations with London.
And that means the ‘independence movement’ and still more the ‘Yes Movement’ are officially dead. There is only the SNP leadership and its project now.
But you’d never know this from the pronouncements of the SNP. Both candidates to replace the hapless Ian Blackford as Westminster leader are talking themselves up as the candidate to deliver independence, with no reference to a de facto referendum at all.
Alison Thewliss offers the bland nonsense that “Scotland is closer to that [independence] than ever before.” Stephen Flynn a similarly meaningless: “Independence is coming, let’s get on and deliver it.”
Meanwhile leading SNP politicians like Sturgeon’s heir apparent Angus Robertson are still Tweeting out #indyref2. Mhairi Black’s slogan of choice remains the even more absurd #YouYesYet. Headlines in The National continue to address the ‘Yes Movement’, ‘Yessers’ and ‘Yes Voices’ on a regular basis.
The reason? The SNP has spent years dominating Scottish politics by feeding on the constitutional impasse without any realistic strategy (or much motivation) to break it. Key to this process has been the steady digestion of the 2014 Yes movement. This process is now in its closing phases, and the party machine intends to devour every remaining morsel.
A Fake Yes Campaign
The policy of a de facto referendum, now after the Supreme Court ruling established as the one and only independence strategy, makes sense of much which has been opaque in recent years.
Why was something called Ref.scot and something else called Yes.scot but simply branded ‘Yes’ launched by the SNP back in 2017 and 2019 respectively? What happened to the hundreds of thousands of pounds these initiatives raised from the small donations of thousands of independence supporters?
If you examine the Yes.scot website (Ref.scot is now gone), you’ll find that every effort is made to imply a pluralistic campaign and the direct lineal descendant of the official Yes Scotland campaign from 2014. Its logo is multicoloured to suggest it is a cross-party initiative. It distributes leaflets, posters and other merchandise headlined ‘Yes’. Its own history section reads:
“Pro-independence parties including the SNP, the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party worked together in Yes Scotland, the umbrella organisation for the ‘Yes’ campaign. The organisation produced a Yes Declaration, drawing over 1 million signatures from across Scotland.
“Groups such as National Collective, Women for Independence, Radical Independence, The Bus Party and others articulated transformative visions of a new Scotland, capturing the imaginations of many, including people engaging in politics for the first time in their lives.”
Probe a little deeper and the incongruities become apparent. When you click on the “volunteer” and “find an event near you” sections, there’s nothing.
Not so when you click to donate. But in a section described as “the small print” below the donations area, we read:
“You are donating to a political party. This means that if you are donating £500.01 or more, your details will be checked to ensure that you are registered on a UK electoral register. If you donate £7,500.01 or more to the SNP in the course of a calendar year, your name (but not your address) and the amount of the donation will be reported to the Electoral Commission for publication on their public register of donations to the Scottish National Party.”
You may recall some of this from the controversies surrounding SNP fundraising initiatives. Police Scotland are still investigating the £600,000 raised through both websites and missing from SNP accounts.
The allegation from donors has long been that the SNP spent these funds, which the party claims are “ringfenced” for an independence referendum, on normal party activities. We now know there will be no referendum. Unless of course – and it would be a characteristically shameless move – party leaders plan to assert that the fantasy de facto referendum is a legitimate outlet for these funds.
Since the Supreme Court judgement, SNP activists (pictured) have been dispatched across Scotland (in trickles, it must be said) to deliver leaflets emblazoned with the faux cross-party Yes logo and headlined “The New Case for Independence” – which is in fact the rather old and tatty Growth Commission case for independence, mandating an independent Scotland without the most basic powers, like the ability to control monetary policy, and demanding Scotland implement austerity.
Can the Bogus Campaign Survive?
Even by the standards set by the SNP leadership in recent years, this is cynical stuff. But there are some signs it might not pay-off much longer. Quite simply, there has been no organic response to the Supreme Court judgement. There is no sign of a real convergence around the de facto referendum – quite the opposite.
The headline of the 52 percent support for a Yes vote that will never be cast, is designed to obscure the much more ominous (and relevant) finding in the poll that Labour is now just 10 points behind the SNP, who have slipped to 43 percent – catastrophic for the de facto referendum at the next general election.
Nicola Sturgeon has proved uncharacteristically flat-footed. The usually sharp operator has committed a series of gaffs and failed to ensure message discipline in the political outfit she has dominated so comprehensively for years.
Already, there is simmering dissent in her own ranks about the plan. Numerous journalists have reported private conversations with concerned MPs, and some have broken cover to make not so covert appeals to pull-back from the brink.
These have come from various corners. Stewart McDonald, representing the war hawk right of the party, verses his arguments as though they are another scold of the nationalist base for immodest language. But the clear target is the idea of using a General Election as a plebiscite: “That we are committed solely to a legal, democratic route remains our strongest ground. We should never contemplate demurring from that position.”
McDonald’s faction are obsessed with integration (through independence or devolved institutions) into the transnational apparatus of US power, and a fear of spooking these particular horses motivates his conservatism: “I have heard it said that there can be a role for the international community to help move us forward. I’m afraid this is a road to nowhere.”
Worries developing around the de facto referendum strategy seem to be attaching themselves to new internal schisms among parliamentarians. Whatever the proximate causes for pushing-out Blackford, the internal debate now focuses on relations between the Edinburgh and London contingents.
This could prove dangerous for Sturgeon. The last internal rebellion by aggrieved independence supporters in 2020-21, could be stopped by purging the party of lay members. But a gravy-train revolt of MPs fearful for their livelihoods cannot be so easily suppressed.
The de facto referendum has yet to reveal all its problems and absurdities, of which there are very many. The question now is, will independence supporters allow their aspirations to be cannibalised till the fast-approaching end for narrow party interests, or reject this last miserable turn by the SNP leadership?