Jonathon Shafi

Jonathon Shafi

A Pause to the Independence Campaign? It Never Started.

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Jonathon Shafi follows the SNP leadership’s inevitable retreat from a 2023 Scottish independence referendum.

This is an abridged version of an article from the Independence Captured substack.

In last week’s article I looked at some of the potential impacts of the international crisis and the horrific war in Ukraine on a range of issues related to independence. Notably we looked at the chilling effect it might have on independence campaigning and SNP calls for a referendum, as well as the shifting terrain for arguments around NATO and Trident.

I noted:

“…if the SNP were cautious about taking on the British state before, they will be many times more apprehensive now. Last week I speculated that the SNP may introduce referendum legislation in the run up to the May council elections, mainly as an electoral stunt. Barring a significant – some would say miraculous – turnaround in the situation, I think the odds of that have vastly reduced.”

This seems to have borne out in events since then. Ian Blackford made headlines when he appeared to put the brakes on any lacklustre momentum there was for a near-term referendum:

“I want that referendum to take place in a timely manner. I want us to be able to execute the mandate that we have. To those that are expressing a desire for us to get on with our job, of course, we will do so, but we have to be mindful of where we are.”

So – the reference to 2023 has been effectively dropped by the leader of the SNP at Westminster. As ever, of course the SNP really will get on with the job. At some stage unannounced, after years of next to zero planning have already come and gone.

Then Alyn Smith, of the SNP defence team, was asked about referendum plans. He responded by saying that this was “a question for the First Minister” (note the lack of internal cohesion, a product of long-term vacuous and vague thinking on independence strategy). He picked up a bit of gusto in the rest of his answer though, by saying that Scotland could have a more effective voice on foreign policy matters as part of the EU.

But, Alyn, come on. You are also arguing for a currency position (sterlingisation) that doesn’t allow for EU membership because you need an independent national bank to gain formal membership. In any event, the European Commission are not going to be interested in the break up of the UK, especially at a time like this. The primary focus of the major European powers is Ukraine and Russia. Germany has already stated its opposition to Ukrainian membership of the EU and is navigating a very complex set of issues in the midst of a transnational crisis.

Now, as Blackford himself hints, the absolute priority is to galvanise the Western security order. Here the SNP aim to be loyal partner, not disrupter. This has been a sentiment visible in the Scottish press too. The Herald’s Neil Mackay argued that Blackford was merely carrying out an inevitable expectation management exercise:

“He’s softening up the hardcore base of the independence movement for the inevitable, indefinite delay of another referendum.”

Gerry Hassan also made the following point:

“We have had Brexit, COVID & Ukraine & people & politicians are exhausted. Does anyone really see today’s SNP in a place to lead an indyref? Pause.”

My view is that Ukraine has indeed fundamentally altered the parameters of the independence debate. But it is also the position of this newsletter that the SNP leadership have never been serious about delivering independence as even a medium term objective.

We need a consistent analysis of this process, and not to go up and down with every statement the SNP make on the national question. They have, as I’m sure SNP special advisors will attest, utilised the issue very effectively (though cynically) to cohere a substantial base of voters to help them win electoral dominance.

Pause the campaign! What campaign?

So let’s halt the campaign. Stop the printing presses primed to publish the “credible independence plan.” Disassemble the coalition of civic Scotland, grassroots campaigns and celebrities set up to popularise the independence message. Put all of those posters, leaflets and pamphlets many of you have donated towards producing back in the cupboard. That advertising campaign to hit billboards and buses to take the campaign to the public? Not now, save your work for when it is needed.

The truth is it won’t be needed for the foreseeable, and of course the above sarcasm indicates how little has actually been done. Indeed, when it comes to independence, almost nothing has been achieved. No mobilisation of the big vision for a bright Scottish future, no promotional materials, no coalitions built. Nothing. No wonder the polls are stagnant and paralysed at around the 50/50 mark.

Again – none of this is a bad thing for the SNP leadership – they are only interested in independence as a distant principle, as an electoral tactic and to raise funds from people they know they are duping.

I think this is a really callus and disrespectful way to operate. The independence movement at the very least deserve some honesty. Not only have people been duped, they have had their energy and votes for radical reform handed straight over to the corporate lobby. As I recently tried to explain, independence has indeed been captured.

Despite it all, and this is important, the above strategy has worked for the SNP. Delaying a referendum they were never really going to deliver anyway, will not lead to an overnight collapse in their vote as some have speculated. I think that is especially true now, given the international political situation. Blackford drew some limited criticism, but quite understandably, nowhere near what he might have under different circumstances.

Image: Scottish Government

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