Over the coming weeks over the holiday period we’ve commissioned a series of writers and activists to reflect on where we are and review not just the year but the space we find ourselves in. This is the first of a series reflecting on the State We’re In.
As we come to the coldest darkest part of the year, support for independence is in the ascendancy against all the odds. It has been the majority position now in Scotland in four consecutive polls carried out since the Supreme Court said Holyrood didn’t have the power to legislate for another referendum. We’re a thrawn bunch, no doubt. Nobody really likes being put down. While this could be seen as just the inevitable, indeed some would say way overdue reaction to the experience of living under disastrous Tory rule, there are two other things going on that may bring some tinsel to your day.
There are two basic assumptions that the Unionist side have settled on that will defeat the Vile Nats. Neither involves building a future-vision or responding to democratic deficit, don’t be so silly. The first is the assumption that the SNP government would just run aground on the momentum of its own incompetence. They have been in office a long time, and incumbent governments eventually tire and fade and crumble. It’s an iron law of political life. This, the argument goes, would have a terrible — -indeed terminal impact on the wider Yes movement.
The second assumption that the left (ish) wing of the remnant No side rested on, was that at a certain time a Labour alternative would come along that would woo back recalcitrant Scots, wearied by SNP managerialism and drawn back to the idea of a socialist, or social democratic Britain. Recently that idea has become over-agitated again because of both Labour’s long-awaited leapfrog up the polls against the beleaguered Tories and second, Gordon Brown’s (also long-awaited) report on ‘New Britain’ etc.
But there is a problem. Brown’s report was a very wordy damp-squib that has had precisely no impact in ‘shifting the dial’, and Sir Keir Starmer’s positive polling hasn’t really translated north of the border. Last week new polling from IPSOS announced that: 56% would vote Yes and 44% No in an immediate #indyref2 — Yes up 6 points since May; that the SNP had strengthened its General Election support to 51%; and that there was no indication that a ‘de facto’ referendum strategy would harm the party’s electoral chances. Ipsos’ Scottish Political Monitor suggests the SNP would win 58 seats at the next UK general election, with Scottish Labour on one and every other party facing a wipe-out.
Neither assumption was necessarily a bad one or a mistaken one, but things have changed in the past few weeks. The great irony here, and it is an extremely funny irony, that all of this was avoidable and all of this is the product not of nationalist cunning or SNP strategy (god knows there has been precious little of that), no this was all delivered by the Unionist sides complete intransigence. As Neil Mackay the Herald’s writer has put it:
“This is delicious for Yes voters, and for non-partisan fans of bitter irony it’s a moment to pull up a chair and get the popcorn. Before the Supreme Court ruling No was ahead of Yes. If there had been a snap referendum, Yes would probably have lost. Now, Yes is on a slow but sure upward path that may one day soon leave whichever government sits in London with no option but to agree to a referendum. Saying no to the SNP is easy. Saying no to a permanent 50+% of the Scottish electorate is impossible.”
If we return to the first assumption, that SNP time in office would eventually expose their weaknesses, it seemed quite logical. The SNP have after all been in office for a very long time, and though they maintain remarkable polling ratings, the First Minister’s own status is under sustained attack, not just from the Conservatives and opposition but from critics within her own party and movement. But multiple failings across social policy, environmental and education policy, drugs deaths and health stats and various scandals and exposes have done little to really alter much. The churn against the First Minister might keep the troops happy but it is doing little else. To be clear this is not a leadership — or an administration — that is without its problems to seek.
The problem for the proponents of the attrition theory of constitutional warfare is that it seems that the electorate, those not entrenched in implacable identities, are shifting towards believing that a government based in Scotland is more likely to deliver the good society that they want. This isn’t rocket science as peoples live experience is one in which Westminster simply can’t deliver the basics of everyday life: affordable homes; affordable food; affordable heating. Every time Starmer doubles-down and plays to the acceptable politics of Middle England it gets worse.
The other issue which isn’t going away, and sections of the left hate this but it’s true, is Europe. As Adam Ramsay of Open Democracy explains (‘Labour’s run to the right is pushing Scotland towards independence‘): “Around two-thirds of Scots say they would like to rejoin the EU. Starmer has made clear that his government would do no such thing. The SNP and Greens, by contrast, posit independence as a route to do just that.
Most Scots (and most people across the UK) believe that immigration is good (pdf) for both the economy and society. Again, this attitude is likely to be particularly strong among less-nationalist swing voters in Scotland. Yet Starmer has repeatedly talked tough on immigration. And on crime. And so on.
While Labour runs to the right, the Scottish government has, if anything, shuffled slightly to the left over the last year, ever since the Greens allied with the SNP, and Sturgeon kicked the right-wing Fergus Ewing off her front bench. While the Scottish government’s more radical policy ideas may yet melt into waffle, it is at least talking a good game on everything from tenants’ rights to the climate crisis.”
None of this resolves or wishes away the independence movement’s deep problems, particularly on currency, and the many issues that ‘Europe’ evokes. But people don’t care. People are now at the stage that the effect of the British government’s stance — do nothing — admit nothing — concede nothing — has had precisely the opposite effect they had hoped. However useless and misdirected has been the SNP’s strategy it has been trumped again and again by the Unionist belief that simply repressing the right to a vote will lead to the nationalist movement melting away. It won’t.
Where are we now? There are problems ahead for the Yes movement, particularly if it focuses inward rather than outwards, this is not about some ideal of creating ‘unity’ within a movement in which some fragments need to be included despite there being no political gain from doing so. And the boost in the polls doesn’t detract from the strategic and campaigning issues that beset the independence cause. But the despondency that has fallen on the democracy movement for months (if not years) is alleviated by this new momentum.
Ironically the relentless mantra of ‘a generation’ is now backfiring beautifully on the Unionist cause. As Neil Mackay has put it: “It’s really déclassé to say but unionism is over in a generation. Both men and women are now majority Yes supporters: 53% for men, 54% for women. Significantly, more men supported independence in 2014 than women. If the stereotype holds that women are more cautious and less ideologically hidebound, this indicates independence has become a less risky prospect than the status quo.”
What can the Unionist block do about this? Their best bet, and the idea they had put all their chips on, was that the Labour party would come up with a cunning ruse, a compelling constitutional ask that would change the whole narrative of the debate. That hasn’t happened.
One of the great mysteries of all this is why people haven’t given up? As the English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller put it ‘the darkest hour is just before the dawn’, or as we approach the Winter Solstice perhaps it is because, as Martin Luther King had it: “Only in the darkness can you see the stars”.