In an earlier post, I called for more “boring” in the arguments for independence, as a way of emphasising the ordinary and unremarkable nature of running your own affairs as an independent country.
And linked to that – though perhaps a distinct point – is the need for politeness and respect, and a desire to convert rather than alienate by way of a moderate tone. This has been discussed at length in Scottish political discourse and therefore is not something to which I feel I have anything fresh or original to add.
But I want to try to articulate a few other things I think could be important for a second Yes campaign – which is going to get serious soon now that it looks like the second referendum will take place in late 2020.
The empty chair
And the first idea I have is what I’m calling the empty chair. It’s a thought I’ve had for a while.
I don’t think I mean this literally, and am not calling for a complete absence of campaigning, a refusal to put people up for town hall or television debates, and an army of Yes campaigners just sitting at home twiddling their thumbs. What I am getting at instead is the general sense of not feeling the need to press the point hard at every opportunity.
That might sound ridiculous. With the reasons for independence now even more compelling thanks to Brexit, continuing austerity and the implosion of social coherence and good government in the UK, you might think that it is in fact time to ramp up the arguments, to intensify them, to amplify them.
But what strikes me is that many of the Yes arguments are either repeats of the old arguments from 2014 (not a bad thing in itself if they still stand, which they do), or they are new arguments relating to Brexit (and therefore are very current in people’s minds). The case for Yes, in short, is either well-known and often-heard, or self-evident.
Therefore, it makes me wonder whether the way to persuade neutrals or convert soft No voters isn’t with a barrage of arguments they’ve probably already heard, but by letting the No campaign speak for a bit.
Think about the case they will have to make: that continuing austerity is either a good thing or can magically be stopped by a Westminster system that shows no interest in doing so. That Labour can sweep to power, like we were promised would happen in 2015. That our international isolation and economic destruction post-Brexit is a good idea. That the paralysis of the UK government as it wrestles with all of that is either good or at least tolerable, and that the Scottish Government’s principled and widely respected stance on the issues of the day is somehow damaging. That, in short, Brexit’s all fine and dandy.
If those are their arguments, let’s hear them. Let the No campaign make the mistakes, let their lies and contradictions speak for themselves. Let’s trust the arguments for independence to stand on their own merit and let neutrals draw their own conclusions in their own time and in their own way.
People are already respecting the idea of independence in ways that weren’t so a few years ago. Brexit is already a danger in people’s minds. The power and influence of tiny Ireland on the European stage is clearer than ever. Independence is now seeming to be the sensible option if the status quo and worse is what No means.
As the famous saying goes, never interrupt your enemy when they are making mistakes. And boy, are they currently making a pile of them.
Part of the reason I am suggesting above that we let the arguments speak for themselves is that sometimes to add in an entrenched – if well-intentioned – counter-argument can put off some people who are nervous about making the steps. If you’re reluctantly changing your mind on something, and the people who were part of the reason you were put off pipe up with “at last!” or “I told you so all along!” or “and here’s why we were always right” then that shifts the focus of discussion away from the facts and on to the politics and personalities. And that helps nobody.
Whether those of us in the Yes camp like it or not – some voices are divisive and looking a bit tired. The SNP has been pressing for independence for coming on a century now, and since devolution there have been a lot of the same leading lights making similar – if (to me) perfectly sound – arguments for independence. Are they really the people to take us over the line in a second referendum?
Yes the SNP is respected as a resonably safe pair of hands in government, and is increasingly seen in the rest of the UK as one of the few sane voices for opposing Brexit and opening up the case for genuine political reform. “If only we could vote for the SNP” is a refrain often heard by frustrated progressives in England.
But at the same time they have their entrenched enemies in Scotland. Most hardcore Labour and Tory voters despise the SNP and everything about them. Any party that – like the SNP – has been in charge for over a decade is always going to start fraying at the edges in terms of their reputation among neutrals.
So let’s try to freshen things up with new voices. And the reason for this lies in the first referendum, where so much of the energy and progress was down to individuals, organisations and campaigns that were new to most of us – from the wave of new independent media outlets to cross-party or non-party campaign groups. Even the Greens, an established political party, played a valuable role in presenting a case that was distinct from the conventional civic nationalist argument and emphasised instead independendence as a better opportunity than the status quo for radical economic transformation.
So there are four sorts of voices I’d love to see put front and centre in the second independence campaign.
The first is women. One of the real breaths of fresh air in the first campaign – and arguably since – was the campaign group Women For Independence. On one basic level WFI were a valuable new perspective because – as with so many countries – Scottish politics has had its fair share of gender inequalities to overcome. And yes we’re better than many countries – the Scottish Government’s cabinet is gender-balanced, we have a woman as First Minister and women leading the two main parties in Holyrood. But often at grassroots and in the media bubble its not the same, and WFI brought in new views and new energies that were very welcome.
But on another level WFI were – and remain – valuable because of the gender divide in the independence question. In 2014’s vote – and, I believe, in polls since – men supported Yes and women supported No. I’m not aware of any drift or fallback in men’s votes, so that means that winning independence (still) depends on persuading women.
Partly, on a basic level, that means it’s important to see women out there as part of the Yes movement – campaigning, speaking, researching, presenting. More than that, though, it means wiring feminist arguments into the case for independence. What does independence mean for the lives of women, in terms of access to work, caring responsibilities, children’s education, and so on? There is so much evidence that the worst impacts of how the UK is run at the moment – from precarious employment through to Universal Credit – disproportionately fall on women and those they are statistically more likely to care for.
Therefore to put women at the heart of the campaign will mean not only that they are seen more but that their experiences are discussed more. That, more than anything, has the power to make people realise that independence truly is about doing things differently in a way that isn’t properly on the agenda now.
The second sort of voice I’d like to hear more of is one that was always important before but has been given a new impetus with Brexit: that of citizens of other EU countries who have come to live in Scotland.
While nationals of other EU countries broadly voted No in 2014, that was understandable due to the lies they were being told about Scotland’s place in Europe. And since then, not only were they excluded from the 2016 EU referendum (in which they were helpless pawns while the rest of us discussed their fate) but also they are the main losers from the result. EU citizens have been attacked, murdered, spat at and intimidated in the streets as a result of the hostile environment the referendum created – not to mention forced to apply to the government to stay in their own homes. While many have sadly left, those remaining here are living in various degrees of fear and uncertainty about their future.
But their residency is secure in an independent Scotland – because either Scotland will swiftly join the EU as a separate member (as I argue here), or (absolute worst case scenario) there will be negotiations for a couple of years during which the Scottish Government will be obliged (and will unquestionably wish) to align with EU regulations ready for accession, including the granting of full rights to EU citizens.
If that point is to be hammered home, the best people to make it are EU citizens themselves. There are plenty people from other EU countries who already support Scotland’s independence, and many of them are prominent activists and politicians – indeed, one, a former MSP, has just been elected to the European Parliament to represent Scotland. There is also a dedicated campaign group.
To put these people at the heart of the independence referendum – in contrast to how they were disenfranchised in the EU referendum – will be a bold statement of Scotland’s European intentions, its internationalism and its rejection of the UK’s racist approach to immigration and residency. To see such fellow Europeans – and to hear their diverse accents – front and centre of the Yes campaign will be an exciting and inspiring feature.
The third sort of voice I’d like to see in the Yes campaign are those from beyond the SNP. To some extent they might overlap with the first two – and indeed with the final group I am going to mention – but they are worth highlighting as a distinct front in a strategy for independence.
While the SNP are a huge part of the movement for independence – indeed, they form the government that is proposing it and will hopefully deliver it – we must be aware that there are other voices who support it. Indeed, there are many voices and movements who support independence who disagree passionately with the SNP on many areas of policy beyond the basic principle of Scotland being independent.
These voices have, to an extent, been prominent already: the Greens, the hard left parties, and independent campaign groups, commentators and researchers who are not a part of (or who at least do not speak for) the SNP. There are even fringe voices still within the Unionist parties who see the case for independence.
These groups have a key role in presenting a case that is often non-nationalist, and which is often critical of the SNP – which is important in illustrating that the SNP’s vision of independence will (thanks to elections that will be held) not necessarily be the one that is implemented.
The value therefore of non-SNP voices is not simply in a diversity of contributions to emphasise the cross-party nature of the campaign – important though that is. But more than that, such voices are valuable in portraying independence as a cleaner and more enabling template on which to build new ideas and policies than what we currently have. And given that independence is all about possibilities, the visions set out by those other than the SNP are absolutely crucial to the debate.
The fourth and final group I want to propose should be at the heart of the campaign for independence are those who have changed their minds since 2014. They certainly overlap with the other three groups, but have a specific importance in themselves.
While many of the reasons for independence still stand, Scotland and the UK are very different places after the EU referendum compared to before it. They are overshadowed politically, economically and socially by the division and hatred the decision to leave sowed.
Therefore we need to move away from merely the same 2014 arguments to some extra ones that focus on why the changes since 2016’s EU vote are in themselves important reasons for us to be independent.
The best people to make those arguments are those who have changed their minds since voting No in 2014. These are the people who can understand the difficulty involved in a journey to Yes, who get the scepticism, appreciate the criticism, and are well-grounded in the arguments. These are the people who can explain – both to those yet to be persuaded and indeed to long-standing independence supporters who’ve never looked at it from the other side – why the old arguments didn’t work on some, and what’s changed. These are the people who can say to opponents of independence “I believed that too – and here’s why I now don’t”.
Their voices might be unusual, unorthodox and not part of any party line. There will be a risk perceived by many longstanding campaigners that new voices won’t be as polished, as well-versed in the case for independence, and potentially too sympathetic to the case for No. But those to me are strengths. The second campaign will require different voices and different arguments, and recent converts are ideally placed to provide them.
There are plenty such voices, too, from across the political spectrum. There’s a fabulous series of videos produced by Phantom Power Films called “Journey to Yes” which highlights exactly these perspectives. And we need more of these sorts of people in the campaign – not just more in number but more in volume and frequency, to help shape and make the arguments that will persuade others to follow the same path to Yes.
So there’s my case for what the second independence campaign should look like, and what I think official and unofficial campaign groups should put at the heart of their message.
I want to see some space for the No campaign to have to sell the case for staying despite everything that’s happened, holding back the case for Yes until it needs to be made for itself. And secondly, when that case is to be made, I’d love to see it being made by women, citizens of other EU countries who’ve chosen to be here, non-SNP voices and recent converts.
I think these approaches could make for an inclusive, respectful, empathetic and very, very powerful voice for independence. While they were present to an extent in the run up to the 2014 vote, I think there is plenty scope for more of them. This is about a new country, after all, so the path to creating it should be new as well.
While I am sure there is more I could think of, and more detail I could go into, I hope they stand as useful starting points – and perhaps helpful conversation points.
What do you think? If you have better ideas for the principles that should guide the next independence campaign, share them in your comments.