Welcome to 2022, the year in which we will discover whether there really will be a referendum in 2023. Either the SNP has to start the process in earnest – as in, pretty much now – or, more likely, the leadership has to manoeuvre its way to a climbdown with all of its pride and anger intact but mainly its anger.
In public, as you know, the SNP is still insisting the 2023 plan is all go, although in private a lot of nationalists accept it isn’t going to happen. Some unionists also appear to have become a lot more relaxed about the whole thing in recent weeks. Uber-Brit Neil Oliver said the other day that he’s no longer even worried about a referendum. “I don’t expect to talk meaningfully about the prospect of a referendum on independence for decades, if at all again, in my lifetime,” he said.
I have to say, I do not share Mr Oliver’s total confidence – and certainly not while Nicola Sturgeon is in office – but quite a few of the nationalists I’ve spoken to in the last few months accept the referendum is no longer a near-term prospect. Ian Hamilton, the revered nationalist who helped take the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey in the ‘50s, was particularly gloomy not only about the prospect of a referendum but also about the prospect of independence itself. “The people who run the United Kingdom will not see us go,” he told me.
It’s hard to guess really how many leading nationalists share Mr Hamilton’s view – in public they remain relentlessly upbeat about the “inevitability” of independence – but it has been interesting to hear discussion breaking out about where the SNP goes next. If they don’t get a referendum in 2023 – which they won’t – and if they can’t convince many more No voters to their side – which they haven’t done so far – then what should their plan be? A few nationalists are pointing to an interesting way forward.
Effectively, the choice they face boils down to two options, the first of which is the angry, short-term option. This involves continuing to push hard for a referendum in the near future and ramping up the rhetoric about Tories denying the will of the people. There are also those, such as Joanna Cherry, who might go further and fight for independence without a referendum – Ms Cherry has said Ireland might provide a precedent for Scotland and got a bit upset with me when I suggested that, given Ireland’s history, this might be a tad irresponsible.
The problem the independence movement has with option one is obvious: it’s not working, so it’s been interesting to see discussion developing around another plan, which you could call the calmer, longer-term choice. Essentially, it calls for more realism with the aim of doing something which the First Minister says she wants to do: build broad support. It also requires a degree of honesty about referendums, the economy, borders and so on, and what ultimately is achievable short of independence.
One of the nationalists who’s been speaking a bit about this is Kenny MacAskill who I watched think out loud about it all at a meeting of Alba. Mr MacAskill made it clear his first preference was independence but he said that, before it could be achieved, a coalition had to be built around more powers for Holyrood short of independence: essentially home rule with everything devolved except defence and foreign affairs. “Building a coalition to expand the powers of the Scottish Parliament without breaking the Union must surely be possible,” he said.
Even though I do not share Mr MacAskill’s first preference for independence, I’m sure he’s on the right lines here. He also said that Scotland cannot carry on as we are – stuck in a cycle of “we demand a referendum” and “you’re not getting it” – and there are other nationalists who bemoan the same thing. Jim Sillars called it the “yah-boo level” and said there needed to be much more debate and discussion and thought. “You’ve got to go out with policies that are well thought out,” he said.
At the moment, it has to be said, there doesn’t seem to be much of this kind of discussion going on within the SNP but at some point soon the party is going to have to accept it needs to do something different to attract more doubters and sceptics. When I wrote a column suggesting some ideas, Angus Robertson told me it was the kind of territory he was trying to explore with his thinktank Progress Scotland and although part of me was surprised by his reaction, part of me was encouraged too. Perhaps there are forces in the SNP working towards something more nuanced, more realistic and, for them, more hopeful.
As for what I suggested in my column, none of it was radical but I still think it can point to a way forward for the SNP. First, they should talk more realistically about what independence means – Scotland would have constitutional independence but our ability to be autonomous would be limited.
Second, stop talking about independence as if it’s inevitable.
Third, stop dismissing concerns about the economy.
Fourth, show respect for Scots who ascribe to a British identity.
Fifth, dial down on the panic about Scottish identity or Holyrood being threatened.
Sixth, start talking about a settled will rather than trying to win with 50.0001%.
And finally – and this could be the hardest bit – start talking about self-government rather than independence. Words matter and I think every last drop of blood has been squeezed out of the i-word without any real discernible lasting effect.
I accept, obviously, that all of these ideas come from someone whose first preference is the United Kingdom rather than independence, but the SNP must also accept that if they are to succeed in the longer term, they actually need to attract voters like me. There will still be some in the party who favour the flag and the angry fist. But perhaps there are others who are starting to think that a calmer tactic is needed. Perhaps the party will consider it as the way forward for 2022. Perhaps, when another referendum doesn’t happen, they will have no choice.
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