Next time around we must differentiate between the case for indy and SNP policy
The National, by Carolyn Leckie
I’m pleased the First Minister is sitting down to talk with members of the Scottish Independence Convention. It’s a strong signal that Nicola Sturgeon recognises that independence will not be won by the SNP alone. And it is time for that wider movement to stand up and take some of the responsibility for setting out the strategy needed to deliver a Yes vote in the future.
In some ways, I’m relieved that the question of timing of the next referendum has been parked for now. That gives us space to discuss and hone our message, and crucially to engage with some of those who voted No last time round. Yes, there are hordes of hard-line Unionists out there. But there are many more who decided in 2014 to stick with the devil they know. They can be shifted by events, but also by persuasive argument, free from insult and aggression.
I am just one voice. But I do have the privilege of having the platform of this column to chip in my tuppence worth to a wider audience.
There is a sense of impatience on the part of passionate individuals and groups who want to get out campaigning. Lesley Riddoch has rightly argued that their passion needs nurturing. But that does not necessarily mean firing the starting gun on an all-out campaign.
I get the sense that some people think that we can simply re-run the last referendum by tweaking the message around currency, pensions and Europe – widely acknowledged to be the big policy issues that hamstrung the Yes campaign. Then, to change the minds of the doubters, all we need is to mobilise thousands of passionate independence champions to distribute “myth-busting” leaflets and other materials through letter boxes and at saltire-bedecked stalls.
I think the challenge, not to be negative about it, is a bit more intractable. And one of the biggest barriers can be impatience.
We need to learn the lessons from the last referendum, while putting it behind us. In the past it must remain, while we turn to the future.
I sometimes wonder whether we allowed the last referendum to become over-complicated. I don’t think we have a lot to learn from the Brexiteers. But one thing is sure – the simple message of “take back control” was less easy to pick apart than a detailed 670-page, policy-heavy white paper that even a substantial section of the movement could not sign up to in its entirety.
I hope that next time we will clearly differentiate between SNP policy and the more fundamental question of power and control. And that we will focus on the latter.
Polls suggest that most people – including many current No supporters – accept that Scotland will eventually become an independent nation-state. That can be a useful starting point. If, instead of simply bombarding people with arguments, we try to get them involved in helping shape and influence how a newly independent state might look, we might start to change how people think about the future. Leave aside the question of whether or not you support independence, we might want to ask.
Instead, tell us what kind of Scotland you would like to see if and when it does become independent. A national conversation that reached out to don’t knows and to the more open-minded No voters might be more productive this time round than an endless procession of marches, rallies, street stalls and leaflet drops. Yes, we need all these things. But we also need to get out of the trenches and start reaching out to people on the other side – especially those in the demographic groups who have the most to gain from independence, including the young, the poor and the low paid.
In other words, I think we need a Women for Independence style national listening exercise – where activists are challenged to close their mouths and open their ears. Listening exercises are simple: gather a few friends, colleagues, acquaintances; prompt people with a few open questions and listen. And, to pinch a phrase from a Scottish Women’s Aid campaign, Listen Louder.
There is nothing to stop us laying the groundwork for a new Scottish constitution. This time round, we need to be clear that democracy and the power to make policy is at the heart of the case for independence.
What should be in the constitution of an independent Scotland – and what should be left to the policy platforms of political parties seeking electoral mandates? What kind of electoral system do we need to take us towards the middle of the twenty first century? How will those in positions of power be held to account? How can we, the people, ensure that the Scottish constitutional tradition of the sovereignty of the people is delivered in practice in an independent Scotland?
These are huge open questions with the potential to engage the whole of Scotland: families, friends, colleagues and neighbours as well as trade unions, businesses, charities, and the usual local and national campaign bodies.
Another 670-page tome would become a focal point for division rather than a rallying point for unity. That doesn’t mean ignoring the short-term concerns of voters, from pensions to passports, from deficits to defence. And of course, we need clarity on currency. In my view, we need a separate Scottish currency, which as well as guaranteeing full control over our economy would also allow us to unshackle independence from EU membership, a major issue that should be decided by the people.
There are some policy questions that would be helpful for the movement to agree and unite around. But what is more important is to set out how and when the big decisions will be taken, and by whom.
This separation of power and policy is crucial. No-one should be in any doubt this time that a vote for independence is not a vote for SNP policy in perpetuity. This is about putting power in the hands of the people of Scotland. We could start that process now.
So how about a commitment to crowd-source a constitution? Experts have their place and we’d need input from learned academics. But we also need the voices of groups like Castlemilk Against Austerity. Then, maybe, we’d enshrine the right to food in the foundations of our new independent country.
Constitutions sound dry – but are crucial in determining where power lies.The UK Government exercises ancient royal prerogative powers without reference to parliament. In the 1980s, the Thatcher Cabinet used these powers to ban trade unions at GCHQ. Come independence, I’d want to make sure those powers are not just transferred to the executive branch of government here. An independent Scotland should set an example by reducing the power of the political elites and increasing the power of the people.
The independence movement is riven by contradictions. We need its diversity to appeal to many different people – but we also need a concise, coherent message about what the people are being asked to support. By conducting a national listening exercise, we can better understand what that concise, coherent message should be.
The process will strengthen the forces needed to achieve monumental change. Women for Independence found that people, when asked to answer their own questions, became politicised – and overwhelmingly drew their own progressive conclusions.
The independence movement does need passion. But it also needs patience – and the two together can be an unstoppable combination.