In those two short sentences Carolyn Leckie neatly summarises the curious doublethink affecting a sizeable part of the independence movement. An intellectual appreciation of realpolitik – or, at least, a claim of such appreciation – existing alongside an almost visceral rejection by the hind-brain of the necessary implications of what the fore-brain knows to be true.
I have previously expressed the underlying dilemma somewhat differently in the aphorism,
“You can be pro-independence and non-SNP. But you can’t be pro-independence and anti-SNP.”
Carolyn Leckie is rather evidently feeling the torment of this conflict.
There is no irreconcilable contradiction in wanting a diverse, progressive parliament whilst also recognising that there is absolutely no realistic prospect of achieving this in the coming election. There is no magic voting strategy which will give us precisely the parliament that we want. And we wouldn’t want there to be. Because if there were such an easy route to determining the make-up of the Scottish Parliament than this method might also be available to those who would create a parliament markedly different from the one that we want.
It is not unnatural, or even discreditable to aim for that which we find desirable. Especially if it is something as worthy as a better politics. But an excessive focus on that aim can blind us to just how far we have travelled towards our goal. And cause us to lose sight of the path to that goal. Carolyn Leckie appears not to appreciate just how different our politics is already as a consequence of the Yes campaign. And her perfectly understandable desire to recapture (or cling to) the spirit of that great endeavour has, perhaps, overwhelmed the instincts of a “hardened, and older, political hack”.
It may not be totally clear to her, but if the ultimate goal is the better politics and the better society that independence makes possible, then the almost certainly futile pursuit of a short-term “fix” of a parliamentary diversity my be no more than a distraction from the greater cause. A quite possibly fatal distraction.
Carolyn Leckie says that she is “not taking too kindly” to what she talks of in terms of pressure and demands that she give both votes to the SNP in May. But if, as she claims, she “gets” the arguments for doing so then the “pressure” is not coming from people like me. It is coming from that internal conflict between head and heart. Her head tells her that #BothVotesSNP is the only rational strategy in terms of protecting what has been achieved and taking the independence movement forward. But her heart craves the immediate gratification of a grand political gesture.
All I, and others are saying to people such as Carolyn Leckie is, by all means vote the way you want. But be aware of the implications. Do so in the awareness that it is not a choice without consequences. Do not entirely lose sight of the realities of Scotland’s political circumstances.
Arguably, the most useful of the various simplistic dichotomies available to us as we contemplate the issue at hand is that based on the difference between being independent and becoming independent. In a generalisation of the kind which is essential to such simplistic dichotomies we might state that the pro-independence political left in Scotland is highly focused on the former. They think almost exclusively in terms of what can be achieved with independence. They see independence as serving a particular policy agenda. (And, being the left, there is already a proliferation of policy agendas.)
In the discourse of the left, there is little or no consideration of the process of becoming independent. No thought of the practicalities. Almost nothing beyond an insistence, from some, that they must be part of a process that they disdain to even think about – dismissing such ‘managerialism’ as an affront to the purity of their ideology.
The other half of this simplistic dichotomy is concerned with becoming independent. It is about process and practicality. It is about recognising and dealing with the realities of extricating Scotland from an anachronistic and grossly asymmetric political union. It is aware of the fact that this must be done from within a political system that is totally dominated by a powerful and antagonistically defensive establishment. It sees the necessity of playing the British establishment at its own game. Because until we are independent, that is the only game there is.
But perhaps the most important thing about the ‘becoming’ side of our dichotomy, as opposed to the ‘being’ side, is that the latter’s disregard for the former is not reciprocated. We can put all our efforts into becoming independent without losing sight of what being independent means.
There is no disputing the point that ‘becoming’ independent takes precedence. Without it, there is no ‘being’ independent. And none of the things that we hope and intend will flow from being independent. We must beware pernicious arguments such as that there is no point to independence if this or that outcome is not tied to it. Or the suggestion that much, if not all, of what might be achieved as an independent nation can be realised by some simpler method, such as electing a few representative from this or that political faction.
There is no realistic path to independence, on any reasonable time-scale, which does not involve the use of the Scottish National Party as the agents of the people of Scotland. Carolyn Leckie is right to remind everyone that the independence movement is “broad and diverse and not under the control of any single party”. But what made the Yes campaign so powerful and effective was the fact that it harnessed that breadth and diversity to a single aim – the restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status. It set aside party politics and policy agendas in favour of a shared commitment to bringing Scotland’s government home – ALL of Scotland’s government, for ALL of Scotland’s people.
The error lies in imagining that the SNP seeks to usurp that spirit of common cause for the sake of some purpose which is never quite identified. The attitude seems to be that they are successful, ergo there must be something wrong with them. (Is that a “Scottish” thing?)
But it is not the SNP that is tying the cause of independence to any policy agenda. It is not the SNP that is making support for independence conditional on ‘being’ independent meaning one particular thing. It is not the SNP that is diffusing the energies of the independence movement into mass of favoured causes.
It is most certainly not the case that the SNP seeks to “control” the entire independence movement – as if that were even possible. On the contrary, the SNP exists to serve that movement. It is, inescapably and undeniably, the political arm of the independence movement. It is essential to the success of that movement. But it is also entirely dependent on that movement. It only has the power that we give it. And we only give it that power for one purpose – to take us through the process of ‘becoming’ independent. A process which requires careful and clever management.
The question then becomes, given where we are in terms of the political realities of the moment; and given what the role of the SNP is in relation to the independence movement; why would anybody who aspires to the restoration and transformation of Scotland even consider voting in a way that might jeopardise the SNP majority – and thus the entire independence project? (Not to mention the implications for our governance and economy in the interim.)
I say to Carolyn Leckie, we don’t need to “recreate a broad, grass-roots Yes movement”. That movement still exists. It is not the movement she remembers from “standing in the middle of a sun-bleached Buchanan Street in Glasgow on the Saturday before the referendum”. And there is some sadness in that. But it is no longer that movement, not because it has decayed, but because it has matured. It has gone from being a movement that changed Scotland’s political culture to being embedded in the new political culture that it created. If it is invisible, it is because it has become the change it wanted.
Not that this implies an end to the process of change. Only that we now have other ways of bringing change about. We have the very thing we were seeking. We have political power. The potential power of our popular movement has been transormed into real political power. In order to be effective, that political power needs to be focused and purposefully applied. Like it or not, within the British political system that absolutely requires that the political power be concentrated in a single political party.
I say to Carolyn Leckie, and others who are tempted to risk squandering the political power that the independence movement has won, giving both your votes to the SNP in May’s election is NOT a betrayal of that movement. It is something which is, in its way, as important to that movement as the “sassy, vibrant, creative energy” that young people brought to the first referendum campaign.
A massive mandate for the SNP is the essential next step in taking the independence movement forward. That is what will make an impact. That is what will be effective. You may detest political ‘big sticks’ but don’t be fooled into imagining we can take on the might of the British state without one. The SNP is our ‘big stick’. As ‘big sticks’ go, it’s not bad – largely because we fashion it for our purposes. Let us not throw it away in the faint hope of finding some prettier twigs along the way.