The voter’s dilemma

“I get why people who are passionate about independence have mostly thrown their energy into the SNP.”

“The SNP is not the only way to reinforce support for independence.”

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.


About Peter A Bell

Thinker. Listener. Talker. Reader. Writer. None of my attitudes are immutable. None of my conclusions are final. None of my opinions are humble.
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11 Responses to The voter’s dilemma

  1. Well said, Peter. That last sentence really sums it up – leave the pretty twigs to grow and develop. They will have their time and place, after we reach our destination.


  2. walter says:

    We need no warning here in Dumfriesshire. Mundell majority 798, green vote 839. As someone who knocked doors for the SNP I felt sick and betrayed. These could have been people I canvassed with in the referendum. Great gesture greens. That really made them sit up and pay attention. Both votes SNP is the only way. Eyes on the prize.


    • CMidlothian says:

      The Green Party vote share went up by 0.5% between 2010 and 2015. In neighbouring Berwickshire, Roxburghshire and Selkirk, the SGP vote rose by 1.1% and the SNP candidate got in by a majority of 328. You are not alone in your blame of the SGP for standing in the way of the SNP, but your assumption that all SGP voters would have aligned with the SNP is absolutely without substance. The south of Scotland is a fierce tory stronghold, it always has been. Tactical voting against the tories is something I have done in the past, but placing the blame on those who chose to exercise their democratic right and vote for the party that represents them, should not be made out as the problem. Scotland’s political makeup is not homogeneous. We do not have a one-party state. We are welcoming to all, irrespective of their political views. I’d rather live in that Scotland. No one political party deserves a majority. They have to earn it.


      • Peter A Bell says:

        There’s the idiocy! “No one political party deserves a majority”. You actually imagine it’s all for the benefit of the SNP. Grow up! It’s about what’s best for Scotland. Which means it’s also about avoiding what’s worst for Scotland. Ensuring an SNP majority – preferably with a thumping great mandate – is necessary because the alternative is, quite literally, unthinkable. People who take a casual attitude to the possibility of the British parties seizing power really don’t understand what is going on.

        And, away from the fantasy politics that some prefer, there is a very real danger that the British parties could take control. You can call it scaremongering all you like. That doesn’t remove the threat. It merely ignores it.

        It’s a cold, hard, totally unsentimental calculation. Losing the SNP majority is a prospect so appalling that there would have to be a very good chance of some very significant gain for it to be worth the gamble. HHere in the real world, there is precisely no possibility of any worthwhile gain in voting for any of the OPIPs on the list vote. Absolutely none. Nothing! Zero!

        So why would anybody who purports to favour independence take such a risk? Why would anybody who aspires to a better politics jeopardise the potential to achieve this for the sake of a gamble that cannot possibly win them anything? It simply makes no sense. Not if you’re being entirely pragmatic about it. The only possible explanation for such behaviour is that it is driven by emotion rather than rationality.


  3. “standing in the middle of a sun-bleached Buchanan Street in Glasgow” features nowhere in my memory of the indyref as I don’t stay in Glasgow or the West of Scotland. We all have our own memories. The fact they differ didn’t and doesn’t stop us working together for the goal we all want, even though our desires for that future may diverge. But to have that future, of whatever kind we envisage, we need first to gain independence. There is no other way to bring about such a substantial change to the status quo.So those who want to vote for other parties are gambling with their and our futures. Vote SNP and have a chance of bringing about independence and the type of governance and society you want, or vote for another party and condemn us to decades of Tory rule and the misery that will bring.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. CMidlothian says:

    “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. ”

    No, it’s not. This is not what will win our independence, unless SNP have put UDI in their manifesto, which they haven’t. What the author of this post calls “prettier twigs” is what was actually being looked for immediately post-referendum by much of 55% of Scotland’s eligible referendum voting population.

    The SNP is not attractive to all members of our nation. The SNP offers by far the most popular view of independence, but there are some things that stick in the minds of Yoons. Things that they just do not like about the SNP.

    For whatever reason that may be, and I have heard some very, very odd rationales for not liking the SNP, as well as some very well considered ones (and every shade inbetween).

    Until we are able to draw out “no” voters to “yes”, we will not win IndyRef2. No amount of saying otherwise, will change the fact that we need alternative non-SNP pro-indy voices, such as the Scottish Green Party; such as whatever break-away pro-Scottish Labour Party that should form after the travesty of election they are about to face; and even Solidarity; RISE; others and the independents.

    The SNP campaign as identified by the article in the OP, is far removed from a positive, all-embracing message that made the YES movement successful. Indeed, that message has grown up. And the SNP are to be thanked by many, like me, for being the catalyst that fueled a new found interest in Scottish Politics, and the politics and procedures of the local communities around me and my family. But much like growing-up, you find yourself able to strike out on your own. The reality of independence, indyref2 and the subsequent dismantling of the UK and creation of our own nation, must be driven by all shades of the political spectrum, not just those that are capable of being defined under the “big stick” of SNP.

    This is why I’ll not be voting SNP1&2. And nor do I have any concern about that. I may well vote SNP1, but even if 1 in 5 SNP voters, like me, didn’t vote for SNP on the regional list, SNP wouldn’t lose more seats, or even lessen their majority. And there would be a broader face of Scotland’s independence. I’m voting SNP1 and SGP2. So should you! I’m not advocating tactical voting on the regional list either, which is what the author of his blog is asking if you heed its call and are not a “natural” SNP voter. Don’t put aside your list vote because of fear of a “faint hope”, vote whatever you want to because that’s where your convictions are, where the match for the kind of Scotland you want to see as an independent country. Do so, and others will follow, and if it happens NOT to be SNP1&2, but another pro-indi party you’re voting for, maybe you’ll bring some “no” voters along with you. Then, and only then, will the path to Independence be secure.


    • Peter A Bell says:

      It may be that you will only realise your folly if you get what you wish for. It may be that it will take the loss of the SNP majority for some people to realise precisely what it was they were gambling with. But by then, of course, it will be too late. The British parties will have seized control of Holyrood and all hope of either independence or realisation of aspirations for a better society will be sunk.

      Should that happen, you will doubtless comfort yourself by blaming the SNP. Heaven forfend that you should take responsibility for your own actions.

      But, hopefully, that catastrophe might be averted. Hopefully, people such as yourself will realise what is at stake and set aside partisan allegiance and petty squabbles in favour of the only practical way of ensuring that our options are kept open and our potential for a better politics is not put at risk. Hopefully, you will be grown-up enough come May to recognise that very particular circumstances prevail in this election. Circumstances which, however regrettably, narrow the options for supporters of independence and progressive politics.

      Hopefully you will realise that the luxury of indulging your quibbles with SNP policy is something our country cannot afford at this time. In a sense which is more real than you seem capable of comprehending, there is no choice other than the SNP. As you will discover when you learn to ask yourself to the awkward questions about your own assumptions and preferences. Set yourself the task of describing the route to independence which IS NOT absolutely and critically dependent on an SNP majority government after May. No magic allowed! Only political realism.

      Get back to me when you fail.


      • CMidlothian says:

        Wow. Do you remember Project fear much? I’ve already said I’m voting SNP 1 and Green 2. Are you advocating I drop my Green list vote? SNP could pick up no regional list vote, and STILL be a majority party. Stop with the fearmongering, and let people what vote for what they want to vote for based on policy and representation. And as for SNP having not having a majority and having to work with other parties to create a more fair, environmental, consensus lead leadership, that’s not such a bad thing either. It’s not going to happen this time of course, because SNP will romp the constituency votes.


      • Peter A Bell says:

        So you are gambling on the SNP winning a majority just on the constituency vote. Despite the fact that they needed list seats to achieve that majority in 2011. And despite the fact that there is no gain even if your gamble comes off. The bookies must love you.


      • CMidlothian says:

        I’m not gambling a single thing. I’m voting for SNP 1 and Green 2. I’d now wishing I could vote for Green 1 and Green 2. You’re the one putting odds on things, not me. I’m voting for policies I can support, that would make Scotland the kind of Scotland that I want to live in. The SNP fall short of that, so I exercise my democratic right, rather than operate out of fear that by voicing dissent against the SNP1&2 message that somehow I’m risking (if that’s what a gambler does) Scotland’s freedom. I get that people in Scotland want to vote Labour, Conservative, Liberal, UKIP, RISE and Green. That’s democracy and it’s the fact those voters can gain representation in Holyrood is a good thing. Until vocal SNP supporters such as yourself recognise, explore, and support the opinion that the SNP alone cannot win Scotland’s independence, that it will take a rekindling of the Yes movement proper, rather than partisan support, we will eternally be reading about what could be, rather than what is.


      • Peter A Bell says:

        Nobody is questioning anybody’s democratic right to vote as they please. It’s merely a matter of being aware of the implications of voting in a particular way. And there is no doubt whatever that a significant number of people are either being fooled or are fooling themselves about the potential in this coming election for creating the more diverse parliament that pretty much everybody outside the British parties wants. The harsh reality is that the potential is as close to zero as makes no difference. And whether or not you are prepared to admit it, what must be risked in the futile hope of achieving that diversity is nothing less than the possibility of creating that diversity some time in the foreseeable future.

        If the British parties retake control of Holyrood, then you can tell us all about how we don’t need the SNP.


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